The Standardized Essay

Why is this section entitled “The Standardized Essay”, and not simply “The Essay”? This is because a standardized test essay, while similar in structure and basic principles to any long academic essay, is nevertheless different in terms of the writer’s approach to it. Unlike an academic essay that you will write in college or university, one that will be assigned weeks or months ahead of its due date and that will be longer and require research, citations and a bibliography, the test essay is short, is not based on citable sources (and therefore, technically not based on facts but rather on opinion and assumption), and, most notably, must be written to a minimum word count and within a set time limit.

Well then, how should you approach this type of essay? Like a regular college essay, you will brainstorm and plan your ideas and organize your path toward the task’s aim. Unlike a regular college essay, you will do all this quickly in order to have more time to write. So, in essence, time is the crucial difference. With this in mind, approach the standardized essay in the same way you would approach the other sections of the test (Listening, Reading, Speaking)—practice, practice, practice!

Types of Essays

There are a variety of essay forms, each with its own function/purpose. For our immediate purposes, we will look at some of the major essay types and then focus on the skills involved in writing these that are useful in approaching the test essay.

The Descriptive Essay

In this essay the writer sets out to describe something. It could be a place, a thing, a concept, an experience, or anything that the writer wants the reader to imagine clearly in his or her mind. What is central to this essay is the element of “showing” the thing described. It means using vivid adjectives and other descriptors like adverbs and similes in a way that makes the words create a picture in the reader’s mind. It can include a personal bias, but should not aim to pass judgment.

The Expository Essay

This essay aims to explain something. There are several variations of this type of essay. You may want to explain a cause and effect relationship, or compare and contrast two things, places, etc. You may want to explain how something works, or the chronological development of an invention or ideology. In an expository essay, the writer generally sticks to objective facts, meaning that a personal opinion is not an aim of the writing. The skills used in this type of essay are similar to those of a summary or report.

The Persuasive Essay

This type of essay has a very specific purpose: it wants to change the reader’s mind, or at the very least, to convince the reader to adopt a certain viewpoint. It will utilize an emotional rhetoric to do this. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. The writer of this type of essay has a particular target reader in mind and knows what words and images to use to create an emotional reaction in the reader and how to provide solutions to problems that arise from this reaction. It is important to realize, when reading such essays, that there is an agenda aimed at by the writer, and to be on guard against claims that are biased even when they appear to be delivered objectively.

The Argumentative Essay

Many readers confuse this type of essay with a persuasive essay. The argumentative essay, however, does not aim to create an opinion for a reader or modify an existing opinion; this type of essay simply aims to present a view and then defend it with supporting evidence. It is subjective in its approach in that the writer carefully chooses the support provided, yet objective in that the writer does not necessarily want the reader to agree with the argument, but rather to concede that the argument is a valid one.

The Test Essay

Tests such as TOEFL and IELTS will almost always ask you to provide an opinion. The large majority of questions will do this directly by either asking you to choose between two opposing options and support the choice, or by asking if you agree with a statement. Even questions that ask you to compare and contrast two things, or questions that ask you to suggest the causes of certain phenomena will nevertheless also be asking you to provide an opinion on the benefits of one thing over another, or why you believe the causes you proposed exist.

That being the case, it is important to notice that the test essay is a hybrid of some of the above essay types. The most common essay type that you will come across in your practice and on test day is the argumentative. However, you should also master the skills of the descriptive and expository essays in order to be prepared for any question you may face. You will not be asked to write persuasive essays on the IELTS or TOEFL, because a) it is very difficult to persuade within a short essay, b) you will not have the resources at hand to utilize for this type of essay, and c) this type of essay can be dangerously idealistic, something these tests do not aim to measure.

Note: Standardized tests do not measure your intellect; they measure your ability to prepare for a project, to organize yourself in this effort, and to produce a final composition under the stress of time and situation, all of which are aspects of the typical university/college experience.

So, where do we begin? Remember that your greatest obstacle in this section of the test is not necessarily your English ability. Rather, it is your ability to understand what is being asked of you, to organize your thoughts quickly and clearly, and to convey these in a coherent fashion. As such, it is vital that you go over each aspect of the well-written essay, from individual paragraphs to complete essays.