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Tips on the English Essay for the CLEP Test


Nearly 3,000 colleges and universities allow students to earn course credit by taking a test through the College-Level Examination Program. The CLEP College Composition test includes two typed essay questions that students have a total of 70 minutes to answer, along with 50 multiple-choice questions that they have 50 minutes to answer. You can maximize your performance on the essay questions by understanding what graders are looking for and, of course, by practicing as much as you’re able.

Essay One Focus

The two essay questions have different formats and focuses, so make sure you understand what the questions are asking you to do before you start writing. The first essay prompt asks you to draw on your own experience and knowledge to comment on a topic or statement, such as, “There are no challenges so difficult, no goals so impossible, as the ones we set for ourselves.” You have 30 minutes to type your response. Pay particular attention to command words such as “agree or disagree,” “summarize,” “discuss” and “support,” which tell you what elements to include in your essay.

Essay Two Focus

For the second essay, you’ll have 40 minutes to read two passages and draw on them as you take a position on a question, such as, “Do copyright restrictions benefit or harm society?” The key here is to clearly develop your own stance on the topic, but to support or contrast your argument with quotations or paraphrased material from both sources. Make sure to provide in-text citations when you mention ideas from the passages.

Organize Your Answer

For both essays, you’ll use your writing time most efficiently by taking a few minutes to outline your thoughts before you start typing. Use the scratch paper provided to jot down your thesis -- your central claim or argument -- and at least three points that support it. In essay one, these points will come from your own experience or learning; you can, for example, use anecdotes from your life, refer to books you’ve read or draw on current events. In essay two, you can use those kinds of evidence to make your case, but you must also use both of the passages provided in the question. Look at your supporting points and decide how to organize them: in chronological order? From causes to effects? From least to most important? Having a logical structure in mind helps you insert transitions among sentences and paragraphs as you write.

Use Precise Language

Part of your CLEP essay score derives from your ability to use a broad vocabulary effectively. Take the time to think about precisely what words best communicate your meaning. One way to do so is by avoiding general terms or “filler” words such as “good,” “nice,” “very” and “quite.” If you’re tempted to write “good,” for example, ask yourself what you mean by it: You might consider a thing or idea good because it’s effective, efficient, moral, advantageous, accurate, in working order or valuable, among other possibilities. Finally, never use the word “literally” unless you’re certain that it’s correct in the context.

About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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