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Successful Study Strategies for a High School Level Writing Exam

written by: Sylvia Cini • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 1/6/2012

Have a writing test coming up? Are you going to pass? These steps will guide you through the process of studying and practice writing. Whether you're not sure where to start, or lost your way somewhere in the middle, these tips can help you stay on track.

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    Preparing for a writing test can seem like an impossible task. Use this 10-step plan outlined in this article to ensure you are doing all you can to ace the exam.

    Remember, we are all unique, with our own learning styles. So adapt the steps to work for you. Try this method in all your classes, and modify the plan until you have the ultimate test prep checklist.

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    14 Days and Counting...

    Your test preparations should never be last minute, especially for a writing exam. You need time to internalize all of the information you are getting in class. Expect to spend 2 to 3 hours studying per week for 2 weeks straight. Do not attempt to cram all of your studying into one day.

    Your ability to focus and process information decreases the longer your work session is. So split study time into 30 or 45 minute blocks and spread them throughout the week.

    Keep in mind that homework and test grades are tools that teachers use to gauge your skills and abilities. If you feel that these tools are not helpful to you, talk with your teacher or school counselor about alternative evaluation methods long before the day of the test. Being proactive shows that you are honestly concerned with your education, and not looking for an excuse to get out of taking your writing test.

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    #1: Listen in Class

    No matter how good a writer you are, no matter how much you study, you will always need to listen in class.

    Your teacher is there to provide you with the information that you need to know. If you listen carefully in class, you will know exactly what type of material will be on the exam. More importantly, you will know how your teacher expects you to answer test questions. Pay close attention for subtle hints like "you should write this down."

    • If you can't hear from the back of the room, move closer.
    • If you can't see from where you are sitting, talk to your teacher about moving closer to the board. If you find it is still difficult to see, consider talking to your parent(s)/guardian(s) about getting glasses or contact lenses.
    • Look out for friends who distract you when you need to pay attention. Let your buddy know that you need to keep your eyes on the board. If they are really your friend, they will understand.
    • Check your problems at the door. There will always be something important going on in your private life that keeps you from focusing on work. Try to take care of any urgent matters before or after class. That way, you can focus on school work.
    • If you are having a hard time focusing in class, talk to a school guidance counselor or other trusted adult about what's going on.

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    #2: Take Good Notes

    Note-taking is a skill that is difficult to learn and harder to teach. Everyone has their own way of listening and learning, so it is impossible for one teacher to make a lesson fit everyone's style.

    Be your own advocate and take responsibility for your learning environment.

    • Take notes that make sense to you. If you don't understand shorthand, don't use it. If you do understand doodles, don't be afraid to fill the page with silly drawings. Your notes needs to work for you--not your friend and not your teacher. If your instructor is pressuring you to take notes in a way that is not helpful, talk it out with them or seek advice from the student counselor.
    • Be sure you are writing down all of the details you will need to use your notes when you study.
    • Include examples. While it may be difficult to take notes for writing lessons involving intangibles, such as style and voice, write down the general idea with a note on where to find an example in a book or worksheet.
    • Compare notes. If you find contextual holes in your notes when reviewing, call up a friend who shares the class or ask the teacher to help fill in the missing information. Do not just look it up somewhere else as the explanation may not be the same as what your teacher wants you to know. Be sure to correct the mistake or omission so that your notebook is complete.
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    #3: Make the Most of Your Homework

    Homework and in-class assignments may be boring or difficult, but they are assigned for a reason. In addition to evaluating your progress for grading purposes, teachers use grades to find out what material to review and how fast to pace classwork. Help instructors to make writing lessons more meaningful to you by being honest and forthright about your own strengths and weaknesses.

    • Review your graded homework. Resist the temptation to push the paper into your locker (or worse) the bottom of a bookbag. Look at the questions you got wrong. Do you understand why your response was marked incorrect? If not, approach the teacher with questions after class. Who knows...it might have been a mistake.
    • If you find your homework is too easy, talk to your teacher about skipping lessons or taking the test early. This can free you up to focus on other classes or extracurriculars.

    Tip: When studying for the test, look over the assignments that received the lowest grades. This is your starting point for review when preparing for a writing test.

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    #4: Study

    Although writing is very individualistic and fluid, technique is not. Your teacher has showed you (and expects you to use) specific writing techniques such as imagery for a poetry unit or thesis writing in persuasive essays. In order to demonstrate your knowledge of these items, you must study and practice implementing each as instructed by your teacher.

    For example, if your recent writing unit focused on persuasive writing, the necessary features of your essay response might be:

    1. Introductory paragraph with thesis
    2. Three body paragraphs, each with one supporting detail
    3. Summary paragraph with thesis restated.

    These are the elements of an essay that your teacher is going to check for. Even if they do not agree with your argument or the content of your essay, you can still gain valuable points by sticking to the pre-set format.

    Tip: Ask your teacher about what is going to be on the examination. This will give you a better idea of what to study.

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    #5: Practice Writing

    Once you have an idea of what and how you need to write on the test, you are free to practice writing. Complete assignments that the teacher has given you or make your own practice test questions. If you need inspiration, look to the newspaper. The paper is always full of controversial issues which you can write about.

    Even if you are not explicitly studying for your coming test, any writing or reading activity can be beneficial. These exercises cannot take the place of studying, but are a great way to break up study sessions and fill free time. Enjoy!

    • Go borrow a book from the library.
    • Write a letter to a friend who you never see.
    • Blog about your favorite animal.
    • Make up a rap about something in your kitchen.
    • Keep a journal or diary.
    • Write a story.
    • Enter a poetry slam.
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    #6: Don't Cram

    The temptation to open your notebook and review a few pages may hit you the moment you wake up on test day.

    Don't do it.

    While a 15 to 30 minute review before a math or science exam can help you remember that tough formula, you will not improve your writing ability by cramming. Writing is a complex skill that depends on a combination of memorized technique and practice.

    You can't fake good writing and you will only stress yourself by trying. So don't cram when preparing for a test.

    Tip: You can, however, create a quick reference sheet, "cheat sheet," that will help while you study. During the test, you can visualize this abbreviated version of your notes. Visually creative students find this kind of mental mapping helpful.

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    #7: Eat

    Eat a good breakfast and carry a snack. Food is brain fuel. Without a balanced diet and regular meals, you are not going to perform at 100%. You may become forgetful, distracted and unfocused. If you've skipped several meals or have other issues that complicate your health, you can get dizzy, faint or pass out--not the best way to start a test.

    Tip: Pack your book bag the night before to save time in the morning. That way you have no excuse for skipping breakfast.

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    #8: Set the Mood

    Put yourself in the mood to write. Writing is a very demanding exercise that, just like a physical activity, requires proper stretching to prevent injury.

    • Arrive to class as early as possible and unpack for the exam. Showing up for the exam out of breath and late will put you in a foul mood and impair your ability to concentrate.
    • Leave non-writing related problems outside. This cannot be stressed enough. If you do not feel capable of performing the exam, contact your teacher as soon as possible and discuss your options.
    • Actually stretch. If you have been sitting all day, a good stretch can help you feel limber of body and mind.
    • Listen to music. If your teacher permits it, listen to your favorite song before the examination begins. Clear your mind and enjoy the melody.
    • Meditate. Sit in a comfortable position with your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap. Hold your head in a comfortably upright position and take a deep breath. Inhale for 5 beats, exhale for 5 beats. Try to picture something that you find relaxing. Imagine touching or hearing that thing. Focus on breathing and mental imagery for 1-2 minutes and then return to the exam.

    As you work through the exam, keep yourself in a positive frame of mind.

    • Stretch.
    • Breath.
    • Take a break to regroup your thoughts. If you get stuck in the middle of the essay, review what you have written and follow the path of your argument.
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    #9: Read the Test Questions Carefully

    Your teachers are not trying to trick you. However, they are trying to make sure you are paying attention. Read all of the test questions carefully--twice--to be sure that you fully understand the assignment.

    • Look out for multi-part questions.
    • List the information that is given in the essay question.
    • Rephrase or summarize the question that is being asked. Develop a thesis to answer this question.
    • After you have completed your essay, review your writing to be sure that you have answered all parts of the question and used information wisely.
    • Double-check your content. Make sure that you did not mis-quote or misrepresent any facts.
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    #10: Relax

    Just relax. During the test remember the following:

    You...

    • spent time studying and preparing for this examination.
    • asked all of the questions you could, and took full advantage of your teacher as a resource.
    • reviewed your homework and know your weaknesses.
    • are prepared.

    The test...

    • does not determine the course of your life.
    • is not a means of judging you as a person.
    • is one of many. There will be others and you can always do better next time.

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    Need More Help?

    Check out these neat resources. They will give you advice and alternate steps to preparing for a test.

    1. SAT Practice - With SATs just around the corner, it's not too early to start preparing for the writing section. Visit College Board to get some free SAT practice questions and test taking tips. (http://sat.collegeboard.com/practice/)
    2. Test Taking And Anxiety - The University Learning Center put out this great guide all about test anxiety. It's chockfull of methods for coping with stress before, during and after the big exam. (http://pennstatelearning.psu.edu/resources/study-tips/test-anxiety/tips)
    3. ACT Writing Test - The ACT is a standardized test similar to the SAT. They offer these tips for building writing skills. (http://www.actstudent.org/writing/prepare/build.html)

    If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of the test or you are unable to cope during the exam, ask your teacher for help. And try to keep these stress management tips in mind.