by Lee Binz
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What would you give to hear these words? “Thanks, Mom!” During Alex’s first week at college, he actually thanked me for a skill I taught him 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 had an essay test. Alex said the other students were somewhat freaked out by the all-essay format of the two hour test. Because we had so carefully prepared our students to write a short essay under a high-pressure situation, Alex said he wasn’t really bothered by the test at all. He did recognize, however, that it was only because we had worked on the skill when he was homeschooling.
Learning to write a quick 25 minute essay is an important part of college preparation for two reasons. Alex picked up on reason #1 – colleges often have essay tests. The second reason for practicing quick essay skills is a little more immediate for homeschoolers. You need the skill to score well on the SAT and ACT tests. Both tests contain a short essay. In the SAT the essay is mandatory. In the ACT the essay is optional for the test, but certain colleges will require the “optional essay” provided by the ACT.
Many colleges rely on SAT and ACT test scores to indicate college readiness. The writing section of these tests can provide outside documentation from a third party, demonstrating your child’s ability to write. Test scores can determine the quality of college that will accept a student. In addition, universities frequently tie financial aid to test scores, giving an additional financial incentive to studying. Studying for these college admission tests, and learning how to write the essay required, can improve your chances of college admission and scholarships.
The SAT essay is 25 minutes long. It’s a hand-written essay on a piece of paper, completed during a timed section of the exam. The essay is scanned onto a computer, and is visible to the college admission office, if they choose to view the essay online. You can see your child’s essay online as well, which is nice. Handwriting is important, but not because of penmanship. The essay simply needs to be legible and written very quickly. There is no particular style of penmanship required. By the time children reach high school, they have usually developed their own penmanship style, and that’s fine.
How to Write a Short Essay I would love to tell you that I taught my children to write a short essay, but I really didn’t teach them. I did make 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, but I have heard from other parents that 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. I purchased a video tutorial that would explain what was required so that I didn’t have to teach. I bought a book that provided writing prompts so that I didn’t have to have discussions about what an appropriate writing prompt would be. I paid for a visual example of corrected essays, so that I could see for myself what a quality essay would look like. Once your child can write reasonably well, delegating to a self-teaching method of instruction can prepare your children very well.
My first purchase was the Institute for Excellence in Writing product called the Advanced Communication Series. This product is different than most IEW resources because it is a tutorial for the student, not for the parent. In other words, 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 that I relied on most was the instruction in writing a short essay. After watching the video, we were ready for the children to try their new skills.
The book “501 Writing Prompts” by Learning Express is an inexpensive book filled with perfect prompts for short essays. Not surprisingly, the book actually contains 501 of these prompts! Beyond prompts, though, it provides some guidance for evaluating essays. It provides a scoring guide – the fancy word for that is “rubric.” 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, and rubric is Russian for “Pulling my hair out” then the book has the perfect help for you. The book has model essays once every 25 prompts or so, for all of the bold-faced prompts throughout the book. The samples show you a top essay, a middle-of-the road essay, and a low-scoring essay. You can look at these sample essays and 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 does have some “edgy” prompts that may not be appropriate for some homeschool families, so be sure to read the prompt first. If you prefer a book that can be used for a wider age range, look at the book “Writing Down the Days” by Lorraine M. Dahlstrom. I found it a little more difficult to adapt to a high school essay, but it does have prompts that are appropriate for all ages. Once you decide on a prompt, have your child write the essay using skills they learned from the IEW Advanced Communication Series.
Our homeschool wasn’t all a bed of roses. It was very 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 that, because I thought it was “my job” and I knew I was capable of doing it. 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 timing was for my children. 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 25 minutes. “I understand it’s challenging, but you have 24 minutes left,” I replied. After about 3 or 4 minutes of complaining, he figured out the clock was still ticking, and he would get busy.
We worked aggressively on essay writing using this strategy for sophomore year and junior year. I wanted to prepare my children for college, and I was very concerned about the SAT essay.
Practice Makes Perfect Once you have identified instruction that works, and prompts that will help you use the instruction, you are half-way there. The most important key to a short essay is practice. We practiced short essay writing three times a week. I timed each essay for 25 minutes, because that is how long they are allowed for the SAT handwritten essay. When you think about it, 25 minutes 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!
We didn’t always use prompts from the 501 Writing Prompts book exactly as they were written. Sometimes I would use prompts from real SAT tests. I found them in the book 11 Practice Tests for the SAT by Princeton Review. Each practice test included a prompt for the SAT essay, and was perfect practice for the test. Sometimes I would create my own prompt from our other homeschool subjects. At times I would use essay topics provided by my history curriculum or from other subjects. If a topic from the Writing Prompts book reminded me of a different subject, I would tweak it a little bit to obtain an essay that fit what we were studying. When my children were done with the essay, it provided written material for those classes that I could include in their course descriptions. It provided a way for me to “evaluate” my children in different subjects when I didn’t use tests. It was great documentation for hard-to-document subjects.
Real success with learning to write a quick essay comes with practice. Once children learn how to write reasonably well, most additional success will come through practice.
Lee Binz, The HomeScholar, specializes in helping parents homeschool high school. Get Lee's 5 part mini-course, "The 5 Biggest Mistakes Parents Make Homeschooling High School." You can find her at www.TheHomeScholar.com.
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