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Standardized Essay Blues: What to Do When Your Mind Goes Totally Blank

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Some years ago, I sat down with the rest of my class to take my AP test in European History. I’d written many practice essays already, and I’d reviewed the year’s material over the past few weeks. I felt pretty confident that I’d be able to handle most topics I might encounter, from Charlemagne to the Cold War.


However, my confidence evaporated the moment I saw the document-based question. Instead of directly addressing significant wars, important leaders, or any other of the major topics I’d studied, it wanted me to discuss the role of team sports in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sports?! I was baffled. I’ve never been particularly interested in sports, and the subject was never mentioned in class, so I had no idea how to proceed.


Stories like these are far from uncommon. You honestly never know exactly what essay questions will appear on your standardized tests. Especially on tests like the SAT and ACT, which aren’t even subject-specific, it’s entirely possible that you’ll encounter an essay question on a topic that’s totally unfamiliar to you, and you’ll have no choice but to take your best shot at creating a coherent essay out of your limited knowledge.


In this post, we’ll go over how to prepare for the essays you’ll find on your standardized tests in a way that will allow you to approach any topic, no matter how unexpected, with poise. We’ll also cover what to do if you find yourself panicking over a less-than-ideal topic on test day, and how you can avoid letting that obstacle derail your score.


Standardized Test Essays: What are readers looking for?

Every standardized test that includes essay questions employs people to read and score the essays you produce. These readers don’t base their assessments upon what they personally think or feel; rather, they work from a detailed rubric provided by test administrators to determine how well your essay fulfills the requirements you were given.


The rubrics used to score standardized test essays are far from a mystery. You’ll be able to find the criteria for each test’s essay questions in preparatory materials, and in case you forget, detailed instructions will be printed in the test booklet. Though what exactly the readers are looking for differs from test to test, you’ll have access to the criteria for that test before and during your exam.


To learn more about the grading rubrics and standards for essay questions on specific exams, check out these posts from the CollegeVine blog:



Generally speaking, standardized tests ask you to produce compelling, well-structured, concise essays in a relatively short period of time. What your essay graders are looking for is evidence that you’re capable of coming up with a coherent argument, organizing and structuring that argument so that others will understand it, and turning it into a compelling written essay that fulfills the requirements you’re given.


An important thing to keep in mind is that on your main standardized tests, namely the SAT and the ACT, the ostensible essay topic isn’t really the point. That topic is simply a starting point from which you’ll demonstrate your skills in analysis, argumentation, and writing. How well you demonstrate those skills is more important than your background knowledge about earthworms, city planning, or whatever the nominal topic might be.


Even on more subject-specific standardized tests, such as your AP exams, there are other factors that matter besides your knowledge of the specific topic mentioned in the essay question. For instance, in AP exams within the history field, the Document-Based Questions definitely require some background knowledge, but also display how well you can analyze the historical documents with which you’re provided.


Test Prep: Minimizing Opportunities for Panic

You may not be able to control what questions appear on your standardized tests, but you certainly can control what you do to hone your skills before your exam. The way you prepare for your standardized tests can help to ensure that whatever essay topics end up appearing on the test, you’ll be able to approach them confidently.


To reduce the chance that you’ll panic when confronted with an unfamiliar essay topic, your test prep should focus predominantly on strategies, not on any individual subject. Especially on tests like the SAT and ACT, the range of potential topics is so incredibly broad that there’s no way you can anticipate what specifically you’ll be asked to write about.


Preparing for standardized test essays like these involves developing and refining your approach to the test itself, based on the specific, standardized criteria you’re given. It’s not about knowing a great deal about the background of the topic, and it’s also not about writing an essay that’s “great” by the standards of content and style to which you might ordinarily adhere. It’s about answering the question and displaying the skills that you’re asked to display.


There is one specific topic that you’ll definitely need to review before you take on a standardized test’s essay section, and that’s the question of what makes writing effective. Not only will you need to demonstrate these qualities yourself, you’ll also have to be able to recognize them when you see them in someone else’s writing.

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For the SAT essay question, you’ll need to be able to read a piece of writing and recognize how the author is using elements like evidence and reasoning to make a compelling point. For the ACT essay question, you’ll need to assess different perspectives on an issue while developing your own argument. Either way, reading comprehension and an understanding of how persuasive writing works are key.


Instead of researching particular topics, think about the steps you’ll take to approach your essay question and begin working on your essay. If you develop and practice a standard process for planning and writing standardized test essays, you’ll be able to stick to that process even if the essay topic itself is out of your wheelhouse.


Familiarize yourself with the essay criteria for the particular test well before you sit down to take it; much of the prompt will remain the same across different test sittings, so you won’t find any surprises there. You’ll have more time to focus on planning and writing your essay if you don’t need to read the directions in detail while you’re sitting in the test room.


Once you know these criteria, stick to them! This is not the time to get creative; your essay will be graded according to clear and specific standards, and any divergence from this format will jeopardize your score. Remember, very few people will ever read this essay, so following the directions to produce a solid piece of writing is more important than composing an essay that’s pleasing, innovative, or reflective of your personality.


You’ll also need to practice writing your essay within the time constraints that you’ll experience on the real standardized test. This will give you a sense of how much time you can afford to devote to planning your essay, as well as how fast you need to write. (For more information on test timing and pacing, check out CollegeVine blog posts like How to Pace Yourself on Every Section of the SAT.)


Finally, when you’re preparing for your standardized test, access as wide a variety of practice essay questions as you can. Your options for official practice questions may be limited, especially for tests that have recently been updated or changed, but do your best to practice your skills with topics that are unfamiliar to you as well as those that are more comfortable.


Making it Work: Your Test-Day Action Plan

While preparing properly can help you to approach your standardized test essay questions with less fear of what will happen if you encounter an unexpected topic or prompt, the experience of opening your test booklet to find such an essay question can still be stressful. Here are a few tips for keeping your cool and moving forward in that moment when your mind goes blank.


  • Take a second to breathe. Quiet your mind and push aside your worries in whatever way works for you so that you can better focus on the task in front of you. (Just don’t take too long — the clock is ticking!)
  • Work fast. You don’t have much time, and it’s much better to turn in an imperfect essay that’s finished than to waste your precious minutes trying to come up with the perfect approach and not having the time to complete your essay. You can always go back and edit if you end up with time at the end of the test.
  • Remember the essay strategy you’ve developed for this test. What criteria do you need to meet in order to get a high score on this test’s essay question? How can you slot the prompt you’ve received into your general approach?
  • Do your prewriting work quickly, but definitely do your prewriting. You might feel like preparing an outline is a waste of time, but knowing what’s coming up next, sticking to a set structure, and establishing the steps of your argument in advance can help tremendously as you write.
  • Don’t worry too much about polish and style. Again, this is not the time to be creative or to try to compose a beautiful piece of writing. This is definitely a situation in which the perfect is the enemy of the good — focus on meeting the stated criteria, not on carefully composing the best essay you’ve ever written. (Save that for your college applications.)


I made it through my encounter with an unfamiliar essay topic, and so will you. All you need is practice, preparation, and a little bit of courage, and you too can produce a compelling essay that shows off your writing skills, even if the topic you’re given is something you never imagined having to write about.


Good luck!


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.