Writing a Stellar CLEP Essay

Welcome back to our third and final installment of our CLEP essay tips! In our first and second blog, we talked about lots of things you can do to prepare, and now is the time to discuss how to write a stellar essay when you take the exam.

It can be challenging to remember how to write an essay, especially if you haven’t written one in awhile. While our CLEP exam review materials don’t include resources for writing an essay, we’re here to give you some informal guidance in our blog. Take a look at how to break down your essay, and find the best in CLEP test prep courses from SpeedyPrep!

Getting Set Up

We’ve mentioned this in a previous blog, but it’s really important that, first and foremost, you fully understand exactly what the essay prompt is asking. For this example we’re going to use a sample prompt from CLEP College Board, for the American Literature exam.

“For the first essay, a common theme in American literature and a list of major American authors are provided. Test takers are asked to write a well organized essay discussing the way that theme is handled in works by any two of those authors.”

As an example, let’s use two popular pieces of American literature: The Grapes of Wrath and Harlem. This book and poem, respectively, are famous examples of 20th century American literature, by contemporary writers John Steinbeck and Langston Hughes.

To start, note that the prompt says “discussing the way that theme is handled in works by any two of those authors.” We have bolded the key words. Identify the keywords in your essay prompt because your success depends on fulfilling these tasks.

This tells us we need to write an essay where we talk about how theme is used by two authors. It will probably be easiest to compare the similarities between the works, remembering to always come back to the stylistic choices of the authors.

Paragraph 1: The Intro

Before you write, come up with a cohesive thesis statement. A thesis statement is the sentence that states your point of view on the topic. It serves as the summary of the argument you will make in your essay. We could go into a full blog post about writing a great thesis statement, but for the sake of time, here’s a general formula for this prompt:

(Author 1) and (Author 2) (do what the prompt is asking) to show (theme).

Our practice thesis for this essay is as follows: Both Steinbeck and Hughes use the concept of unfulfilled dreams as a theme to show hardships faced by Americans.

Your intro should be about five sentences, with the final sentence explaining what your thesis is. The first few sentences should cover some of the basics of the two works, similar to this (though you very well might want to expand more on your own essay).

“The Grapes of Wrath” and “Harlem” are exceptional examples of 20th century American literature. While written at different points in time, they cover some similar topics, which provide a voice for American people across a span of several decades. Both Steinbeck and Hughes use the concept of unfulfilled dreams as a theme to show hardships faced by Americans.

Paragraphs 2-4: The Body

The body paragraphs are like the bullet points of your essay, but going into more detail. These three paragraphs will present evidence on three topics you plan to cover to support your thesis. When planning your essay, it is helpful to write out some bullet points for yourself to follow in writing the body paragraphs.

For your body paragraphs, you want to bring in a solid piece of evidence that backs up your thesis statement — more specifically, a new piece of evidence every time. After stating your evidence, you use the rest of the space in each paragraph to explain what you mean. We can’t stress this enough: every single thing that you’re writing should have some connection back to your thesis, and back to the prompt itself.

Here’s an example of a good body paragraph:

The wording choices used by both Hughes and Steinbeck represent the overarching theme of unfulfilled dreams and hardships faced by Americans in the 20th century. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck writes “… in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.” Steinbeck wrote this book about the Joad family during the Great Depression. When he uses the word “failure,” he’s referring to this theme of dreams that could not come true, and the consistent letdowns that came from such a period of economic hardship. Similarly, Hughes speaks in vivid imagery of “what happens to a dream deferred,” or a dream that does not come true. He talks of it “festering like a sore,” continuing with the theme of the pain that comes from an unfulfilled dream, more so in the context of the inequities faced by African Americans. Both authors focus on their wording to convey this theme of hardships faced by Americans, and how this led to many dreams that couldn’t be pursued.

As you can see, the first sentence is our main point. Everything that follows gives specific evidence connecting back to the main point (as well as the thesis and prompt itself).

Paragraph 5: The Closing

Closing paragraphs are gratifying to write, because it feels good to finish up a well-written essay. Your closing paragraph pulls everything together. Make sure you bring it back to the thesis and prompt once more, and provide a brief summary of some of your points (but worded in a different way). Use three to five sentences to close out your essay, and restate your thesis in a slightly altered way. For this essay good closing sentences could be “The theme of unfulfilled dreams was used by both Steinbeck and Hughes to represent the trials faced by the American people. This theme still serves as a relevant topic in today’s literature — as well as society as a whole.”

Writing an essay can seem challenging, but it’s like anything in life: the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel with it. Practice responding to prompts, reference our other two blogs for tips on getting set up for the big day, and make sure you feel confident on how to write a well-organized and well-structured essay — all of these components will help you feel more prepared for the test. In the meantime, remember that you can rely on SpeedyPrep for incredible CLEP exam review courses and resources — get started today!

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