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Whether you’re a high school student preparing for college, a college student getting ready for post-graduate studies, or someone simply returning to school after a stint of work, you may have to schedule a date with a standardized test sometime in the near future.  The SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE all have different formats and curricula, but they test for many of the same skills, including the ability to write a timed essay.  When writing a normal, non-timed essay, the student can draw up a detailed outline at his or her leisure, write a first and second draft, fill out and expand upon important points, and review the paper in Word for the purpose of making minor corrections and edits.  Timed essays on standardized tests, on the other hand, allow the student no such luxuries.  The time limit adds the element of urgency to the outlining and writing process.  As a result, many students end up writing a rambling, unstructured, and even incoherent essay in a frantic attempt to set down on paper everything they can possibly think of writing.

This is a serious mistake.  Standardized test scorers are looking for good flow, structure, and clarity above all else.  You must keep in mind the importance of writing a well-structured and coherent essay and avoid the temptation to spill words, sentences, and paragraphs onto the page at random.  In order to do your absolute best on your exam, you’ll need to learn how to ignore that reflex and work within the time limit to produce a substantive and well-written essay.

Time management is perhaps the most essential skill to have when writing a timed essay.  The ranges of time limits given below are roughly what you should aim for on test day.  The SAT essay section only gives you 25 minutes to work, while the ACT, GMAT, and GRE give you 30.  You should adjust the given time limits accordingly.

Step 1: Analyze the problem and question presented (2-3 minutes)

Your analysis of the test’s essay question will depend upon what kind of question you have to answer.  The typical SAT essay question involves a broad issue and asks you to write about your opinion of that issue, drawing from literary, historical, or personal examples.  On the GRE and the GMAT, the essay question or questions you’ll receive will take the same general form, divisible into two parts.  The first part is an explanation of a certain situation or scenario and an argument related to it.  For example, the scenario given might involve a proposal for the construction of a bridge in the downtown part of a city to relieve traffic flow.  The second part is the rebuttal, in which the author argues against the first statement by bringing up the negative effects of the proposal.  In the case of the bridge, the author might assert that its construction will be lengthy, expensive, and disrupt traffic in the short term.  The ACT will instead give you a question that simply presents two sides of an argument.  While the structure of the ACT essay question is different from those found on the GRE and the GMAT, the essence of it is the same.

Your job here is to analyze the argument or arguments given in the question.  Break them apart and identify what kind of evidence they use to support their claims (and what evidence they don’t use.)  If the author makes an assumption without sufficient evidence, you should note that right away.  If the initial proposal makes some logical leaps, note that as well.  You should take down any good and solid observations you can make about the problem.  If your essay question is broad, as is the case in the typical SAT essay section, all you’ll have to do is analyze the statement given and think about some real-life or literary examples that apply to its subject matter.

What you do from this point on depends upon the instructions you’ve been given.  If the test asks you to take a side with regard to the issue or argument, you’ll need to determine which side you can more effectively argue based on the number of points you can come up with in favor of or against the opposing argument.  The question might instead ask you to identify the evidence needed to support one of the arguments.  If this is the case, you should not make a judgment on the merits of either argument and simply discuss the evidence necessary that the original passage did not mention.  If the question is especially broad, you’ll have much more leeway to write freely about the subject, but you should make absolutely sure that everything you write about is relevant to the question and that it contributes to a fully articulated and coherent argument.

The most important point to remember when approaching any standardized test essay question is that the test writers don’t expect you to be an expert in the subject that the question deals with.  Essay questions, especially those on the graduate level exams, can involve all kinds of situations, from animal testing to office efficiency.  If you know nothing about these subjects, you need not worry.  You only need to be able to come up with general arguments about the issue.

Step 2: Write an outline (3-5 minutes)

After you’ve completed the analysis stage, you should immediately move on to the outline.  Writing an outline is a monumentally important step in building a solid, well-structured essay, whether that essay is timed or untimed.  Indeed, it is even more important to write an outline for a timed essay, because you’ll only have one shot at writing the essay, and you’ll want to make sure that it will be coherent and flowing the moment you put your pencil to the paper (or your fingers to the keyboard, if you’re taking a computer-based test.)  While writing an outline might seem like a waste, given the short amount of time you have to work with, it will actually end up saving you time in the long run.

Your outline should take the form of a normal untimed essay outline, with subject headers and related bullet points beneath them.  Write down each of your arguments or examples regarding the scenario or statement given to you in bullet point form.  Under each bullet point, you might want to write a few aspects of the argument or relevant piece of evidence.  The result should look something like this:

  • Opening statement about the evidence needed to justify the author’s argument, your judgment regarding the author’s argument, or your opinion about the subject of the essay
  • Example/argument/piece of evidence #1
    • Short, relevant detail
    • Another short detail
  • Example/argument/piece of evidence #2
    • Short detail
    • Short detail
  • Example/argument/piece of evidence #3
    • Short detail
    • Short detail
  • Conclusion


This form of outline is quite similar to the kind you would set up before writing an untimed essay.  The only difference is the amount of detail involved.  When writing an outline for a normal paper, you can get as detailed as you like and take hours to insert extra information, sub-headers, and citations.  An outline for a timed essay, on the other hand, should take at most five minutes for you to write.

Each main bullet point (not including the sub-headers) should represent one paragraph of your essay, which should ideally be around five paragraphs long.  This length will give you enough space to effectively state your case in the short amount of time allowed to you.

Step 3: Write the essay (20+ minutes)

Once you’re done with the outline, you can begin writing the essay itself.  At this point, you should hopefully have at least 20 of the 25 or 30 minutes you began with left over.  If you write enough practice essays before test day, you may be able to finish the analysis and outline steps even more quickly, possibly in less than five minutes, giving you more time to write the essay itself.

When writing the essay, remember to stick to the structure and points you’ve put into your outline.  It’s all too easy to start writing in a haphazard way, throwing every piece of evidence and every argument you can think of onto the page in a bid to write the essay as quickly as possible.  If you do so, the time you spent writing the outline will have been wasted.  A good outline should give you the structure necessary to easily create a coherent and flowing essay without having to worry about the time limit.

If you are used to writing and can easily find the words and phrasing you need to effectively get your message across, you should be able to write a great essay.  If not, you’ll want to practice your writing, preferably on a daily basis, so that when test day comes you’ll be prepared.  If you have enough time, you should also read independently of your class assignments if you don’t already.  Reading on a regular basis will help you get a sense of how good writing feels, and it will have a noticeable and positive effect on your own writing if you give it enough time.

Above all else, remember to stay focused and keep working.  The first few timed essays you write may not be very good, and you might only get halfway through before your time is up.  If you’ve given yourself enough time to practice, however, you’ll definitely be able to improve your pacing, your analytical observations, and the quality of your writing before test day arrives.