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Essays That Bring Home the Bacon

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #77, 2007.

College application and exam essays that bring home the bacon.
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Jeannette Webb

In typical high school student fashion, my daughter was discussing her preparation for the SAT essay with another friend who was also soon to take the test. While my daughter had been practicing diligently for the essay, her friend's lackadaisical attitude caught her off guard. "Oh, I don't need to practice that. I already know how to write essays!"

I'm afraid this young person could be in for quite a shock when the SAT scores come in. While your child may be a good writer, do not make the mistake of assuming that this skill will transfer to the many types of essays she will have to write to gain entrance into a competitive college. Let's take a look at the various types of essays necessary for the college bound student.

The College Application Essay

The classical essay is what most of us mean when we utter the word "essay." In contains an introduction, three to five points (one point per paragraph), and a conclusion that ties it all together. This is the type of essay your child will use in college application essays, although there are also short answer questions that should be as carefully written as the essay. If we have done our job, most homeschool children should be proficient at this by their junior year. What many people don't realize is that students can write a stunning essay and still miss the point - that admission's officers want to get to know the student through their essay. For more details on this topic, see Austin's suggestions in the September/October 2006 issue of Practical Homeschooling.

SAT Essay

The essay now required on the SAT test is still considered a classic essay, but is written with severe time limitations. Many great writers would not score well on this type essay given the time pressures, little time to think, and no chance at rewriting. In fact, your child will probably never have to write like this again in their life and many people question the legitimacy of this portion of the test. However, it is a requirement and we must do it well to be successful.

We have benefited greatly from the Institute for Excellence in Writing's new offering, High School Essay Intensive: SAT Preparation and College Application Essay Strategies. Mr. Pudewa shares many success strategies, such as thinking about who will be judging the essays - mainly English teachers and journalists. English teachers are impressed with quotes from literature. Journalists like to see history and current events mentioned. Both look for large vocabulary and smooth writing style. By becoming a "specialist" in a particular novel or author and a particular period of history, your student should have plenty of quotes and life lessons on which to base his essay.

For example, my daughter loves the work of Jane Austen and we have read all her novels aloud and discussed them. She is fascinated with World War II and is currently taking an AP Economics class. Those three areas have given her plenty of material to write about in all her SAT practice essays.

Mr. Pudewa takes the mystery out of the SAT essay and gives many tips for success on his DVD which you can obtain at writing-edu.com.

AP Essays

Essays that accompany the Advanced Placement tests vary as much as the tests themselves. Far too many people are unprepared for this section of these rigorous exams.

My son was actually in the testing room with a group of public school students about to take the AP Biology test when one of them exclaimed, "You mean there are essays with this thing???"

There is no excuse for that kind of ignorance.

Let's look a just a few of the AP tests and the types of essays they require.

AP Biology is an exercise in memorization and the load is formidable. In this essay, you throw out the classical essay format and just write as fast as possible, telling everything you know about the particular topic you are assigned. It's important to use the vocabulary you've learned all year. It may help if you draw pictures to illustrate a point.

AP Economics is much the same as Biology. The essay is not about form, but about getting everything you know down on paper about the particular question. In fact, this essay is more like a series of short answer questions. It helps the grader for you to label each part of the question and any sub points involved. It is important to draw graphs and use economic terms in your writing.

According to an official grader of the AP U.S. Government exam, format and length do not matter. You will be asked to answer a series of questions about a certain topic and are encouraged to label your answers to corresponding questions. In fact, you may write very succinctly if you answer the whole question and use the vocabulary they are looking for.

Practice, Then Practice Some More!

No matter what type of essay your student will be writing, the most important thing is to practice multiple times under timed conditions. Understand the rules up front, as each type of essay is so different.

Test prep books are available on every type of test and there is plenty of information available for free on collegeboard.com. These resources will give you the grading rubric for each type of essay.

Grade your practice attempts honestly and find your weak spots. Liberally use the vocabulary specific to each discipline in your writing. Write neatly. If they can't read it, don't expect to score well. Some have suggested to write as large as possible, as this makes the essay look longer!

And finally, you must remember that test scores, which include essays, will always be more important for homeschoolers than for other students. Because colleges have no way of intimately knowing our educational philosophy, the rigor of our classes, or our grading biases, they will rely heavily on standardized test results. It is important to take the time to study, practice a lot, and perform to the best of your ability on any essay you attempt.

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