By Lee Binz
What would you give to hear these words? Wouldn’t you just love to get some recognition and thankfulness years from now, when your child is all grown up? It can happen! With a little time and distance, your hard work can pay off and your child may come home and thank you.
During Alex’s first week at college, he came home and thanked me for a specific skill he learned when we were homeschooling. Believe it or not, he thanked me for teaching him to write a quick essay.
A week into his transition to the university, his professor gave an essay test. Alex said the other students were somewhat freaked out by the all-essay format of the two hour test. Suddenly our test preparation for the SAT and ACT paid off in a real-life situation. Because we had so carefully prepared our students to write short essays under high pressure situations, Alex wasn’t bothered by the test at all. He recognized that this was only because we had worked on the skill in our homeschool.
Learning to write a quick, 40 to 50 minute essay is an important part of college preparation for two reasons. Alex picked up on reason number one – colleges often include essay tests. The second reason for practicing quick essay skills is a little more immediate for homeschoolers. Kids need the skill to score well on SAT and ACT tests. Both tests contain optional short essays but some colleges require the essay section of the test for admission.
Many colleges rely on SAT and ACT test scores to indicate college readiness. The essay section of these tests can demonstrate your child’s ability to write as well as provide outside documentation from a third party. Test scores can determine the quality of college that will accept a student. The SAT and ACT essay sections are 40 to 50 minutes long. They provide a writing prompt and the student has to read it, outline their thoughts, and write an essay in the time allowed. The essay is handwritten in the exam booklet, scanned into a computer, and any college where you submit your scores can choose to view the essay online.
Handwriting is important, but not because of penmanship. The essay simply needs to be legible even though it is written quickly. There is no particular style of penmanship required. By the time children reach high school, they have usually developed their own penmanship style, which is fine as long as it’s legible.
Your child can earn high school credit for learning how to write a quick essay. A high school English credit can be awarded when your child has completed about 120 to 180 hours of work. You don’t have to painstakingly count up every single hour though, you can easily estimate hours. If your student works at least an hour a day on a subject, it will typically add up to one high school credit. If they work half an hour a day, they will earn a half credit.
Your English class could include teaching your child to write a quick essay as the cornerstone of their composition studies. Get your child to work for about one hour a day on writing skills. This can include writing quick essays, learning about writing essays, and brainstorming essays. You can include other learn-to-write activities such as worksheets, vocabulary workbooks, journaling, spelling, grammar, or watching videos about how to write an essay.
For a full high school English credit, include both writing and reading. Assign real books to read for about half an hour to an hour per day. It doesn’t matter how many books your child reads – 6 to 600 is all within the range of normal. Don’t worry about literary analysis, because not every English class needs to include analysis. You have the freedom to focus on reading for enjoyment. Try to choose books from a College Bound Reading List, and mix in some popular literature for teens.
Your child can earn scholarships by writing application essays. This can happen in three ways. First, your child will need to write a college admission essay when they apply to college. These must be self-reflective (so the college knows who your child is) and technically perfect (so the college knows how well your child can write) descriptive essays. Written well, these essays can help your child earn scholarships from individual colleges.
Second, your child may earn scholarships from a college by having great test scores on the SAT or ACT. Universities frequently tie financial aid to test scores, giving an additional financial incentive to study. Studying for these college admission tests, and learning how to write the essay required, can improve your child’s chances of earning college admission and scholarships. Additional tests, such as AP exams, can provide additional incentives for colleges to provide more scholarships. All AP exams are essay tests, so knowing how to write an essay is closely tied to success in these tests.
Third, many private scholarships are awarded as a result of essay contests. Because a high school English credit can include any kind of writing, you can have your child write for college scholarship competitions all year as the basis of your English curriculum. Considering the cost of college today, it’s definitely an idea worth pursuing.
The process for finding private scholarships is not easy, and it can take a lot of time. Of course, after you find them, you also need to filter them down to those that fit your child. Did you come across a scholarship especially for tall people? Don’t laugh, they’re out there! It won’t work for your child if they’re only 5’1″. After filtering, it’s helpful to record the ones you want your child to apply to, so you can keep track of due dates and requirements.
Perhaps the most difficult part is to help your student follow through with the whole scholarship application process. As the parent, you can do a lot of the legwork for scholarship applications, but your student must ultimately write the paper or produce the product. It’s hard work, which is why they get high school credit. Hopefully they will also earn college scholarships!
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It can take some time to learn short essay writing skills, and it takes a lot of practice. I would love to be able to tell you that I taught my children to write short essays, but I didn’t teach them. I made sure they learned the skill but I didn’t do the teaching. I felt incompetent and unable to teach such a subjective skill as writing. How ironic, since I write for a living now! I didn’t teach writing because I didn’t feel qualified. I have heard from other parents who felt they couldn’t teach writing because their child was resistant to parental instruction. Instead of worrying about who will teach what, focus on how to encourage your child to learn the necessary skill.
I delegated the instruction to a video lesson. Once your child can write reasonably well, delegating to a self-teaching method of instruction can prepare your children. I purchased a video tutorial that explained what was required so I didn’t have to teach. I bought a book with writing prompts so I didn’t have to hold discussions about appropriate writing prompts. I paid for a visual example of corrected essays so I could see for myself what a quality essay looked like.
With my family, I used the Institute for Excellence in Writing product called the Advanced Communication Series. This product is a tutorial for the student, not for the parent. I didn’t have to do anything with it other than make sure my children watched the video. The Advanced Communication Series teaches three distinct skills: taking notes from a college lecture, writing a long and short essay, and public speaking. Each section was wonderful, but the one I relied on most was the instruction in writing a short essay. After watching the video, my children were ready to try their new skills.
501 Writing Prompts by Learning Express is an inexpensive book filled with perfect prompts for short essays. Not surprisingly, the book contains 501 of these prompts! Beyond prompts, it provides some guidance for evaluating essays. It includes a scoring guide; the fancy word for this is “rubric.” To be honest, I hate the word “rubric.” When I pulled my children out of public school, the teacher said, “You don’t even know what a rubric is!” Ever since then I’ve hated the word! If you’re like me, then this book includes the perfect help for you. 501 Writing Prompts also includes model essays for all of the bold-faced prompts throughout the book (once every 25 prompts or so). The samples show you a top scoring essay, a middle-of-the road essay, and a low scoring essay. You can look over these sample essays to see how your student’s writing compares. No rubric needed.
Look through the writing prompts book to find an appropriate essay. Because this book was intended for the general population, it includes some edgy prompts related to public school attendance that may not be appropriate for some homeschool families. Be sure to read each prompt first.
If you prefer a book that is more similar to the specific prompts on the SAT or ACT Test, look for a study guide for the AP English Language and Composition exam. This exam is very similar to the verbal portion of the SAT, and the reading portion of the ACT. Using prompts from a test preparation guide specific to these exams will help you prepare for the specific essay prompts. I prefer using Princeton Review books, as I find it easiest to understand their instructions. Consider this study guide, Cracking the AP English Language & Composition Exam by Princeton Review.
When I said that my son came back to say “Thank you!” I don’t mean to imply that our homeschool was a bed of roses. I struggled to teach writing like many other parents! It was difficult for me to find the time to grade these essays when I compared them to the samples, and I got bogged down. Thankfully, my husband offered to step in and do the English grading for me. I felt terrible about having him do this because I thought it was my job and I knew I was capable. Still, when he took over the grading, it was an enormous relief for me.
It wasn’t all fun and games with my children, either. I remember how difficult the concept of being timed was for them. Kevin started the year by spending his first few minutes of each essay talking about how it wasn’t possible to write an essay in so little time. “I understand it’s challenging, but you have 39 minutes left,” I replied. After about three or four minutes of complaining, he figured out the clock was still ticking and would get busy.
We worked aggressively on essay writing using this strategy for both sophomore and junior years. I wanted to prepare my children for college and I was concerned about the SAT and ACT essay.
Once you have identified instruction that works, and found writing prompts that will help you apply the instruction, you are halfway there. The most important key to a short essay is practice. We practiced timed essay writing three times a week in preparation for the SAT handwritten essay. When you think about it, three times a week isn’t a huge time commitment. And from a parent’s point of view it’s a great time of day – the kids are quietly scribbling away on paper while you can get the dishes or laundry done! It’s a win-win for everyone!
Their writing practice was helpful in other high school classes as well. I used quick essays to document many of our other courses, creating my own prompt from other homeschool subjects. At times I used essay topics from the history curriculum or other subjects. If a topic from the writing prompts book reminded me of another subject, I tweaked it a bit to obtain an essay that fit what we were studying.
When my children were finished the essay, it provided written material for these classes. I could include those essays in course descriptions. It was a way for me to evaluate my children in different subjects when I didn’t use tests and provided great documentation for hard-to-document subjects.
Real success in writing a quick essay comes with practice. Once your child learns how to write reasonably well, additional writing skill will come through practice. Practice leads to success, which can help them get great grades in college and succeed in life. If nothing else, they will become a good writer and can use these communication skills in any future calling or career.
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Lee Binz, The HomeScholar, specializes in helping parents homeschool high school. Get Lee's FREE 5 part mini-course "The 5 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make Homeschooling High School" and more freebies at www.TheHomeScholar.com.
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