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Last Updated On: December 24th, 2020

You’ve focused on the four primary sections of the ISEE. You’ve spent hours studying with tutors and parents. Most students look at the essay as the throwaway moment. However, this is not the case.

Sure, private schools need to know you can write at grade level. Yep, you better know how to structure. But do you know how to communicate complex ideas? Or articulate your perspective on global issues? That’s the real gift this essay brings. For those students that fear the essay, just execute the basics, and take a breath. For those that enjoy essay writing, this is your moment.

School Interviewers typically ask students about their essay topics. They love to know more about the real you, so the way you answer your essay can have a lot of power.

They also like to check and make sure your parents didn’t write or edit everything for you. “One common practice is to compare application essays with the ISEE writing sample. This allows admissions staff to see how students express themselves when there are no external influences impacting their writing or ideas.” Check out a blog by Test Innovators for more on this.

What essay topics are covered?

On the ISEE lower level…

There are more topics asking students to explore simple ideas that involve imagination and application of the world around them. Lower level essays tend to lead students into a path where they can easily discuss something step by step. Some essay prompts give students a strong benefit as they address things a younger student might have already thought of.

In this example, you are discussing perfect vacation ideas. Most lower-level ISEE students have absolutely thought of this before or can easily develop dream ideas. Alternatively, some essays ask students to explore their characteristics. For a younger student, this can be challenging, so it’s always great to have them memorize a few essay ideas they can easily mold to fit the prompt.

A few examples I’ve seen…

If you could teach a friend to do something, what would it be and why?
If you could go anywhere over summer break, where would you go and what would you do?

On the ISEE middle level and ISEE upper level…

Typically the ERB asks these students to write about the world today. The ISEE essay prompts will address community service and ways to improve your community. They may ask you to explore your interests. The ERB may even want you to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. Usually, they don’t do this by asking students basic questions. Instead, they word these essay prompts in a way that requires critical thinking and maturity.

The upper-level ISEE essay questions will inevitably be more complex than the middle level and require multiple answers to the prompt. The middle-level ISEE prompts are still challenging but usually have fewer dimensions than an upper-level prompt.

Examples of middle-level questions…

Tell us about someone who has had a major influence on your life, and explain how he or she has influenced your perspective of the world.

If you were to write a novel, what topic would you write about and why?

Pro tip: Always have a role model you can write about. Also, have a celebrity or famous person (alive or dead) that you admire. I always see versions of these questions.

Examples of upper-level questions…

What is a career that you could see yourself doing? What are some of your skills that may help prepare you for a successful career in this field?

What is an example of a problem currently facing the world, and what is an example of an action that people can take to solve this problem?

As you can see, the advanced topics aren’t incredibly daunting but definitely require some thought. If you are preparing for the essay section, WHICH YOU SHOULD, then consider making a list of topics you feel comfortable discussing. Brainstorm your favorite subjects, your goals for the future, your views of the world, etc. Really get in touch with your take. Also, do practice essays—as many as possible.

Sometimes I even have students do timed essay prompt outlines to practice. Honing in on the quick brainstorming and outlining is a really key component for success. While essay writing can be scary, it’s so much easier if you can develop a speedy outline and come up with body paragraphs quickly. Once you get this skill down and once you know your go to topics, the essay section is so much easier.

What do you mean by essay structure?

The ISEE essay should attempt to mirror a standard 5 paragraph essay you might encounter in middle school or high school. The first page should begin with a short introduction paragraph, including your thesis. The thesis needs to address all parts of the essay question in a concise way. Following the intro paragraph, you should include three body paragraphs outlining your reasons and evidence for making your claim. After these, you should incorporate a short conclusion that restates your thesis.

Essay structure graphic

What about the timing?

TIME is truly the villain in the essay section. Thirty minutes to do an entire five-paragraph essay is not a long time. I typically tell students every essay section needs to start with a five-minute timed essay outline. Once that is complete, you have 25 minutes to write. If that means you can only get out two fully formed body paragraphs, that’s what you get to.

It’s always better to have complete thoughts with rich evidence and plenty of “whys” answered than to have the structure of the essay without the depth.

If you run out of time to finish the conclusion, that’s ok. It’s not ideal, but if something has to go, let it be that.

SO IMPORTANT…if you do only make it to two body paragraphs, make sure to adjust your thesis. Only include the two reasons you were able to discuss. Go back and edit. I don’t care if you feel like this thesis was divine intervention. It’s not about what could have been. It’s about what is and what you have.

Editing is CRUCIAL. Please know thyself. If you usually run out of time to edit, then skim over your paragraph after you write it. You should really be doing that anyway. Make sure it makes sense. But also check spelling and grammar. If you spell excellent wrong in a sentence where you state your excellence, I can’t help you. I’ve seen it done before. Please, please, please take this advice. You don’t want to negate a beautiful essay with a lack of understanding or a few misspelled words—what a waste. Don’t let it happen to you.

What are the whys? Why are they so important?

Whys are the most important element of any essay. They are the link between your reason, evidence, and character. Let me demonstrate:

When you go to answer an essay topic like this:

If there was something you could give to everyone in the world, what would it be and why?

Say you said shelter.

Now we approach body paragraph 1…

I would give everyone in the world shelter because everyone needs a nicer place to live. So many people are homeless, and this gift would comfort them and allow them to live in peace.

Well, here’s the why moment…why do you want homeless people to live in peace and comfort? This is the part where you share your own inner thoughts.

I want homeless people to find comfort and peace because every person deserves a chance to prosper in the world. They may have had a rough start, but that doesn’t make them any less deserving of a home.

And voila! Now we know who you are and what you believe. Now we are far more interested in what you have to say. Nobody needs to hear about the trials of the homeless population. We all know this. Instead, we need to hear WHY you want to change things. You don’t have to have all the answers. Your mega plan doesn’t need to be entirely logical or fleshed out. They don’t expect you to brianstorm how to solve the planet. But you do need to show your personality, and that is always there in the WHY.

Moral of the story—practice makes perfect. Try to always do the essay when you complete ISEE practice tests. It’s imperative that you put in the time for this section as well. Just because it doesn’t come with a score doesn’t mean it’s something to be ignored. This section could be the determining factor in your admission. Treat it with consideration. Use it as an opportunity.

To learn more about how to prepare for the ISEE: ISEE Test Prep for Parents: How should you prepare for your child’s ISEE test

To see the major differences in this year’s ISEE online testing system: ISEE At-Home: How does Test Innovators compare to ProProctor?

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