SAT/TOEFL Essay Writing Clinic
Lesson 1: Introduction
You can win a scholarship by writing a great essay in the SAT/TOEFL. That is why I am writing this. But first, let me shed light on the heavy shadow of ignorance among students who wish to obtain a scholarship to study abroad and who expect to do so via other methods apart from the SAT/TOEFL essay. We had some students in my old school who really wanted scholarships but thought that the Cambridge A level exams should do the trick. They spent nine months studying for the Cambridge course but failed to meet the required grades that should qualify them for admission. If only we knew, and if only they too knew what to do. We only found this out after we did a postmortem on many of the results that came in.
Quite frankly, it is nearly impossible for any candidate to expect to get a scholarship with the A levels even though he or she had scored three straight A’s. What the A levels would do for you if you scored three straight A’s is get you into one of the Ivy League schools like Harvard, Princeton, MIT and the rest. In the year 2002, there were many A level students in the UK who scored an average of A, A, B. However, that did not get them anywhere near those schools, and most had to settle for schools with a lower pedigree. What the A level tells the admission officer is that you are not an academic green horn mostly because the A level curriculum is a rigorous one, almost as rigorous as the ones in most universities. In most countries, if you have a good A/Level result, you could qualify to resume as a second-year student in any of the faculties of your choice. Of a fact, most schools abroad require that international students must come with an Advanced level result because that is the one way to gauge a candidate’s academic potentials. I have not seen any case therefore where a candidate’s straight A’s have gotten him or her scholarship into any school abroad.
To clinch a scholarship to a good school abroad, you would have to score very good points in the new SAT or TOEFL. The new SAT - it was introduced recently when the College Board found out that many candidates were flunking the tests because of the very tricky module in the tests known as ‘Analogy sets’. As a consequence of the presence of those analogy sets, the test was not often a true reflection of a candidate’s abilities mostly in the verbal component of the test. What the College Board did (and I agree with them absolutely) was to expunge the analogy sets and introduce an essay writing component that effectively and efficiently neutralizes the deficiencies in assessing a candidates true potentials in the SAT/TOEFL test. The College Board also introduced a new component in the Math section - Algebra II.
Our focus here is on only one section of the verbal of the SAT/TOEFL and how the candidate can use it to clinch a scholarship – the writing module. I have been a teacher of English with a focus on the SATs and TOEFL for nearly a decade. Perhaps this should qualify me as somebody who knows what he is talking about. So then, this verbal component of the new SAT has three sections and they are sentence completion, critical reading/listening completion and essay or composition writing. For the TOEFL test, the relevant sections are reading and listening comprehension, speaking, and writing. Students who have written local examinations in their countries should be familiar with the first two - the phrase ‘sentence completion’ represents those types of questions that require candidates to complete sentences with the proper grammatical structures on the basis of vocabulary, lexis and logic. In the reading section, there is nothing ‘critical’ about ‘critical reading’. Once, I asked a student mine what he thought ‘critical reading’ meant. He responded that a critical reading passage should be read critically. No, you should not do so. Both tests are timed tests and if you were to spend all of that time reading a passage ‘critically’, you would have no time left to attend to other parts of the verbal. Critical reading is a normal comprehension passage that should be attended to the way any normal comprehension passage should be attended to – to read the passage first, get the message, go to the questions and go back to the passage using the time-tested methods of skimming and passage scanning. It is very important that the candidate be conversant with the rudiments of literature, politics, and government of the UK and of the United States, history, Geography, Sociology, Economics and some elements of law. If the candidate is a little familiar with any of these topics, the two reading comprehension passages are as good as already in the bag.
Even if you were to answer all of the MCQs (multiple-choice-questions) on the SAT/TOEFL and score very high on them, this may not guarantee you a scholarship. It is your essay - your essay is the most likely component of the SAT/TOEFL test that strategically positions you for consideration for a scholarship. I met a certain candidate who wrote a great essay and who eventually had a full scholarship of $40,000.00 for his four-year university adventure. I must admit however, that it was not just the quality of his essay that got him a $40,000.00 scholarship. There were other considerations. But the reason the College Board introduced the essay component is that it gives them the opportunity to assess the candidate’s overall psychological, physiological, mental and academic strengths and weaknesses. The word that aptly describes this is German - the Weltanschauung: a candidate’s overall world view. The Math, the sentence completion, the critical reading, the algebra, all of these do not say much about you to the College Board. These are subjects that you were introduced to much later and much closer to your life as a young adult. What about those things that influenced you in the helping you to form your peculiar view of life? Where and when were you born, and what were the things that shaped your thinking and thought? What kind of pre-school activities were you engaged and engaged you? What was your parentage like? What schools did you attend? What kind of friends did you make? Did you like sports? Do you like the Hare-Krishna sect? Why? Are you apolitical? What are your political views? Now, don’t get me wrong here. The College Board is hardly directly interested in these matters but indirectly wants to know, and how these matters have influenced and helped to shape you as the unique person that you are. If you hand write an essay - not with the computer – it would be so easy for them to determine your personality trait and likely antecedents. It would be easy to know whether or not you can cross your Ts and dot your I’s. To put it very simply, the essay resembles Sigmund Freud’s couch. Freud was a psychoanalyst - what you may call a shrink. He made his patients lie on a couch and asked them to talk while he seemingly just sat down and took notes. Very unbeknownst to them, his patients revealed inner secrets, character traits and laid bare their very souls before Freud. That is what nearly happens with your essay for either the ETS or College Board. So take it very seriously if you are gunning for a scholarship now or in the near future.
The assessors examining your essay do so independently. They take an average score based on their individual scores for your essay. The areas they are mostly interested are word choice or vocabulary, sentence structure, organization of the essay and idea development. Let us discuss all of these very briefly before I conclude. ‘Word choice’ is about registers and how appropriate or inappropriate the candidate has deployed them; sentence structure is about how the candidate has ensured that he does not have one sentence structure (like the simple, compound, complex and compound-complex) as the dominant type of structure in the essay. Let us see these sentence structures in a little detail, shall we?
(a) A simple sentence has only one clause [a part of a sentence with its own subject and predicate]. It is usually an assertion or one that makes a declaration. An example of a simple sentence is: Spiders have eight legs. One important feature of the simple sentence is that it is often a short but powerful statement. It resembles a thesis statement.
(b) A compound sentence usually has two main clauses joined together by one of the following coordinating conjunctions – and, but, yet, either…or, neither…nor. The role of these coordinating conjunctions is to connect two simple sentences and in effect, two different ideas or assumptions – as in, ‘John adores Susan but she despises him’.
(c) A Complex sentence has one main clause and a subordinate clause joined together by a subordinating conjunction. Some subordinating conjunctions include words like after, because, until, if, before, as soon as, unless, as long as, so that, though, except that, and etcetera. The idea behind the complex sentence is for you to be able to use them in logical arguments to show contrasts, or reason or condition. Look at this sentence: John is interested in her because she is rich.
(d) A Compound-complex or Complex-compound sentence has two or more main clauses, and another construction that has a main and subordinate clause. For instance this sentence: I studied in two universities and taught English for at least a decade before I wrote a book which became an instant bestseller’.
Therefore, if there were to be twenty sentences in your first paragraph, we will expect the opening sentence to be a simple sentence like the one at the beginning of this introduction - and there should be at least three simple sentences used together with the compound and complex. If you have done this, your paragraphs should be relatively organized in such a way that develops your idea(s). But the most common but most important way to develop you idea(s) would be to cite, cite and cite as many examples as possible.
What I have always told my students is that it is almost impossible to teach them how to write essays if they have not read books, magazines, listened to radio and watched a lot of documentaries on television: and if they are unfamiliar with the subjects mentioned in paragraph four above. They should just be a little more sensitive to their environment and to the world around them more than the other guy. They should listen more to CNN, BBC, VOA, and Aljazeera, and to their local radio and television stations as well. In addition, they should read magazines, newspapers not because it will help them in the SAT/TOEFL, but that being a little interested in what goes on around them certainly is one very good way to prepare for university. I hope those who are preparing for life in universities abroad read this and adjust their mode of study and preparation accordingly. If there is anyone you know who needs a little help with his SAT/TOEFL essays, tell him to get in touch with me. My email is email@example.com
The SAT/TOEFL Essay
I have a previous essay on the subject of the SAT exam - Clinching a scholarship with the SAT. It was published in www.nigeriansinamerica.com and I remember that I said that the one other way candidates could clinch a scholarship to study abroad is to write a good essay. Now, I reckon that there are a thousand-and-one ways that have been suggested as recipes for an essay great enough for a scholarship. I would like to add this as another recipe that I hope would be one of the recipes there are to compose that winning essay.
Definition of the key item - essay
What is an essay? The terms ‘essay’ and ‘composition’ are synonymous terms especially when the need arises for teachers to argue and clarify issues for the sake of our students. But there have been instances where I have had to ask my colleagues to place less emphasis on that fuss concerning issues related to form and content. If we should consult any good dictionary, what we would find is that there is a very thin line that separates an essay from a composition. In class, I often tell the students that the word ‘composition’ is a noun derivable from the to-infinitive verb, ‘to compose’. You could compose a poem, a song, a letter, an essay and the like. What this presupposes is that in the composition of a poem, a song, or a letter and the like, there are several conditions, and there is a process that the composition must follow. It is the same thing with an essay. Writing an essay is a process and an agglutination of certain sensitive factors. Therefore, I should attempt a ‘definition’ and say that a composition can be an essay and an essay can be a composition, leaving out all of that controversy concerning the status or otherwise of both concepts. There are people who can teach you how to write an essay but it certainly is impossible for them to take your place if you were pressed and needed to use the john.
Types of essays on the SAT/TOEFL
A close examination of the character of the essay questions posed to candidates reveals that they fall within the following:
Description/explaining essays: For an essay where you are asked to describe, you should pay close attention to the what, the why, the where and all of the Ws. In journalism, the writer tries to say the most important thing first in a ‘lead’ paragraph. This means that he has to tell the story by mentioning the most important things first. To do this, he answers the Ws – where did it happen? How did it happen? Why did it happen? Who did it happen to? Another dimension to a descriptive essay is if you are asked to talk about a place or a country - in that case, it is compulsory that you mention the name of the place or country you wish to describe. If you do not do this, you do not stand much of a chance in convincing the assessors that you know what you are talking about. The most important thing about the descriptive essay is what is known as the dominant impression(s). After you may have discussed all of the Ws, what is it that is unique about this person or place or incident or occasion that leaves a lasting or temporary impression? Mention it. If they are many, mention them as part of your conclusion
Argument essays: There are some essays that ask you to take sides. Maybe the College Board just wants to know how you would respond to a given circumstance. In most cases, it is advisable that you declare your stand from the onset either in the very obvious manner that is employed in secondary school debates or use one or two of the methods we have suggested in that part of this essay sub-titled ‘the introductory paragraph’. What we have observed with most advice given to students by some experts is that candidates should first of all talk about the merits and demerits of the topic on hand and go on from there to take a stand. That is ok if the candidate has all of the time in the world or is writing a term paper. But in an exam where you have only twenty-five minutes to write an essay of about three to four hundred words, talking about both merits and demerits first before taking a stand and defending it is waste of valuable time and results in circumlocution. So, just go ahead and take sides and defend your point of view.
The narrative essay: The narrative essay has three components in an acronym known as PEP. P stands for people; the E stands for events; and P is for places. Therefore, the narrative essay is a story in an essay format about people, events and places. In a narrative, the story is mostly fiction with didactic implications. Sometimes however, the candidate could be creative by fusing reality with fiction in what is known as a faction. Even though the subject matter of the essay may be real or a figment of the imagination of the candidate, there is nothing wrong with it being so insofar as these elements are ingrained or embedded. The ‘characters’ or people in the story are usually flat, that is, they represent a single human virtue or vice and they are archetypes, stereotypes or caricatures. Most stories happen in a place or a location or a setting: it could be anywhere as long as you mention the name of the place and try to highlight the dominant impression or the unique character of that place or location. What we mean here is that if the event occurred in a place like New York, we should expect to feel the energy and the vigour that New York is famous for. Also, if that event you are about to describe took place in an African country, then your essay must show some degree of African culture, traditions and social life. There must be something about a place or location that gives it that unique edge of influence on a person or people that Sociologists refer to as behaviorism. Finally, we will talk about the last component of the narrative, the event. We expect most of the words in your essay to be written in the past tense. In Quirk et al (1983: 42) an action in the past may be seen:
(1) as having taken place at a particular point of time; or
(2) over a period; if the latter, it may be seen as
(a) extending to the present, or
(b) relating only to the past; if the latter, it may be viewed as
(i) having been completed, or as
(ii) not having been completed
The candidate would do well to exhibit knowledge of the aspects of the progressive, the perfective and the simple past tense forms of the verb in the narrative essay.
Parts of a SAT/TOEFL essay
The SAT/TOEFL essay or composition (hereinafter referred to as the ‘essay’) has only three parts as distinct from a normal essay that should have four parts, namely:
[c]Body of the essay
[d] and the conclusion.
The usual SAT/TOEFL essay is deemed to be complete without a title. But in my class, we go the hog. We mostly deal with the title and introduction parts of the essay and let the student or candidate carry the can for the body and conclusion. And that is what we should do here. But because I have talked about other parts of the essay elsewhere, I should talk about it briefly here too. Let me quickly add here that the SAT/TOEFL essay should be between two hundred and fifty to three hundred words or less. The basis for this requirement is that with just that number of words it is possible for any candidate who knows his onions to do justice to any topic assigned. Further, we have discovered that if the candidate is familiar with the topic assigned, there is a tendency for them to over-indulge and want to write everything: take note that the more this candidate writes the more mistakes he is likely to make and the more he may unnecessarily spend time on the essay. An essay of that number of words should not be more than two or three well-developed paragraphs and should not take more than 20-25 minutes to be written, revised and edited for any typos.
Title of the essay
The title of any essay is the identity of that essay. The candidate must limit what he or she writes within a specific scope and content. For instance, it would be impossible to do justice to a topic as ‘Why it is good for students to wear uniforms’ in just about twenty five minutes and in two or three paragraphs. This is because there are so many kinds of students and unless you define what your key item is - the category of students (primary, secondary or tertiary), you would leave the College Boards guessing.
Your essay title also exhibits your individuality. It is just the same way as your name or your school’s name is the identity that you have or your school has. We tell our students that in every SAT/TOEFL essay question, there are as many as ten possible titles that could be crafted or gleaned from the question. Take for example this possible question: ‘Your school won $50,000.00 in a sports competition. How do you think this money should be spent? Give reasons for your answer’. Now, craft as many as ten titles from this question and use only the best as your title. Now please remember that we are not asking that you write down ten titles for your essay. We are merely saying that it is an easy thing to do if you recognize that there are ten or more options to choose from. My first should be: Spending the prize money. Second: Spending our prize money on a computer lab. The third: ‘Should we spend our prize on computers?’ We could go on and on.
An essay title for that kind of question could be written with any of the following templates:
(a) [a word]. For instance, Cars
(b) [a phrase] (a group of words without a finite verb). For instance, Fast cars for students…!
(c) [a clause or sentence]. For instance: Students driving fast cars.
(d) [a question]. For instance: Should Secondary School Students Drive Fast Cars?
The choice of whether to use this or that style depends entirely on the candidate and how he wants to tackle the essay before him. But there is one intricate tradition concerning the title of your essay. Before we talk about it, I should first of all want to say that it is important that the title of your essay occupies prime position of your writing paper, that is, the middle or centre of your writing material like this:
SHOULD SECONDARY SCHOOL STUDENTS DRIVE FAST CARS?
Observe that all of the characters in the title above are all in upper case letters. Upper case letters are the ‘capital’ letters of the English alphabet. This is one of the ways that the title of the essay should be written if you are not familiar with the other method where attention is paid to content and structural words. Content words are Nouns, verbs, adjectives, verbs and the personal pronoun ‘I’, while structural words are mostly pronouns, prepositions, articles, demonstratives, interjections and conjunctions. The first letters of any of these words in your essay title are generally written in the lower case while content words are written in the upper case, as you can see with the title of this presentation. But because we know that the candidate has just about enough time to write the essay and not to grapple with the intricacies of deciding which one word is either content or structural, we often advise the candidate to write all the words of the title in upper case and not to underline it. This is because writing the title in upper case is what is referred to as ‘linguistic highlighting’.
Lesson 4: The introductory paragraph / Theme
We refer to the introductory paragraph of your essay as that part that comes immediately after your title. It usually has two parts which are part and parcel of the other- the thesis statement and central idea(s). The thesis statement with the central idea(s) usually should be in the first paragraph of the essay. The thesis statement states what the entire essay is going to be about while the central idea is the glue that holds the various aspects of the topic together. The thesis statement or sentence is the initial statement you make as the theme or what I may refer to loosely as the topic sentence of the entire essay. For instance, if I say that ‘Aaron failed his exams because he was reckless, careless and somewhat indolent’, my thesis sentence or statement in that expression would be, ‘Ade failed his exams…’ Everything about this essay, I expect, would be to tell that ‘Ade failed his exams…’ Thereafter, I should say something or a lot of things concerning his recklessness in paragraph two; paragraph three something or a lot concerning his carelessness while paragraph three should be mostly about his indolence. In most cases however, we do not put these ideas across in this sort of an overt, concise manner. The beauty of your essay may depend on the literary qualities you deploy in the expression of your ideas. In this wise therefore, we should now examine the various ways by which you could begin an essay using indirect, literary methods.
Different ways of writing the introductory paragraph of your essay
You can begin an introductory passage in your essay in any of the following ways:
(i) by a definition of key items
(ii) by a statement of facts and figures
(iii) by an apt quotation either from the Bible, Koran or any document that is authoritative
(iv) by a classification
(v) by telling a short story or creating an analogy.
(vi) by a barrage or a staccato of rhetorical questions
Defining key items: The one advantage in the definition of your key or content words from the onset is that it eliminates ambiguity and establishes your position. It should interest you to know that in the study of Semantics (the study of meaning), seven types of meanings have been identified. A word may have denotative, connotative, idiomatic, conceptual, thematic, associative or literary meanings. For instance, the everyday word ‘spoon’ immediately takes on another toga of meaning with the introduction of the preposition ‘to’ to it as in ‘to spoon’. If you have decided to define any key or content word in your introductory paragraph, please take care to place it in inverted or quotation marks like this, ‘Spoon’ is… only for the first time that you have made a mention of that key or content word. We must also take care to identify the source from which we have gotten a definition. In most cases, definitions are from dictionaries and a good example of how to do this is this: According to the Dictionary of English Language and Culture, ‘spoon’ is … Thereafter, subsequent mention of spoon in the essay may not need this sort of special handling, though we must mention here that definitions are not only done at the beginning of the introductory part of your essay. If there is a need to define technical terms and concepts in the body of the essay, please go right ahead and do so with the suggestion proffered above.
Statement of facts and figures: Facts and figures, hmmm? Yes, facts and figures usually establish what is true and enables the candidates argue their case from a position of truth and what is credible. For instance, a candidate who has to tackle a topic to tackle on terror may begin first of all by defining terror by posing a question on what terror really is and go on ahead to state some of the facts, statistics and figures of September 11, 2001, or the Madrid bombing, or of Al Qaeda or of Osama Bin Laden, or of George Bush and all the others. If a candidate does this, he gives the impression that he is up to date and has an idea of what he wants to say.
An apt quote: Let us assume that the candidate has this as his or her essay question: In what ways do you think music shows the traditions and cultures of a people? To begin the essay with a quote that is supposed to be relevant and authoritative, the candidate has chosen Shakespeare’s famous quote in the lyrical fugue Twelfth Night:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die-
(Act 1. Scene 1)
Now, do you think this is apt? Authoritative it is but apt? The essay that the candidate should write did not say anything about music as having something to do with love but with how music can be a clue in understanding the ways of a people. For this quote to be apt, it must be relevant to the issues raised in the question.
For the quote to be authoritative, it is important that the candidate indicate the relevant source and name of the author he or she has quoted. If the candidate knows the page numbers, he can state them. Doing this reveals something of the precise and scholarly mind of the candidate. However, nothing is as sad as a badly quoted piece of quote - it has the opposite effect of the one that reveals the precise and scholarly mind of the candidate. If the quoted material is from a book, you should italicize the name of the text like Twelfth Night was done right here. If there is no facility for the book or text to be italicized, please do underline the title of the book like this: Twelfth Night. It is the same thing with a poem: poems should be written with open and close quotation marks like this:
“Sonnet to Sleep”.
And we advise that quoted material from a poem should not be more that two to three lines because of the intricacies involved with scholarly writing. A two-line extract or quote from Keats’ ‘Sonnet to Sleep’ in your essay should certainly look like this:
O soft embalmer of the still midnight, / Shutting, with careful fingers and benign…
(elliptical dots… indicating that there are other parts of the poem that you have not mentioned probably because they are not relevant to the essay). So what should we do then in the event that we want to quote but do not have page numbers, exact positions of semi-colons and dashes and the exact lines? We must say then that it is not compulsory that we must quote. Quoting from an authoritative source is just one of the ways a candidate can express his belief and passion in what he wants to say. Otherwise, please do not use quotes. The candidate could paraphrase a quote and play it safe; after all, the entire essay is not about a display of your erudite qualities but on your ability to communicate ideas as easily as possible in English.
By a classification: A lot about your essay may have a taxonomic network. The Dictionary of English Language and Culture defines ‘taxonomy’ as ‘the system or process of putting things, especially, plants and animals, into various classes according to their natural relationships’. We could interpret this to mean that it is possible to classify certain content words or key items in our essay title. For instance, in an essay title that has the key word ‘man’ or ‘car’ or ‘woman’, the candidate may begin by saying (if he is writing something about ‘man’): There are many kinds of men: there are the tall and there are the short; there are the weak and there are the strong; there are the ambitious and there are those who are not ambitious; there are the good and there are the bad; there are introverts and there are extroverts; there are the poor and there are the rich. This essay is about the conditions in my country that make the one a poor man and the other rich. There is an excerpt from Dickens’ A Tale of two Cities that goes thus too: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…
Introducing with an analogy or a short, short story: nearly every story has some didactic implications. When we were children, we read quite a lot about all of those American heroes like Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Batman, Superman, Thor the god of Thunder, all made popular by Marvel Comics and authored by Stan Lee. What we gleaned from those stories was one fundamental enigma of life: good and evil were always fighting. Just at that moment when all seem lost and evil seems to have the upper hand, good triumphs just at the nick of time. It is the same thing with the very short story that you may choose to narrate as your introductory paragraph. What makes this way of introducing your essay unique is that you, the narrator may choose to narrate your story in either one of the narrative techniques there are - the first person (I ) who is really a ventriloquist who throws his ‘voice’ using a fictional character. The advantage here is that by constantly saying, ‘I did this…’ I did that…’ this character unconsciously reveals something of his personality that he or she may not have wanted to reveal to you just like that. Next is the narrative technique known as the ‘Omniscient’ story teller. You, the narrator is in that vantage position of knowing and expressing the thoughts and mindset of the characters because you will keep saying something like, ‘He thought…’, She wondered why…’ and so on. This narrative technique is also known as the third person singular (He, She, It). And lastly there is the dramatic technique on the other hand which combines the qualities inherent in the first person with that of the Omniscient narrator. What you should do here is to present action and dialogue in such a way that the reader is left to himself or herself to unravel the story and make up their mind on issues presented from the action and drama presented by you the writer.
We do not have any advice here concerning the narrative technique you may want to employ in telling that very short story of yours in that first paragraph. The choice is yours, particularly because you are the one telling the story. But we must let you know that most narrative essays or compositions are essays. And like essays, these short stories have these three stages:
(a) a beginning
(b) a middle
(c) and an end
Some stories begin from the beginning. This is called the linear technique where the writer says, ‘Once upon a time, in the deep, dark forests of Uzere…’ But there are others that begin at the middle and this is known as the Medias Rex, where the hero experiences some sort of grass-to-grace or grace-to- grass kind of experience. The writer establishes cohesion to the story by using flashback, taking us to the beginning of things that were heretofore not mentioned from the beginning probably for effect. Lastly, accomplished writers actually begin a story right from the end of things and intricately weave a thread that connects from the middle to the beginning and then to the end. For a very short story in your introductory paragraph in your SAT Essay, we would not recommend that you do this. We advise against this because even very accomplished writers have been caught in the intricate web they tried to weave and have had to resort to the odd Deus ex machina - the introduction of a god or something totally unexpected in trying to resolve and fine-tune their story.
A barrage and staccato of questions
The whole of the introductory paragraph can comprise only questions, questions, questions and questions, each one coming after the other and linked thematically. The reasons we advise that you do this include the following: first a question is a statement or is an assertion turned inside out. Quirk et all, (1973:24) recognizes that sentences are made up of assertions and non-assertions. Assertions are either positive or declarative, but non-assertions are interrogative and negative. If that is the case then, when we ask questions we are in fact making assertions and the manner we ask the questions, centering them around the subject matter and key items mostly gives a clue to the theme(s) of the essay. Second, we advise that in less obvious a manner as possible, you should answer all of the questions you posed in the first paragraph in the successive ones. What this means is that if there are say four, five, six questions in the introductory paragraph, the whole of your essay should be something equal to four or five paragraphs providing answers or a response to the questions that you posed. To answer or respond to the questions in the introductory paragraph should not be too difficult a thing to do: simply use any of the methods of beginning an introductory paragraph to begin your paragraphs.
The various methods highlighted here as ways to begin an introductory paragraph can also be used to begin paragraphs in the body of the essay. For instance, if the candidate has defined what a spoon is in his introductory paragraph, I do not see why he or she should not ask this question as the topic sentence of his or her second paragraph, ‘What really are the uses of the silver spoon?’, and go on to tell a short, very short story of maybe six lines in the third paragraph as a way of giving support to his first and second paragraphs.
At this point also, we must insist that the student should know what a paragraph is. Over the years, I have found out that a great many of them have no idea what the paragraph is and what they think it is, is something completely alien to accepted standards of paragraphing. Some say that the paragraph must be this and not that length and if it is not this or that length, it ceases to be a paragraph.
For the purposes of definitions, a paragraph is a unit of speech or thought. It expresses a dominant or lesser idea. If that is the case, then we must also bear it in mind that the introductory paragraph is not often limited by any space or length. What determines what you say in the introductory paragraph is what you want to say and the style you employ. While I concede that the introductory paragraph must not be unnecessary long or short it must not, at the same time, be restricted to a number of sentences as some students have told me they were ‘reliably’ taught. Therefore, choosing to use any of the openings suggested above, one must be mindful that that method you have chosen can determine the length or otherwise of your paragraph. SAT/TOEFL questions are constructed in different ways probably based on the premise that no two students are ever alike, and I should like to suggest that they can be answered in the many different ways that students and candidates are seen as different.
Lesson Five: Body of the Essay
In the previous paper (Clinching a scholarship via the SAT) cited in the first paragraph of this essay, we stated that the College Board and Educational Testing Service, ETS, want to see how you have used the following in your essay:
[a] preference of words,
[b] Sentence structure,
[c] Organization of your paragraphs,
[d] and idea development.
We attempted to explain what all of this rubric stood for, but there is another factor that we did not mention and this was mostly because it was irrelevant at that point in time. But now we must say that our choice of choice words; our simple manipulation of simple, complex, compound and compound-complex sentences; our attempt to develop our ideas by whatever means will amount to puerile writing if we do not substantiate a lot of the things we say. For instance, a certain student of mine wrote what may be considered a good enough essay on the importance of sports in a school’s curriculum. However, it was devoid of copious examples, instances, personal stories and faction (stories which are a combination of reality and of the imagination). That brought his score down. The examples and instances that are present in an essay represent the fibre and muscle attached to the skeletal framework of word choice, sentence structure and organization. Let me reiterate that any essay for the SAT/TOEFL that has little or no instances or examples to buttress the topic sentences in each paragraph may not make a good impression on the College Board or the ETS assessors. Always give, give and give examples. Give instances; cite occasions whether real or imagined that have relevance with the direction your essay goes.
The essay component of the SAT accounts for about 30% of the entire exam. Each section has a score of 800 and an overall cumulative score of 2,400. To score a high enough mark to qualify for a scholarship means that your scores in the Math and Verbal sections are very good. But getting high enough scores in the Math and Verbal without a corresponding high enough score in the essay may not get you close to a scholarship. Wouldn’t you rather score good marks in your Math and Verbal and score very high in your essay and clinch a scholarship in the bargain?
The TOEFL on the other hand has several sections – and each section scores exactly the same marks as the other. The sections are reading comprehension [which involves about 40 questions after the candidate reads a passage and responds to questions], listening comprehension [which involves listening to dialogues, classroom lectures on technical areas like biology, archeology etcetera, and responding to questions], speaking [using a microphone to discuss six different familiar and unfamiliar topics], and the writing task. Because the writing section is significant to this book, we shall expand its discussion.
The analyses of text that follows this discussion is an example of the growth and development that should take place if a student has a willingness to learn and the humility to accept and apply corrections. It is with his permission that I have reproduced what transpired in the sessions that I had with him in a three-month preparatory class we had for the October 14, 2006 SAT exam. Ordinarily, if he took the test without the guidance of a tutor, he could have scored about three or four marks over six (the highest score band for the TOEFL) or scored a mere six over twelve (the highest score band for the SAT essay). But as you would see from the essays he wrote in our classes, there was a gradual transformation from a raw, trite and superficial analysis of contemporary social and political issues to a confident and matured approach to the questions raised in the TOEFL or SAT bulletins, that got him close to the highest score band for the TOEFL and something in the region of nine or ten for the SAT.
The standards that we applied in the assessment of his essays are the standards that the assessors for the College Board and ETS would. In deciding whether or not a student or candidate qualified to be rated for the highest band for either the SAT/TOEFL, an assessor would have to make that decision if he is able to satisfy himself that the essay:
- effectively addresses the writing topic
- is well organized and well developed
- uses clearly appropriate details to support a thesis or illustrate ideas.
- Displays consistent facility in the use of language
- Demonstrates syntactic variety and appropriate word choice despite occasional errors.
At the initial stages of the course, the student was given an orientation on what it takes to be calm before, during and after either his exam. Pretty much of what he was told is summarized in this essay by the author:
What it means to be calm before the SAT/TOEFL…
This section discusses what it really means to be calm and collected before you go for the SAT/TOEFL test or any examination. In this case, our focus is on the SAT and TOEFL tests. A lot of the time, the College Board in its bulletin or website admonishes that the candidate not fret unnecessarily, that they should take a good night’s rest and arrive early on the day of the examination. These are valid suggestions anyone wanting to write the TOEFL or SAT particularly must heed. At the same time however, it is important that we clarify what we mean when we tell our candidates to be calm before a near syllabus-less an exam like the SAT/TOEFL.
What does it really mean to be calm before an examination like the SAT or TOEFL? I concede this is a difficult question to tackle exhaustively mostly because there are several ways a candidate could maintain the sort of stability and composure that is necessary to carry him through the test. While some are involved in breathing exercises that ordinarily should bring down and regulate their blood pressure on account of their ‘anxiety quotient’ ( Fry, 1996), others do a one-minute prayer or recite some religious mantra or chant. All of these and the many more not mentioned here could just make up that one-percent that may contribute to your state of collectedness in the course of that exam. But that is not what this essay is about. Doing your breathing exercises or reciting from religious books cannot be substitute for the sort of calmness you exude from being prepared for the exam.
Let me say it quickly that being calm before your SAT exam or any other exam for that matter is another way of asking you to go there prepared. I do not know what to say to anyone who would encourage our kids to go up there with a laissez-faire attitude mostly because of the fact that the exam is a test of the totality of your personality and that it is no big deal if they work hard at it or not, or to those who would tell the kids that they may not bother to engage tutors, counselors as guides and academic chaperons and that they should embark on a do-it-yourself plan. For instance, I have written a couple of essays on how a candidate could tackle the SAT essay. Now a candidate who decides to apply some of the suggestions I put forward in my essay would still need a tutor or a counselor to look at those essays that the candidate has written regularly to tidy the rough edges of his essay.
Now what does it mean to be prepared for the SAT or TOEFL? It could mean a couple of things. It could mean knowing exactly what you want with the SAT, knowing what it is you are up against, knowing exactly what to study and giving it your best shot. By that I mean that you must have the right mental and psychological and sometimes spiritual frame and disposition for the exam. Some of the students that I came across did not really know what the SAT exam is and or what the acronym, ‘SAT’ stood for. Some were in the classes because their friends were taking SAT classes and they had to take the classes too. While some were not sure if they should write the SAT or TOEFL, others just took both exams and took the whole exercise for granted.
Perhaps I should tell you my cousin’s story. I hope it may be a good example of how being prepared and being calm before an exam are related. The whole thing began when he was in secondary school, what Americans and some of you elsewhere in Europe may refer to as ‘high school’. He didn’t have any elder brothers or sisters who had gone to school before him to act as guides, neither were there friends in his neighbourhood who had passed through the educational system. But because he was an average student, he got to senior grade without even knowing that he had gotten there. When it was time to select or choose to be either an Arts or Science inclined a student, he had no idea what to do. At the end, he found himself taking classes both in the Sciences and Arts. He told me that he remembered quite vividly the day he wrote a practical Chemistry paper. He said that he had no idea what the whole exam was about and he merely wrote down a fellow candidate’s answers. Of course, he failed all of the science subjects. By the time he got home and the results were out, he found himself in a fix because he found out he had passed a paper here and a paper there, without the required combination of subjects to get into university or do something else with his life.
Quite by chance, he began studying for his ‘A’ level. The kid upstairs who was attending classes in a prep school for his Higher School Certificate exams always won the arguments on politics and because he was stuck at home because of his incomplete result, he pressured his Dad to enroll him for the Higher School Certificate. He did. This time however, he told me he knew what he was up against because: one, he made friends who guided him at specific points. Two, there were subjects that he didn’t take at O level classes that he had to grapple with at advanced level. Three, instead of the normal two years that he should study for the advanced level programme, he opted to do a one-year crash programme because of the time he had wasted at home.
At last, we both got into university to study English. According to him, he said he assumed that a course in English at University may not be much more than essay writing, compositions, novel reading and that was mostly because he did not do his own research to find out what he was up against. And then the surprises came in rapid succession – there was phonetics, there was grammar, there was drama, there was poetry, there was syntax, there was morphology, there was semantics, there was etymology, there was linguistics and there was a deluge of courses he’d never before heard about. And then when it was time for the exams, you needed to have seen him on that day: I was sitting at the back of the class but I could see him thrashing about, looking helplessly to my course mates for help but none came. He sat in front, right in front of the exam supervisor and she kept glaring at him, warning him to behave. That seemed to have done it for my cousin. After the whole of the exams, I didn’t see him at all during the holidays. Worried somewhat, I visited his home and what I saw was amazing. Ono [for that is his name] was researching: he was digging and diving very deep. He researched and he scratched. He spoke with some of our seniors living in my neighbourhood, and most of the time he was hardly home: if he was not in the local library, he was in the primary school close by or you could find him playing football or soccer in the evenings.
For me however, I made sure that I studied by day, at least three hours and slept at night. I played around and hung out when I wanted to but I never forgot to put in my mandatory three hours daily, no matter what happened. I spent time at the library also and played football with Ono sometimes. And when it was time for the second semester exams, I didn’t need to stress myself unnecessarily because I had covered enough grounds and I took care not be bored. Throughout the entire exam from that second semester until we both graduated, we always took a walk in the large exam hall, the rule being that we were not expected to leave until it was thirty minutes before the end of each exam. We took a walk not because we wanted to show off but we both began to find out that the exams were not that much of a bother if we prepared well. Therefore, preparing well has a certain symbiotic relationship with your being calm in an examination: you will be calm if you prepare well and you may not be calm if you are not prepared. I do not see how a candidate could be calm if he or she is not ready. I guess taking a walk in an exam hall merely shows that I may have been calm and collected before, during and after the tests. I want to suggest that same formulae for preparation for the SAT.
Let me also summarize by relying on Fry’s, Pass Any Test. Focus on the exam. Have some perspective. Study smart: at home, at the lib. Mix with friends who are writing the same exam. Create time for your own study. Plan. Sleep. Don’t cram much. Put in at least three hours daily. For the essays, think before you ink. These are sensible suggestions and I should add that it is only after you have done all of these that you could calm the butterflies in your tummy by either doing a breathing exercise or saying a prayer.
Lesson 6: Textual Analysis
What follows are ordinary examples of students that wrote to specification with the instructions that are in this essay guide. We prepared both of them, one for the TOEFL in 2005 and the other for the SAT in 2006. We are not in any position however to present an analysis of the notes of the SAT student in 2005 even though she was the one who went ahead to clinch a scholarship via her essay score of ten over twelve. But the TOEFL kid of 2005 (Wumideke Adewumi), together with the SAT kid of 2006, (Joseph Isiramen), gave permission for us to scan and reproduce the notes they took in my classes.
The first thing we did was to find out what both students knew about English grammar. We did this because we knew that an understanding of the rudiments of grammar goes a long way in a candidate’s ability to write a really good essay. From what I observed from the assignments on grammar, the candidates were familiar with their verbs and nouns and with the secondary functions of the ‘parts of speech’. But before the introduction to the parts of the essay, there were classes on the elements of grammar and which formed an integral part of the essay writing process for both the SAT and TOEFL exams. A lot of what is to be tested on the body of the essay is grammar and how well the candidate can use grammar to construct the language of his essay depends on how much of grammar the candidate is familiar with. There were other parts of speech like the demonstratives and articles of English that both students were not that familiar with but which we dealt with in these essay writing classes. These classes however, were not a substitute for the compulsory classes that students take when preparing for either their TOEFL or SAT exams.
Next thing that the candidates were asked to do is to learn to write about ten different titles for only one essay title. As we have already discussed above, we ask the students to do this only in class because we want them to realize a couple of things. The first is that the title of the essay is of prime relevance to the essay. Secondly, we made them realize that the essay title is actually embedded in the essay question that would be set on the day of the exam. The bottom line here is that there must be a relationship between the scope and content of the potential essay. The student in question found it a little difficult at first to do this. In the following question, she was asked to write about ten different titles for this question: Your school just won ten million naira in a debate competition. How do you think that this money should be spent? Support your answer with relevant examples. This candidate responded by writing ten different essays with only one title. When at last it became clear that this was not what we meant, her response much later were six titles thus:
- Debate competition
- Your school
- Prize won
- N10 million that is won…
- How to spend the money
- My thought concerning the spending of our prize.
Of course the first two titles (Debate competition and your school) were inconsistent with the scope and content of what was expected of the candidate even though the remaining we tentatively accepted as correct. With a lot of practice however, the candidates were able to come to terms with the title-crafting skill and to write relevant titles that reflected how much they understood the question.
The next stage was to learn to write one-paragraph essays. I remember way back in school: we were made to write these ‘annoying’ one-paragraph essays even when we seem to have so much to say. What the one-paragraph essays did to us was to make us remain focused and stay within the circumference of the assigned essay topic. With one-paragraph essays, the candidate learns to be finicky with words though the biggest deal here is that we were able to use these one-paragraph essays to introduce the candidates to the indispensability of the introductory paragraph, with its twin components of thesis statement(s) and central idea(s). The thesis statement, as we said in the main portion of this study, mostly tells what the writer wants to say, what the readers should expect in the body of the essay and goes right ahead to say it. We say that the central idea (s) is the glue that cements the thesis statement together. To make the candidates come to terms with this, we made it compulsory that they write seven different introductory paragraphs using several titles. Here is what one of the candidates came up with:
The raw scores here actually gave me the confidence to assume that the candidates finally the skill and the level-headedness to construct and manage their introductory paragraphs. At this point, we felt that it was time for them to endeavour to write full-blown essays on any assigned topic. What you will find from this point on are some of the essays one of them, Wumideke Akinwumi wrote. The way we did this is present a topic to the whole class. We would either discuss it, research or brainstorm on it first of all before they wrote their essays or we brainstormed, discussed after they had written the essays and had been graded between three to four marks out of six. Because our target was the prime score, we did not leave any stone unearthed while conducting research on most of the topics. Our hope was that by randomly picking the essay questions from the beginning, middle and end from the specimen questions we shall leave at the end of this book, one or two of them may just show up at the test. Otherwise, they were to go right ahead and write their essays with the skills they had honed in class. There was one other thing: our students were exposed to other specimen essays that were graded by the Princeton Review as being of very high quality and awarded premium marks despite the fact that some were either too short in terms of length, or had no thesis statements or that nearly all of them had no titles before the introductory paragraphs.
Before the candidates took the tests, it was already obvious that they would produce premium results. If you look closely at these scanned notes taken in our classes, you will find out that we were already grading their essays 5.5 or sometimes an outright score of six. Here then are some of the aforesaid results for both the SAT (which score was ten over twelve) and the TOEFL with the premium essay scores of six.
We shall begin from here to present scanned notes of our October 2006 SAT student with his very first essay. My analysis will follow at the end of this and subsequent marked specimen notes:
If you look at the first page of this essay, you would discover that the student wrote down the essay question on his answer sheet. Please be advised that this is not proper a thing to do. The answer sheet is answer sheet and not a question sheet and I suggest that it should be used for that purpose. Apart from that, there will hardly be enough time in this exam for you to say all that you want to express. So why waste time writing down a question on the answer sheet before answering that same question?
The reason you see a lot of ‘goods!’ in this first essay is because the student was actually articulate in attending to the topic or subject matter of the essay he wrote. Another reason is that I wanted to encourage him to bring out the best in him by being enthusiastic about his initial attempt. But there are many flaws with the technical accuracy of the essay. First, the student did not write to instruction: he was specifically asked not to underline the topic of any essay carelessly, but he did; he was asked to write block paragraphs, that is, he should leave a space between the title and between paragraphs but he didn’t. See the way he wrote ‘someone’ as ‘some one’, ‘do not’ as ‘donot’, his use of the plural demonstrative item ‘these’ instead of ‘this’. But all of this did not bother me at first because I was doing progressive marking and I wanted to recognize his strengths first of all instead of focusing on his weaknesses: he had very legible handwriting and was enthusiastic about the class, thus making him very teachable.
Now, let us see how he fared with the other essays:
The biggest problem with this essay is that it does not effectively address the subject matter, together with the fact that there are a lot of errors with spelling. For ‘thatched’, he used ‘tatched’; for ‘fronds’, he used ‘fronts’; for ‘traditionally’ he used ‘traddditionally’. The candidate displayed confusion with the verb to be ‘were’ and with the adjective ‘where’. He still has a problem with syllabification, that situation that made it a little incongruous for the student if he does not realize that breaking monosyllables, disyllables at the end of a line of continuous writing is wrong. But note that he has adjusted in the arrangement and development of his paragraphs – they are blocked and easy to read. Apart from that, they represent distinct units of expression of a sub-idea in the development of his dominant idea. Despite the fact that his thesis statement does not shake the earth, there are signals that he knows what he should do and would soon get it right pretty soon.
The essay’s title is the first problem: whenever we write descriptive essays, we make sure we mention the names of actual or fictional locations and names of the characters in the essay. The biggest problem here is that candidates are wont to poke their heads in the clouds and document all that their eyes see in their clouds instead of paying only close attention to the what, the why, the why, the what and the when. His strength however is that he discussed a little of what we could see as his dominant impression of that marriage custom at the end of the essay.
Despite the fact that the thesis took some shape with the candidate trying to define his key term ‘marriage’, he spoilt it up by quoting from the Bible rather carelessly by not identifying where it is in the Bible he picked up that quote. Refer to and paraphrase important documents like the Bible but if you must quote, it must be done by the book.
The candidate is still unable to manage punctuation marks, spelling and syntax. Mechanically, he is still very weak and this negatively impacts on his score. What we did in this was to pass him through a dictation and spelling drill.
Yes, the candidate admitted that he was a little distracted. He said that most of the things I had taught him and insisted upon were totally alien to him. In the next essay he wrote however, he seemed to have regained his composure somewhat : he almost applied all the rules I had insisted upon from the onset : he used block paragraphs from the beginning till the end of his essay and made his work a bit neat: he was not canceling and breaking words at the end of a line of continuous writing as he was wont, his spellings were near accurate, and he seemed to have gotten a grip on the subject matter and on himself in the articulation of his subject matter. Even though he still wrote certain words as compound words (‘goodhealth’, ‘doesnot’), we had gotten to that stage in the guidelines set out by the College Board that a candidate for a good score ‘demonstrates syntactic variety and appropriate word choice despite occasional errors’.
Here, juxtapose this essay above with these other ones below and beneath it (WHY STUDENTS SHOULD ATTEND CLASSES ’, ‘WHY PROGRESS IS GOOD’, etcetera) and it may become clear that the candidate now seemingly knows what he should do to realize maximum points in the essay-writing component of his SAT or TOEFL exam.
At this stage of the candidate’s progress with me in the essay writing classes, it is now possible to grade him now not in the raw scores that he was earlier graded, but with actual TOEFL or SAT grades. What we decided to do from the onset is that we were not interested in scoring anything less than maximum or premium score for both exams. We also set out to make it possible for him to internalize an inbuilt sensibility and psyche that can respond to any of the essay questions he may be confronted with when he gets to university and either needs to write a term paper or enter for essay-based scholarship competitions. At this stage, we were sure that the following essays could be graded by any SAT or TOEFL assessor anywhere in the world and found to have met nearly all of the criteria stipulated by the College Board as follows:
- effectively addresses the writing topic
- are well organized and well developed
- uses clearly appropriate details to support a thesis or illustrate ideas.
- displays some consistent facility in the use of language
- demonstrates significant syntactic variety and appropriate word choice in spite of occasional errors.
The essay writing topics presented here are not ordinary specimen questions. They are in fact, actual questions from which the Educational Testing Service will choose from to test your essay writing skills and from where they begin to judge you for scholarship. The one question you will be asked on that day of your exam is right here and our advice to you here is: write as many as you could, selecting your topics from the beginning, middle and end of the specimen questions in a random order. Get somebody who knows about the TOEFL to read, mark, assess and provide for you very honest advice. The candidate too, who is interested in the Cambridge Ordinary level exams will do very well to attend to a lot of the questions on these pages. The same goes for the SAT candidate.
LIKELY ESSAY TOPICS FOR THE TOEFL/SAT
Topics in the following list may appear in your actual test. You should become familiar with this list before you take the computer-based TOEFL test. Remember that when you take the test you will not have a choice of topics. You must write only on the topic that is assigned to you.
People attend college or university for many different reasons (for example, new experiences, career preparation, and increased knowledge). Why do you think people attend college or university? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Parents are the best teachers. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Nowadays, food has become easier to prepare. Has this change improved the way people live? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
It has been said, “Not everything that is learned is contained in books.” Compare and contrast knowledge gained from experience with knowledge gained from books. In your opinion, which source is more important? Why?
A company has announced that it wishes to build a large factory near your community. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this new influence on your community. Do you support or oppose the factory? Explain your position.
If you could change one important thing about your hometown, what would you change? Use reasons and specific examples to support your answer.
How do movies or television influence people’s behavior? Use reasons and specific examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Television has destroyed communication among friends and family. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Some people prefer to live in a small town. Others prefer to live in a big city. Which place would you prefer to live in? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
“When people succeed, it is because of hard work. Luck has nothing to do with success.” Do you agree or disagree with the quotation above? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your position.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Universities should give the same amount of money to their students’ sports activities as they give to their university libraries. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Many people visit museums when they travel to new places. Why do you think people visit museums? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people prefer to eat at food stands or restaurants. Other people prefer to prepare and eat food at home. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people believe that university students should be required to attend classes. Others believe that going to classes should be optional for students. Which point of view do you agree with? Use specific reasons and details to explain your answer.
Neighbors are the people who live near us. In your opinion, what are the qualities of a good neighbor? Use specific details and examples in your answer.
It has recently been announced that a new restaurant may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Some people think that they can learn better by themselves than with a teacher. Others think that it is always better to have a teacher. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons to develop your essay.
What are some important qualities of a good supervisor (boss)? Use specific details and examples to explain why these qualities are important.
Should governments spend more money on improving roads and highways, or should governments spend more money on improving public transportation (buses, trains, subways)? Why? Use specific reasons and details to develop your essay.
It is better for children to grow up in the countryside than in a big city. Do you agree or disagree? Use specific reasons and examples to develop your essay.
In general, people are living longer now. Discuss the causes of this phenomenon. Use specific reasons and details to develop your essay.
We all work or will work in our jobs with many different kinds of people. In your opinion, what are some important characteristics of a co-worker (someone you work closely with)? Use reasons and specific examples to explain why these characteristics are important.
In some countries, teenagers have jobs while they are still students. Do you think this is a good idea? Support your opinion by using specific reasons and details.
A person you know is planning to move to your town or city. What do you think this person would like and dislike about living in your town or city? Why? Use specific reasons and details to develop your essay.
It has recently been announced that a large shopping center may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
It has recently been announced that a new movie theater may be built in your neighborhood. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? People should sometimes do things that they do not enjoy doing. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Television, newspapers, magazines, and other media pay too much attention to the personal lives of famous people such as public figures and celebrities. Use specific reasons and details to explain your opinion.
Some people believe that the Earth is being harmed (damaged) by human activity. Others feel that human activity makes the Earth a better place to live. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
It has recently been announced that a new high school may be built in your community. Do you support or oppose this plan? Why? Use specific reasons and details in your answer.
Some people spend their entire lives in one place. Others move a number of times throughout their lives, looking for a better job, house, community, or even climate. Which do you prefer: staying in one place or moving in search of another place? Use reasons and specific examples to support your opinion.
Is it better to enjoy your money when you earn it or is it better to save your money for some time in the future? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
You have received a gift of money. The money is enough to buy either a piece of jewelry you like or tickets to a concert you want to attend. Which would you buy? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Businesses should hire employees for their entire lives. Do you agree or disagree? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Attending a live performance (for example, a play, concert, or sporting event) is more enjoyable than watching the same event on television. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Choose one of the following transportation vehicles and explain why you think it has changed people’s lives.
• airplanes. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree that progress is always good? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Learning about the past has no value for those of us living in the present. Do you agree or disagree? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? With the help of technology, students nowadays can learn more information and learn it more quickly. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
The expression “Never, never give up” means to keep trying and never stop working for your goals. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people think that human needs for farmland, housing, and industry are more important than saving land for endangered animals. Do you agree or disagree with this point of view? Why or why not? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
What is a very important skill a person should learn in order to be successful in the world today? Choose one skill and use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Why do you think some people are attracted to dangerous sports or other dangerous activities? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people like to travel with a companion. Other people prefer to travel alone. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Some people prefer to get up early in the morning and start the day’s work. Others prefer to get up later in the day and work until late at night. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
What are the important qualities of a good son or daughter? Have these qualities changed or remained the same over time in your culture? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people prefer to work for a large company. Others prefer to work for a small company. Which would you prefer? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
People work because they need money to live. What are some other reasons that people work? Discuss one or more of these reasons. Use specific examples and details to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Face-to-face communication is better than other types of communication, such as letters, email, or telephone calls. Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Some people like to do only what they already do well. Other people prefer to try new things and take risks. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Some people believe that success in life comes from taking risks or chances. Others believe that success results from careful planning. In your opinion, what does success come from? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
What change would make your hometown more appealing to people your age? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? The most important aspect of a job is the money a person earns. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? One should never judge a person by external appearances. Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? A person should never make an important decision alone. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
A company is going to give some money either to support the arts or to protect the environment. Which do you think the company should choose? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some movies are serious, designed to make the audience think. Other movies are designed primarily to amuse and entertain. Which type of movie do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Businesses should do anything they can to make a profit. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.
Some people are always in a hurry to go places and get things done. Other people prefer to take their time and live life at a slower pace. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Games are as important for adults as they are for children. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Parents or other adult relatives should make important decisions for their older (15 to 18 year-old) teenage children. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
What do you want most in a friend — someone who is intelligent, or someone who has a sense of humor, or someone who is reliable?
Which one of these characteristics is most important to you? Use reasons and specific examples to explain your choice.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Most experiences in our lives that seemed difficult at the time become valuable lessons for the future. Use reasons and specific examples to support our answer.
Some people prefer to work for themselves or own a business.
Others prefer to work for an employer. Would you rather be self-employed, work for someone else, or own a business? Use specific reasons to explain your choice.
Should a city try to preserve its old, historic buildings or destroy them and replace them with modern buildings? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Classmates are a more important influence than parents on a child’s success in school. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
If you were an employer, which kind of worker would you prefer to hire: an inexperienced worker at a lower salary or an experienced worker at a higher salary? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Many teachers assign homework to students every day. Do you think that daily homework is necessary for students? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
If you could study a subject that you have never had the opportunity to study, what would you choose? Explain your choice, using specific reasons and details.
Some people think that the automobile has improved modern life.
Others think that the automobile has caused serious problems. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Which would you choose: a high-paying job with long hours that would give you little time with family and friends or a lower-paying job with shorter hours that would give you more time with family and friends?
Explain your choice, using specific reasons and details.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Grades (marks) encourage students to learn. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Some people say that computers have made life easier and more convenient. Other people say that computers have made life more complex and stressful. What is your opinion? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? The best way to travel is in a group led by a tour guide. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some universities require students to take classes in many subjects. Other universities require students to specialize in one subject. Which is better?
Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Children should begin learning a foreign language as soon as they start school.
Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Boys and girls should attend separate schools. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Is it more important to be able to work with a group of people on a team or to work independently? Use reasons and specific examples to support your answer.
Your city has decided to build a statue or monument to honor a famous person in your country. Who would you choose? Use reasons and specific examples to support your choice.
Describe a custom from your country that you would like people from other countries to adopt. Explain your choice, using specific reasons and examples.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Technology has made the world a better place to live. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Advertising can tell you a lot about a country. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Modern technology is creating a single world culture. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Some people say that the Internet provides people with a lot of valuable information. Others think access to so much information creates problems. Which view do you agree with? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
A foreign visitor has only one day to spend in your country. Where should this visitor go on that day? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
If you could go back to some time and place in the past, when and where would you go? Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
What discovery in the last 100 years has been most beneficial for people in your country? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Telephones and email have made communication between people less personal. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
If you could travel back in time to meet a famous person from history, what person would you like to meet? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
If you could meet a famous entertainer or athlete, who would that be, and why? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
If you could ask a famous person one question, what would you ask?
Why? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Some people prefer to live in places that have the same weather or climate all year long. Others like to live in areas where the weather changes several times a year. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Many students have to live with roommates while going to school or university. What are some of the important qualities of a good roommate? Use specific reasons and examples to explain why these qualities are important.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Dancing plays an important role in a culture. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people think governments should spend as much money as possible exploring outer space (for example, traveling to the Moon and to other planets). Other people disagree and think governments should spend this money for our basic needs on Earth. Which of these two opinions do you agree with? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
People have different ways of escaping the stress and difficulties of modern life. Some read; some exercise; others work in their gardens. What do you think are the best ways of reducing stress? Use specific details and examples in your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Teachers should be paid according to how much their students learn. Give specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
If you were asked to send one thing representing your country to an international exhibition, what would you choose? Why? Use specific reasons and details to explain your choice.
You have been told that dormitory rooms at your university must be shared by two students. Would you rather have the university assign a student to share a room with you, or would you rather choose your own roommate? Use specific reasons and details to explain your answer.
Some people think that governments should spend as much money as possible on developing or buying computer technology. Other people disagree and think that this money should be spent on more basic needs. Which one of these opinions do you agree with? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
Some people like doing work by hand. Others prefer using machines.
Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Schools should ask students to evaluate their teachers. Do you agree or disagree? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
In your opinion, what is the most important characteristic (for example, honesty, intelligence, a sense of humor) that a person can have to be successful in life? Use specific reasons and examples from your experience to explain your answer. When you write your answer, you are not limited to the examples listed in the question.
It is generally agreed that society benefits from the work of its members. Compare the contributions of artists to society with the contributions of scientists to society. Which type of contribution do you think is valued more by your society? Give specific reasons to support your answer.
Students at universities often have a choice of places to live. They may choose to live in university dormitories, or they may choose to live in apartments in the community. Compare the advantages of living in university housing with the advantages of living in an apartment in the community. Where would you prefer to live? Give reasons for your preference.
You need to travel from your home to a place 40 miles (64 kilometers) away. Compare the different kinds of transportation you could use. Tell which method of travel you would choose. Give specific reasons for your choice.
Some people believe that a college or university education should be available to all students. Others believe that higher education should be available only to good students. Discuss these views. Which view do you agree with? Explain why.
Some people believe that the best way of learning about life is by listening to the advice of family and friends. Other people believe that the best way of learning about life is through personal experience. Compare the advantages of these two different ways of learning about life. Which do you think is preferable? Use specific examples to support your preference.
When people move to another country, some of them decide to follow the customs of the new country. Others prefer to keep their own customs.
Compare these two choices. Which one do you prefer? Support your answer with specific details.
Some people prefer to spend most of their time alone. Others like to be with friends most of the time. Do you prefer to spend your time alone or with friends? Use specific reasons to support your answer.
Some people prefer to spend time with one or two close friends. Others choose to spend time with a large number of friends. Compare the advantages of each choice. Which of these two ways of spending time do you prefer? Use specific reasons to support your answer.
Some people think that children should begin their formal education at a very early age and should spend most of their time on school studies. Others believe that young children should spend most of their time playing. Compare these two views. Which view do you agree with? Why?
The government has announced that it plans to build a new university.
Some people think that your community would be a good place to locate the university. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of establishing a new university in your community. Use specific details in your discussion.
Some people think that the family is the most important influence on young adults. Other people think that friends are the most important influence on young adults. Which view do you agree with? Use examples to support your position.
Some people prefer to plan activities for their free time very carefully.
Others choose not to make any plans at all for their free time. Compare the benefits of planning free-time activities with the benefits of not making plans. Which do you prefer — planning or not planning for your leisure time? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your choice.
People learn in different ways. Some people learn by doing things; other people learn by reading about things; others learn by listening to people talk about things. Which of these methods of learning is best for you? Use specific examples to support your choice.
Some people choose friends who are different from themselves. Others choose friends who are similar to themselves. Compare the advantages of having friends who are different from you with the advantages of having friends who are similar to you. Which kind of friend do you prefer for yourself? Why?
Some people enjoy change, and they look forward to new experiences. Others like their lives to stay the same, and they do not change their usual habits. Compare these two approaches to life. Which approach do you prefer? Explain why.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? People behave differently when they wear different clothes. Do you agree that different clothes influence the way people behave? Use specific examples to support your answer.
Decisions can be made quickly, or they can be made after careful thought. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
The decisions that people make quickly are always wrong. Use reasons and specific examples to support your opinion.
Some people trust their first impressions about a person’s character because they believe these judgments are generally correct. Other people do not judge a person’s character quickly because they believe first impressions are often wrong. Compare these two attitudes. Which attitude do you agree with? Support your choice with specific examples.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? People are never satisfied with what they have; they always want something more or something different. Use specific reasons to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? People should read only those books that are about real events, real people, and established facts. Use specific reasons and details to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is more important for students to study history and literature than it is for them to study science and mathematics. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? All students should be required to study art and music in secondary school. Use specific reasons to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? There is nothing that young people can teach older people. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Reading fiction (such as novels and short stories) is more enjoyable than watching movies.
Use specific reasons and examples to explain your position.
Some people say that physical exercise should be a required part of every school day. Other people believe that students should spend the whole school day on academic studies. Which opinion do you agree with? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
A university plans to develop a new research center in your country. Some people want a center for business research. Other people want a center for research in agriculture (farming). Which of these two kinds of research centers do you recommend for your country? Use specific reasons in your recommendation.
Some young children spend a great amount of their time practicing sports. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Only people who earn a lot of money are successful. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
If you could invent something new, what product would you develop? Use specific details to explain why this invention is needed.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? A person’s childhood years (the time from birth to twelve years of age) are the most important years of a person’s life. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Children should be required to help with household tasks as soon as they are able to do so. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some high schools require all students to wear school uniforms. Other high schools permit students to decide what to wear to school. Which of these two school policies do you think is better? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Playing a game is fun only when you win. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? High schools should allow students to study the courses that students want to study. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? It is better to be a member of a group than to be the leader of a group. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
What do you consider to be the most important room in a house? Why is this room more important to you than any other room? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Some items (such as clothes or furniture) can be made by hand or by machine. Which do you prefer — items made by hand or items made by machine? Use reasons and specific examples to explain your choice.
If you could make one important change in a school that you attended, what change would you make? Use reasons and specific examples to support your answer.
A gift (such as a camera, a soccer ball, or an animal) can contribute to a child’s development. What gift would you give to help a child develop? Why? Use reasons and specific examples to support your choice.
Some people believe that students should be given one long vacation each year. Others believe that students should have several short vacations throughout the year. Which viewpoint do you agree with? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Would you prefer to live in a traditional house or in a modern apartment building? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
Some people say that advertising encourages us to buy things we really do not need. Others say that advertisements tell us about new products that may improve our lives. Which viewpoint do you agree with? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some people prefer to spend their free time outdoors. Other people prefer to spend their leisure time indoors. Would you prefer to be outside or would you prefer to be inside for your leisure activities? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your choice.
Your school has received a gift of money. What do you think is the best way for your school to spend this money? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Playing games teaches us about life. Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Imagine that you have received some land to use as you wish. How would you use this land? Use specific details to explain your answer.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Watching television is bad for children. Use specific details and examples to support your answer.
What is the most important animal in your country? Why is the animal important? Use reasons and specific details to explain your answer.
Many parts of the world are losing important natural resources, such as forests, animals, or clean water. Choose one resource that is disappearing and explain why it needs to be saved. Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? A zoo has no useful purpose. Use specific reasons and examples to explain your answer.
In some countries, people are no longer allowed to smoke in many public places and office buildings. Do you think this is a good rule or a bad rule? Use specific reasons and details to support your position.
Plants can provide food, shelter, clothing, or medicine. What is one kind of plant that is important to you or the people in your country? Use specific reasons and details to explain your choice.
You have the opportunity to visit a foreign country for two weeks.
Which country would you like to visit? Use specific reasons and details to explain your choice.
In the future, students may have the choice of studying at home by using technology such as computers or television or of studying at traditional schools. Which would you prefer? Use reasons and specific details to explain your choice.
When famous people such as actors, athletes and rock stars give their opinions, many people listen. Do you think we should pay attention to these opinions? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
The twentieth century saw great change. In your opinion, what is one change that should be remembered about the twentieth century? Use specific reasons and details to explain your choice.
When people need to complain about a product or poor service, some prefer to complain in writing and others prefer to complain in person. Which way do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
People remember special gifts or presents that they have received. Why?
Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Some famous athletes and entertainers earn millions of dollars every year. Do you think these people deserve such high salaries? Use specific reasons and examples to support your opinion.
Is the ability to read and write more important today than in the past?
Why or why not? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
People do many different things to stay healthy. What do you do for good health? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
You have decided to give several hours of your time each month to improve the community where you live. What is one thing you will do to improve your community? Why? Use specific reasons and details to explain your choice.
People recognize a difference between children and adults. What events (experiences or ceremonies) make a person an adult? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your answer.
Your school has enough money to purchase either computers for students or books for the library. Which should your school choose to buy — computers or books? Use specific reasons and examples to support your recommendation.
Many students choose to attend schools or universities outside their home countries. Why do some students study abroad? Use specific reasons and details to explain your answer.
People listen to music for different reasons and at different times. Why is music important to many people? Use specific reasons and examples to support your choice.
Groups or organizations are an important part of some people’s lives.
Why are groups or organizations important to people? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your answer.
Imagine that you are preparing for a trip. You plan to be away from your home for a year. In addition to clothing and personal care items, you can take one additional thing. What would you take and why? Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
When students move to a new school, they sometimes face problems. How can schools help these students with their problems? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your answer.
It is sometimes said that borrowing money from a friend can harm or damage the friendship. Do you agree? Why or why not? Use reasons and specific examples to explain your answer.
Every generation of people is different in important ways. How is your generation different from your parents’ generation? Use specific reasons and examples to explain your answer.
Some students like classes where teachers lecture (do all of the talking) in class. Other students prefer classes where the students do some of the talking. Which type of class do you prefer? Give specific reasons and details to support your choice.
Holidays honor people or events. If you could create a new holiday, what person or event would it honor and how would you want people to celebrate it? Use specific reasons and details to support your answer.
A friend of yours has received some money and plans to use all of it either
• to go on vacation
• to buy a car
Your friend has asked you for advice. Compare your friend’s two choices and explain which one you think your friend should choose. Use specific reasons and details to support your choice.
The 21st century has begun. What changes do you think this new century will bring? Use examples and details in your answer.
What are some of the qualities of a good parent? Use specific details and examples to explain your answer.
Movies are popular all over the world. Explain why movies are so popular. Use reasons and specific examples to support your answer.
In your country, is there more need for land to be left in its natural condition or is there more need for land to be developed for housing and industry? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Many people have a close relationship with their pets. These people treat their birds, cats, or other animals as members of their family. In your opinion, are such relationships good? Why or why not? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
Films can tell us a lot about the country where they were made. What have you learned about a country from watching its movies? Use specific examples and details to support your response.
Some students prefer to study alone. Others prefer to study with a group of students. Which do you prefer? Use specific reasons and examples to support your answer.
You have enough money to purchase either a house or a business. Which would you choose to buy? Give specific reasons to explain your choice.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, photocopied or stored in any kind of retrieval system without prior notice granted by the author. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dictionary of English and Culture (1992). Longman, Essex
Edgar V. Roberts (1983) Writing themes about literature. Prentice Hall: New Jersey
Fry, Ron (1996) Pass Any Test Kogan Page Ltd. London
Quirk R, Sidney Greenbaum (1973) A University Grammar of English. Pearson Education Limited: England
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (1996) Oxford: Oxford
Wright, Paul (ed: 1994) The Poems of John Keats. Wordsworth Editions: Hertfordshire
Yule, George (1985). The Story of Language Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku holds two degrees in English from two universities in Nigeria - Benin and Lagos. Bob was a columnist with The Nigerian Observer, editorial Assistant with Daily Independent, Nigeria, and senior writer with TELL, Nigeria’s leader in the zine. He writes a weekly column, Avant-garde, with Daily Independent, and has been published locally and internationally by Associated Content, Equatorial Press, the German Kulturaustausch and Nigeriansinamerica. Bob has written numerous literary critiques and has vast experience with international examinations. He is a thoroughbred SAT/TOEFL/ Advanced Level Literature-in-English tutor with a track record of student success in those exams. He is the CEO of Bob MajiriOghene Communications, Africa and BM Educationals, Nigeria. This is his fourth book, apart from Deep Sighs and Tears for a birthday and Secrets of a Diary. He has concluded a children’s book, MAMUD & THE MORINGA TREE, and is working on his collection of short stories, ONCE UPON A DOG, an anthology, I WANT TO EAT MY UKODO & OTHER POEMS, a short play, YOUR PASTOR IS A LIAR & OTHER CHURCH PLAYS.