Essay Writing for Standardized Tests: Tips for Writing a Five Paragraph Essay
Most, if not all, high school and college standardized tests include a writing portion. Students are provided a writing prompt and must then write an essay on the topic. Writing for standardized tests can strike fear in the hearts and minds of students of all ages, but it doesn’t have to. If you know what to expect and understand how to write a five paragraph essay, you will be prepared to tackle any essay writing prompt.
Types of Essays on Standardized Tests
When you begin to write your essay for a standardized test, you must first decide what type of essay you are being asked to write. There are many different types of essays, including narrative, expository, argumentative, persuasive, comparative, literary, and so on. The type of essay will determine your topic and thesis. Essays for standardized tests are typically either persuasive, in which you will answer a question, or literary, in which you will write about something you read.
For standardized tests, students usually have to write a five paragraph essay, which should be 500 to 800 words long and include an introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph.
The First Paragraph: The Introduction
The first paragraph will introduce your topic. The introduction is the most important paragraph because it provides direction for the entire essay. It also sets the tone, and you want to grab the reader’s attention with interest and clarity. The best way to tackle the introduction is to:
- Describe your main idea, or what the essay is about, in one sentence. You can usually use the essay writing prompt or question to form this sentence.
- Develop a thesis statement, or what you want to say about the main idea. When the writing prompt is a question, your thesis is typically the answer to the question.
- List three points or arguments that support your thesis in order of importance (one sentence for each).
Voila! You’ve just written your introductory paragraph.
The Second, Third and Fourth Paragraphs: Supporting Details
These three paragraphs form the body of the essay. They provide details, such as facts, quotes, examples and concrete statistics, for the three points in your introductory paragraph that support your thesis. Take the points you listed in your introduction and discuss each in one body paragraph. Here’s how:
- First, write a topic sentence that summarizes your point. This is the first sentence of your paragraph.
- Next, write your argument, or why you feel the topic sentence is true.
- Finally, present your evidence (facts, quotes, examples, and statistics) to support your argument.
Now you have a body paragraph. Repeat for points two and three. The best part about introducing your main points in the first paragraph is that it provides an outline for your body paragraphs and eliminates the need to write in transitions between paragraphs.
The Fifth Paragraph: The Conclusion
The concluding paragraph must summarize the essay. This is often the most difficult paragraph to write. In your conclusion, you should restate the thesis and connect it with the body of the essay in a sentence that explains how each point supports the thesis. Your final sentence should uphold your main idea in a clear and compelling manner. Be sure you do not present any new information in the conclusion.
When writing an essay for a standardized test, outline your essay and get through each paragraph as quickly as possible. Think of it as a rough draft. When your time is up, a complete essay will score more points than an incomplete essay because the evaluator is expecting a beginning, middle and an end.
If you have time to review your essay before your time is up, by all means do so! Make any revisions that you think will enhance your “rough draft” and be sure to check for any grammatical errors or misspellings.
Online instruction like the Time4Writing essay writing courses for elementary, middle and high school students can help children prepare for state and college-entrance standardized writing tests. These interactive writing classes build basic writing skills, explain essay types and structure, and teach students how to organize their ideas.
For general tips on test preparation and details about each state’s standardized tests, please visit our standardized test overview page.
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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