March 16, 2019

Writing Under Pressure: Boost Your Grades and Raise Your Test Scores

March 16, 2019

Writing Under Pressure: Boost Your Grades and Raise Your Test Scores

Writing an essay on a topic you aren’t interested in is difficult, but part of your high school experience. A timed essay, which is either a required or recommended part of taking the SAT and ACT, can be downright painful.

But it doesn’t need to be. Schools and test prep courses do very little in the way of teaching how to write under time pressure. That’s okay. By learning and following some simple steps, and with practice, you can master the art of timed writing and help yourself in myriad ways:  

  1. Raise your standardized test scores. Even though many colleges today do not require applicants to complete the essay portions of the SAT and ACT (though some, like Harvard, do), writing a highly-scored essay will help show you are a student who goes the extra mile.
  2. Get a leg up in college. Knowing how to write well under time pressure will serve you well in college because most exams (outside of math and science) are in the form of timed essays.
  3. Succeed in the real world. Almost every profession -- even those in the math and sciences -- require practitioners to be able to communicate clearly in writing under time pressure. Whether you are a business executive writing a memo, a physician summarizing a patient’s condition, or a journalist writing an article, you will be expected to communicate your ideas succinctly and clearly in minimal time.


Here are 5 tried-and-true tips from Entrance Advisor that apply to all timed-essay writing, whether it is the SAT’s “objective” essay format, ACT’s “persuasive” essay format, a college exam, or a real-world work assignment.

1. Allocate your time.  Timed writing is all about pacing.  SAT and ACT essays are 50 and 40 minutes, respectively.  That may seem like a long time, but it goes by very quickly with all the things you need to do.  To be effective, divide your time into:  

  • Read and analyze (15% of your time).  You need to understand the topic before you can write about it.  But do not obsess about every detail -- you simply will not have time.
  • Outline (20% of your time).  Analyzing and planning is the most important, yet most overlooked, element to success.  Many students skip this step because they feel they do not have enough time.  Don’t fall into that trap.  SAT/ACT graders (and readers in general) look for a clear, logical structure.
  • Write (60% of your time).  Writing takes up the bulk of your time.  But if you have planned ahead with a clear, well-organized outline, your essay will almost “write itself.”
  • Revise (5% of your time).  Polish your essay by checking for spelling and grammar mistakes.  For SAT/ACT essays, you can cross out words you don’t want the grader to read (you don’t need to waste time erasing them).

2.   Use a simple format.  Facing time constraints makes is important to go follow a simple structure.  This will keep you organized and make it easier for the essay graders to follow your reasoning -- a win-win situation.  An example of a good structure is:

  • Paragraph 1:  Introduction.  Provide your main idea, or “thesis.”
  • Paragraph 2:  First supporting point.  Support your thesis with a concrete point or example.  In a persuasive essay (like the ACT) you should provide examples from history, literature, or current events.  In an objective essay (like the SAT) where you discuss a written passage, you can quote or paraphrase part of the passage to help demonstrate your point.
  • Paragraph 3:  Make your second supporting point.  
  • Paragraph 4:  Introduce different/opposing viewpoint.  It is helpful to introduce an opposing viewpoint (especially in a persuasive essay) and then explain why that viewpoint lacks merit and your point is stronger.  For example, “Critics of this argument argue that…. This reasoning is flawed because….”
  • Paragraph 5:  Conclusion.  Reiterate your thesis and main supporting reasons in 2-3 sentences, using similar (but not the exact same) language.

3.   Use simple, clear transitions.  You should connect each paragraph to the following paragraph with an effective transition.  Examples include, “Additionally,” “moreover,” “nevertheless,” “furthermore,” “in contrast,” and “in conclusion.”

4.   Vary your vocabulary and sentence structure. It can be effective to use erudite vocabulary, but only to a limited degree.  Using too many big words and writing wordy sentences can turn off or confuse the reader.  A winning strategy is to use short sentences with simple words, and mix in the occasional larger word and more complex sentence.

5.   Practice, Practice, Practice.  Sitting down and practicing is the best way to prepare for any parts of your standardized tests.  For a timed essay, test-prep companies will either grade your tests or show you model answers to which you can compare your essay.  You also can benefit from having a seasoned essay writer review your work and provide feedback.  

Entrance Advisor strives to go above and beyond what other counseling companies do. Jeff Collins works with his students to help them understand the differences between SAT and ACT essays, and acquire the skills to write well under pressure.  To find out more about how Entrance Advisor can help you get into the school that is right for you, contact us today.