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If you “teach to the test,” you are a slave to the system, right?  I personally despise standardized tests, and in fact, when it comes to high school English classes, I would do away with midterms, final exams, and most typical tests altogether if I could. But since I do have to play the game, I would rather win it.  And if I can win through hacks, even better.

Hacking the High Stakes Tests

The most high-stakes test that I ever really dealt with was the AP Literature test.  My students also took the SAT and the MCAS (the Massachusetts state test) but I never felt as responsible for their scores on those exams as I did for their AP scores.

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I always told my AP students that my main goal for the class was to prepare them for college-level English classes, and that if they were successful with my class, they would be all set for their first year in college.  On the other hand, the AP test was one three-hour period one morning in May—what if we spent the whole year preparing for that test and they got sick, or they panicked on the third essay, or they had a bad night’s sleep the night before?

I despise multiple choice practice.  I have been know to waste ten minutes of class time debating with myself about whether or not it was a waste of class time to do MC practice.  At most, I dedicated three or four class days in a whole year to practice tests and going over those tests.

Still, every year when April rolled around, I felt that competitive urge to beat the testers at their own game.  I also didn’t want to send my students in like lambs to the slaughter.  I wanted my students to feel that they knew exactly what to expect, and that they had been given the tools and taught the skills to beat the testers at their own game.

So even though I believe that writing really takes place in the revision stage, and even though I know that the most successful students in college are the ones who take as long as they need to get the job done, I developed a few tricks to help students write insightful, creative, stand-out essays in those measly 40 minutes.

Here are my tips to students for hacking the AP exam, or any other timed essay test.

Always spend around ten minutes thinking before you write.  This might seem counterintuitive, but starting right away with meaningless generalities will slow you down much more than taking time to really analyze and plan your essay.  You should have so much to say by the time you start writing that you feel like your fingers almost can’t quite keep up with your head.  Until you do, keep thinking.  A well-thought-out essay can be written in fifteen minutes if you have done all the work beforehand.

The thesis should always state a theme statement.  You know you have a theme statement when you can answer this question:  What point is the author making about people or the world in general?  “Friendship” is a topic.  “Friendship is difficult but worth the effort” is a theme statement.  I tell students to imagine that they meet the author on the street some day and can ask her what she wanted them to understand as a result of reading that poem or story or play.

They can use TPCASTT or a graphic organizer, they can memorize questions for close reading of a literary passage, or they can annotate using stars, questions, and checks, but they have to have a system to quickly annotate and break down the passages.  Just underlining or circling isn’t enough.  They need to constantly think about how the author’s choices affect the reader.  And they need to take notes on those effects so that they include them in the essay.

The best way to organize an essay is by talking about the beginning, the middle, and then the end.  The author crafted the text in a specific way, and breaking it up by a different organization, such as doing a paragraph on each literary element, might work, but it doesn’t take into account how the structure of the passage or text also helps to create meaning.

Make sure to constantly refer back to the thesis, but don’t ignore the complexities and ambiguities of a text.  The very best essays, the 8’s and 9’s, are the ones who get the tricky pieces of the passage or text and incorporate those into the overall idea.

Write as much as you can, but don’t ever summarize plot.  There is that urge in many honors and AP students to just write pages and pages of information about the text.  It’s the surely-they’ll-find-something-good-in-here-somewhere idea.  A shorter essay that is more focused will always beat out endless plot summary or paraphrase, but an essay that accounts for more of the text will usually beat out an essay that leaves too much out.

Whatever you do, please don’t rephrase the prompt in your intro.  Yes, this is fine if you are barely passing sixth grade English, but if you are taking the AP test and think that you will wow your reader—who by the way is reading probably hundreds if not thousands of essays on the exact same prompt—by quoting from the prompt that is right in front of you, you have really underestimated the expectations of this exam.

So is this teaching to the test?  Maybe it is.  I probably spend a few hours a year going over my tips, except for the ones that I think are relevant to all kinds of writing.  The tests do in fact measure a few skills that I want my students to have.

But if I am beating the testers at their own game, I guess I don’t really care if people consider this teaching to the test.


Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom...

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