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How to Write a Winning Essay

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #56, 2004.

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David Marks


If you plan on attending college you should consider taking the SAT. If you do, the new version will require you to write an essay. Then when you are accepted by a college, most likely you will also be asked to write an essay during your freshman orientation session. This is done so that the school will be able to place you in the appropriate freshman English course.

These essay requests are a way to see how well you write. Answering multiple choice questions about the structure of your language does not prove that you can use your language to express your thinking clearly. These essays will show college admissions officers how well you can:

  1. Think. You can demonstrate your ability to think by showing that you understand the topic, that you have something to say about it and that you can support your views with ideas or examples.

  2. Organize ideas. You can demonstrate your ability to organize by arranging your ideas according to a plan.

  3. Express those ideas. You can demonstrate how well you can express yourself by conveying what is in your mind to a reader.

  4. Use your language. You can demonstrate your mastery of your language by using the conventions of standard written English by writing correctly.

This is a time of panic for most freshmen who haven't been shown how to put together this type of essay. The following material should help you to be familiar with the process.

For the SAT and orientation essays you will be given a general statement, and then asked to agree or to disagree with the statement and to support your position with evidence taken from history, life, literature, or from your personal experience. You must not write in any other form than an essay. You should have an introduction, a body and a conclusion that are on the topic. You will be penalized for straying from the assigned topic.

The directions you will be given will be simple. They will read like this:

Plan and write an essay in response to the assigned topic. During the 20 to 90 minutes allowed, you should develop your thoughts clearly and effectively. A plain, natural style is best. Include specific evidence or examples to support your views. The length is up to you, but quality is more important than quantity, though one paragraph will not do. You must [may] limit your work to the answer sheet, so use all the spaces for your work.

Your writing will be evaluated by two or more readers. They will spend three to five minutes and will grade it from 1 (worst) to 5 or 6 (best) based on their holistic (overall) impression of the writing. The important thing will be your writing's cumulative effect.

Following are typical directions to readers of freshmen essays on how to score them, taken from a college handout I was given 20 years ago and encouraged to disseminate widely. Similar grading criteria are still used today. This is valuable information for you to have so that you will know what the graders will be looking for.

  • Responds to the task described by the instructions and accounts for the choice made. This means you need to follow the directions carefully and support the side of the argument that you take.

  • Maintains a consistent point of view:

    1. Follows through on announced purpose without shifting opinion

    2. Sustains a sense of the specified audience

    3. Sustains a uniform level of diction

These three points they will be looking for mean that they will expect you to: 1) stick to your announced choice from the two you will be given; 2) write as if you were talking throughout to the same person or people and maintain the type of word choices; and, 3) do not write in one paragraph as if you were talking to your younger brother and use little words and in the next paragraph write as if you were talking to your minister.

  • Demonstrates a clear rhetorical strategy:

    1. Develops from beginning to end with a clear sense of introduction and conclusion. This means that they expect you to know how to introduce ideas and wrap up a paper with concluding comments.

    2. Integrates smoothly several levels of abstraction. There are not many people who can do this and I don't know many teachers who would recognize if it were done well or even at all. What this means is that the readers will be looking for you to support your paper with personal experiences and/or from your reading and to meld these two types of support smoothly together so that your paper does not seem to jump from one support example to another. The word abstract is used here in the sense of "taking part of an experience to use as support."

    3. Distinguishes between general statements, clarification, and support. This means that the evaluators of your paper will expect you to know the difference between your position, how you make your position clear, and how you try to convince your reader to believe or accept your view.

    4. Does not digress significantly from the central line of thought nor make lengthy repetitions of claims and/or support. You are expected to be able to have unity in your writing - to stay on track and not to repeat yourself.

  • Varies sentence structure in a way appropriate to rhetorical purpose. You are expected to recognize the relationship between what you say and the way you structure your sentences to say it.

  • Understands the syntax of the English sentence:

    1. Awareness of sentence boundaries

    2. Absence of errors involving misplaced parts (misplaced words, phrases and clauses, dangling modifiers), shifts in syntactic structure, and confused predication. You are not only expected to understand what makes a sentence but also to use that understanding in your writing.

  • Signals changes in purpose and/or argument (nevertheless, furthermore, on the other hand, consequently, although, etc.) appropriately. You are expected to tie the parts of your paper statements and the support points together so that the difference between these points is clear to your reader. They will be looking for the logical use of transitional devices in your writing.

  • Uses with familiarity the conventions of Standard English:

    1. Agreement: of subject and verb and of pronoun and antecedent

    2. Verb and tense agreement

  • Uses with familiarity the standard forms of spelling, punctuation and phrasing.

Generally, students whose essays receive a score of 5 would be exempted from Introductory Composition; those whose essays receive a 1 would be required to enroll in a special section of Introductory Composition designed for them and for which they would receive no college credit. The remaining students would be required to enroll in Introductory Composition. Of the students taking this test, usually two percent are exempted and seven percent are required to enroll in the special Introductory Composition. About fourteen percent of all students taking the examination are judged to have serious but easily isolated problems. They will be advised to obtain tutoring in writing.

The following writing prompt was recently given to incoming freshmen at a major university and the examples of student writing are here presented as representative of four levels of production.

Write an essay which represents your position on the death penalty. Your audience is a group of your friends who, like you, will soon have the opportunity to vote for or against the abolition of the death penalty. Begin your essay with the following sentence (which you should copy into your bluebook, a small booklet of lined paper supplied by the University): Prevailing penal practices often allow convicted murderers back on the streets within a short period of time. Select one of the following as your next sentence and copy it into your bluebook:

A. Though we must denounce crime and sometimes demand more severe penalties, we must also temper justice with mercy.

B. Capital punishment, dismissed by many as a inhumane deterrent, does keep murderers from murdering again.

C. Punishment is not a humane way to treat a criminal; what is needed is an effective rehabilitation program for prisoners.

Now complete an essay which develops your position. Do your best to make your argument convincing.

The following student essays (I, II, III and IV) were written by freshmen entering college and were produced from the above writing prompt. Except for spelling corrections, they are reproduced here exactly as they were written. You will recognize that they are placed here in the order of writing ability.

[Please note that the essays are for illustrative purposes only. PHS does not agree with the underlying premise that society is responsible for the choices of individuals. - Editor]

Essay I - Poor Quality

Prevailing penal practices often allow convicted murders back on the streets within a short period of time. Punishment is not a humane way to treat a criminal; what is needed is an effective rehabilitation program for prisoners. By placing a person in prison, society is making the prisoner more angry. This would account for the crimes that have been committed over and over.

There are two situations to look at when placing somebody in a prison. The first case to be looked at is whether the person actually committed the crime. All too often, innocent people are serving time for something they didn't do. If just one person has to receive this type of treatment even though he is truly innocent, that is, in itself enough reason to abolish the death penalty.

There are many ways to look at the second case also, which is somebody who actually committed the crime. Each of us has a brain, which thought processes are constantly being run through. So our minds contribute greatly to society. It's terrible to waste a human mind in life, and would be better for us all to put that thinking process to good work. Of course, the person must be able to live so as to get a chance to achieve this.

Society is way too harsh on those persons committing a crime. How do they know about each individual's background and all the problems they had. If these so-called "criminals" were accepted by society and not looked down upon, there would be less crime.

There is no way I would advocate the death penalty. People can and do change for the better. I believe those people committing crimes should be given another chance. Rehabilitation is important if done in the correct way. This way, I feel, is to let the person feel more free about himself, not trapped or encircled by guilt feelings. Rehabilitation should try to accomplish this along with putting the idea of self-worth into the prisoners mind. It may be hard to erase or over ride all the years that taught him to feel so low about himself, but with time, I feel that a sense of personal gratitude can be instilled upon him.

I truly feel that this would be the most effective method in handling prisoners, rather than prison or the death penalty. Society would benefit from having people who feel good about themselves, and the prisoner would benefit from having a new feeling and sense of accomplishment.

The reasoning being used here is that people who commit crimes have had guilt feelings most likely all their lives, especially in childhood. Having to be put down constantly is not the best type of situation to have when growing up. Parents are a major factor for inducing guilt upon a child. So why should the child have to suffer in adult life for something he couldn't prevent in the first place.

By exercising the death penalty, there is no compassion whatsoever for human feelings. Also, prison, is an everyday reminder of what you did and what you're supposed to feel bad about. No one should have to suffer for doing something which they indirectly couldn't help. All in all, the death penalty, as I see it serves no purpose whatsoever, other than wasting a good and useful human life no matter what was done or whoever may have done it.

Essay II - Better

Prevailing penal practices often allow convicted murderers back on the streets within a short period of time. Though we must denounce crime and sometimes demand more severe penalties, we must also temper justice with mercy. Capital punishment cannot be used as the absolute answer to the growing crime rate in this country.

The first reason to oppose the death penalty is dependent on the jurors. Is it fair for men to decide whether or not a fellow man should lose his life for a crime he committed? Also, what should happen if the jurors were wrong and the one put to death was falsely convicted; death is irreversible.

The second problem with the death penalty is its connotations as a punishment. Is the government actually condoning murder by committing them themselves? It seems like the death penalty is a step backward for Americans, killing men for murders occurring while a certain law is in effect.

Essay III - Still Better

Prevailing penal practices often allow convicted murders back on the streets within a short period of time. Though we must denounce crime and some times demand more severe penalties, we must temper justice with mercy.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the American penal system needs to be changed. Prisons are overcrowded, the courts are backed up, and while some criminal offenders are being mistreated and dehumanized by the system, others are being set free through parole and early release programs which often create a danger to the public. There can be no quick and easy solution to these problems, but there are several factors that, when examined, can help create an understanding of the causes.

The first is the fact that rehabilitation, when available, is offered only after an offense has been committed. At this point it is usually too late to help the criminal change his way of life. Instead, therapy and other professional help services should be offered at the adolescent and young-adult level, before the criminal lifestyle develops. Even elementary schools should have some method to help children with criminal tendencies. These services should be free and available to all.

Another problem creating factor is that the technicalities of the law can keep serious offenders on the streets. No matter how obvious the guilt of a defendant is, a forgotten question or illegal search can get him a dismissal and complete freedom. Laws such as these must be restructured to ensure the safety of the people and the effectiveness of the judicial system.

There are many other factors which have contributed to the downfall of the American penal system. Unless analyzed and the problems solved, a complete breakdown of justice as we know it may occur.

Essay IV - Best

Prevailing penal practices often allow convicted murderers back on the street within a short period of time. Punishment is not a humane way to treat a criminal; what is needed is an effective rehabilitation program for prisoners. If we are to do anything to stop the increasing rate of crime, we must begin from the source: the attitudes of the criminals themselves.

One of the main drawbacks of the present penal system is its main tool used against criminals: incarceration. The current prisons have nothing to offer criminals except a place of confinement, which helps to build resentment and offers the opportunity for the inmate to plan more crimes. Evidence of this is in the current recidivism rate: it has been estimated that close to 90% of all crimes are committed by repeat offenders.

Having realized that incarceration does not stop crime, but actually breeds it, people have tried to determine other ways to handle criminals. Perhaps the most newsworthy, and therefore the most controversial, is the death penalty. Backers of the death penalty feel it is the only way to bring down the murders and slow down the increasing crime rate. But even by saying so, they are admitting defeat. They are telling us that society has failed in its effort to control an individual, and so society is therefore ridding itself of that individual. Claiming that the death penalty is necessary is admitting that society, with all its psychiatrists, social workers, and special organizations and departments, has gone down to defeat to one individual. The answer, then is to destroy the competition.

But this is not the way of the society we live in. We have the necessary tools; all we need to do is to put them to use. One of our most important assets is our people. We have the people with the determination and the patience to work with these criminals, to help them get back in with the rest of society. These people won't admit defeat, but keep on trying until the job is done.

What is required, then, is to shift the attitude of and the basis for today's penal system. Its purpose must become rehabilitation, not incarceration and punishment.

We can start right in the prisons. Many ideas have been successfully tried at rehabilitation centers and certain prisons; ideas such as community employment. The inmate is allowed to go to a regular job during the day, but return to the center or prison after the job. Sessions are held with each inmate, as well as group sessions for all who are participating in the program. The idea is to get the inmate ready to return to society, partly by making him feel he is contributing something to society. It is a complete switch from the practice of simply letting a prisoner go out the door after his term is up, and it works. One state working with these rehabilitation centers found that nearly 95% of those inmates who participated in the program before leaving prison have not committed a crime since.

Our goal must be to make former inmates into members of society, rather than ridding ourselves of them. This can only be accomplished by making them a useful part of society, something that they're not when they're sitting in a cell. We will then have won a victory for society that we will all benefit from, rather than admitting defeat.

If you see college just over the horizon, ask your parents to give you written writing prompts so you can practice writing essays. You'll be very glad you did.


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