By Terri K., SSAT Essay Writing Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
The SSAT includes a writing section which may be administered either before or after the multiple-choice sections of the test. Students are presented with a choice of two prompts (one essay, one creative) from which the student will choose one. You will have 25 minutes to plan and complete your writing sample which can be up to two pages.
Your essay is not scored by SSAT. Instead, a copy is sent to each of the schools that receive your score report. However, do not underestimate the power of your writing sample. Schools use your writing sample as an indication of how well you can write under controlled conditions, so approach the writing piece with this in mind. Schools use your scores to estimate your academic capability to perform in an independent school setting, to compare your performance with other applicants for admission, or with your current academic record. So, bottom line, the essay is often used as the final judgment.
Here are 10 tips to help you to be more successful on the writing portion of the SSAT:
Each essay question consists of a topic (short phrase, proverb, or question) and an assignment (usually to agree or disagree with the position taken). There is no right or wrong answer.
1) Stick to the topic: So many students go off on tangents instead of discussing the topic. Rephrase the question in your own words to make sure you understand what it is asking you. You may be creative in your approach, but you need to take a clear position and support that position with specific examples from your own experience, the experience of others, current events, literature, or history. Although you do not know the topic ahead of time, you can be prepared. Prior to the SSAT, think about meaningful personal experiences and observations, favorite literature, as well as current and historical events that interest you. Read some editorials – a great way to learn how good writers give opinions and provide examples. You will be relieved if you can apply some of this information on test day.
2) Have a plan for your essay: 25 minutes is not much time, so you need to budget your time in order to complete your essay. You will need to write more than a short paragraph. A great essay lacking a conclusion will not be viewed favorably. Contrary to what many students think, planning your essay makes the writing process easier, faster, and more organized. Allow 3-5 minutes to decide on your stance, brainstorm two to three examples that support your thesis, and make a brief outline for 3-5 paragraphs. You probably will not have time to write a 5-paragraph essay. Allow 15 minutes to write your essay as neatly and legibly as you can. Allow approximately 5 minutes to revise and proofread your essay.
3) Show – don’t tell: Rather than explaining why you believe a statement is true or not, use relevant examples that illustrate the point that you want to make. Preferably, use examples other than from your personal life. Reading the newspaper on a regular basis will give you material for good supporting examples for your essay while improving your vocabulary.
4) Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure: When you proofread, check for two of the most common errors: sentence fragments and run-on sentences.
Complete sentences have a subject and verb and make sense when standing alone. Example: On that morning I sat in my usual spot. On the old wooden stool in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen (fragment-lacks subject and verb). Correct: On that morning I sat in my usual spot, on the old wooden stool in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen.
When two independent clauses appear in one sentence (run-on), they must be joined with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet), with a semicolon, or made into two sentences separated by a period. Avoid monotony by varying the rhythm and length of your sentences.
5) Word choice: Check for the overused words – “things” and “stuff”. Replace words that do not add quality to your essay with more detailed, advanced academic vocabulary. Use exciting verbs to empower your writing. Also, check for pronouns (him, her, they, it) that have no antecedent. This error makes an essay very confusing.
6) Legibility: Remember that people who are not familiar with your handwriting will read what you write. Try to write or print so that your writing is legible to those readers. Admissions officers read many essays, and if your writing is difficult to decipher, it may not be received as favorably. Edit carefully, just putting one line through a word or phrase that you revise.
1) Pre-write your essay: The creative essay prompt is open-ended. For example, the prompt “And then she came in the door…” could be the beginning of an essay about almost anything you choose. Your essay could be about a friend, sibling, teacher, mother, detective, etc. Other examples of creative prompts are:
– “He couldn’t believe they wanted his help…”
– “The silence was deafening…”
– “He was hanging on by a thread…”
Again, the possibilities are endless. Try writing a creative essay in advance that could be adaptable to a variety of prompts. Do some research on a favorite subject or think about an accomplishment that you would like an admissions officer to learn about you. Hopefully, you can adapt this idea to a creative prompt on test day.
2) Writing a story: If you use the creative prompt to write a story, start with some tension and immediacy (the unusual, the unexpected, an action or conflict) to grab the reader’s attention. A good story has a conflict, a climax (when the rising action of the story reaches its peak) and a resolution (conflict is resolved). In 25 minutes, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution, so you want to reveal that the characters are beginning to change or are starting to see things differently.
3) Words/Imagery: Your goal should be clear, lively writing that employs imagery and well-chosen vocabulary that shows rather than tells. For example, instead of writing that Linda was scared, you could write that her hands were clammy or that her body was quivering like a bowl of jello. Instead of writing that John asked the question nervously, you could write – “Where are you going?” John stammered, staring at his sneakers. Make it riveting! Avoid he said, she said. Reveal a character’s tone; for example, “….she snorted in amusement…” or “…he asked contemptuously…”
4) READ, READ, READ: The best way to improve writing skills for either prompt (essay, creative) is to consistently read a wide selection of materials: newspapers (especially editorials), all types of literature, magazines, etc. Reading increases your vocabulary so that you can use the right word just when you need it. Reading books by your favorite authors empowers you to improve your own writing by developing the language you need.
Is your student taking the SSAT? What was your favorite SSAT essay tip?
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Terri graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Connecticut, with a dual degree in Education and English. She has 15 years of teaching and tutoring experience as a licensed teacher (Grades 5-12). Terri works with students from elementary school through college, and serves as an incredible resource when it comes to preparing for standardized tests (SAT, ACT, SSAT, ISEE, MCAS). em>