What to Know About SSAT & ISEE Writing Samples

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One aspect that the SSAT and ISEE have in common is the writing sample. Each test asks the student to write a relatively short essay in response to a prompt provided by the test. On the SSAT, students have the choice between different styles of prompts. The ISEE simply offers a single standardized test type of prompt. Both tests give students a page for notes and two lined pages for the actual essay. The SSAT essay is at the beginning of the test, while the ISEE essay is at the end. Naturally, parents are concerned about how to best prepare students for the essays. Here are the major points to keep in mind. Read these with your student to be sure they know what to expect. Your tutor will review the writing as well.

It Doesn’t Count, Except That It Does. (Or It Doesn’t Count, Mostly.)

Neither the SSAT nor the ISEE writing samples are scored. Although students will want to make a good impression, it is important to remember that no score is given to the essay. The writing samples are sent along with the test scores to the recipient schools designated by the families. They provide another piece of information to the admissions team. Instead of spending time and energy wondering how to ace the essay, try spending a little more time clarifying your strategies for the multiple choice sections of the test, which are scored.

The writing sample represents another opportunity for the school to get to know the student. Students get a chance to practice when taking the tests in the PrepMatters office. Additionally, tutors may assign an essay as part of the homework. Here are some suggestions on how to create a piece that is a solid addition to your overall profile.

Plan for Success

Both the ISEE and the SSAT give you space to plan your essay. Use It. In whatever “format” works best, you should take a few moments to jot down thoughts about what you would say in response to the prompt. We use the term “format” loosely here. Bullet points. Formal outline. Thought Bubbles. Words on a page. Also, think about which points are stronger. This planning sheet is not reviewed by the school, so students should format in a way that is quick and clear to them. Brainstorm and get the ideas you will use out of your head and onto the page. Then, as you write, you’ll have a handy checklist to aid in the process. Take just a few minutes - maximum five, for the planning stage. 

Brevity and Clarity

When composing our response, we want to remember our readers. As a writer, I want to make it easy for them to understand my point of view and to follow my reasoning. Although you’ll want to have some variety to your sentences, you’ll mostly want them to be clear. Additionally, you’ll want your sentences to be shorter rather than convoluted and possibly hard to follow. Even if you are doing the creative prompt for the SSAT, you will want to choose sentences that are more to the point. Though it can be a chance to show off our growing vocabulary, don’t worry about using all of the hardest words you know. Remember, clarity is worth more than having the most obscure words in our writing.

Evidence and Explanation

We want to make reviewing our essay a pleasant task for the reader. This means we want to tell them where we are going, then take them there. This sample is not as sophisticated as your writing for your English class, but it should still follow some basic rules: 

Take a clear position. 

Some of the essay prompts can have more than one response. Also, there is no one right answer. You don’t want to take too much time examining alternatives. At most, briefly mention some possibilities, then make a definitive statement about where your essay is going. “Although there have been many great leaders in our nation’s history, I would most like to have dinner with Franklin D. Roosevelt.”  

Use paragraph form. 

We don’t want our pages covered by a solid block of words. We want clear paragraph breaks to indicate new subjects. By focusing on one aspect of the larger picture, each paragraph helps us organize what we have to say. If I am sharing a story about the time our club held a food drive, I should have separate paragraphs explaining how we got organized, the challenges we faced, and the actual event. 

Provide specific evidence. 

This is where the planning comes in handy. If you say that leadership is important, be sure to tell the reader about actual leaders you have had, have learned about, or have been. Support for your claims can come from history, books you’ve read, or real life. What personal experiences can you draw on to back up your statements? It is much stronger to say that loyalty is important, then share the time you were loyal to a classmate when they were getting picked on for being different. 

Important to Remember

Since this is a standardized test, there are some additional factors we should be considering. We have two pages for our response.Try to use at least one and half pages. Don’t begin your essay on the page for notes: that will not be read. Keep your writing within the lines. The essay is scanned digitally and what is outside may not be legible. Speaking of legibility, be sure to write in your most readable handwriting. Both tests accept either cursive or print. Similarly, try to use correct grammar and punctuation, but don’t stress and eat up precious time debating. Although our goal is, of course, none, one or two errors won’t distract the reader from your message or make it hard for them to understand you. You won’t know your reader. You are writing to an adult, or a group of adults, who don’t know you. It is better to be a little more formal, as you would speak to your school principal. Be honest in your writing, but be respectful. Pretend you are writing to someone from a different background, a different gender, or a different part of your city or country. If you are not using history or literature, use real events from your life. The readers don’t want to read about games, movies, or other popular culture, though these can be used as examples. 

One Good Swing

Again, the writing sample is only one, ungraded, part of your SSAT or ISEE. Do your best to follow the tips here, then forget about it. You are either off to conquer the rest of the test or to enjoy the rest of the day and your academic year. 

Good Luck!