Writing An Essay For Proficiency Exam

Preparing for the Writing Proficiency Exam

To prepare for the Writing Proficiency Exam, consider the nature of the exam: it asks you to produce a persuasive, thesis-driven essay and use standard written American English.  We’ve provided some resources to help you prepare, and we strongly recommend that you take advantage of them.  Although you may have done well in English classes, the Writing Proficiency Exam assesses how effectively you can produce a clear essay in a limited amount of time.  You will need to brainstorm and plan quickly, in a matter of minutes, and you won’t have much opportunity to revise.  For any other exam, you prepare.   Doing so for this major degree requirement will improve not only your chances of passing the exam but also the quality of your essay.  Finally, committing some hours to preparation and review will reduce your anxiety and help make the Writing Proficiency Exam a more positive experience.

Writing a Thesis-Driven Persuasive Essay

In your first composition course, English 1113 or its equivalent, you learned about different genres of writing (e.g. personal narrative, observation, or cause-effect) and discovered that each genre has a set of conventions, or general characteristics.  Some of these characteristics overlap, yet many are unique to the genre.  For the Writing Proficiency Exam, you are asked to write a persuasive essay and to demonstrate that, given a topic that invites multiple perspectives, you are able to articulate your perspective and offer reasons supporting it.

Writing is a learned skill that composition and other writing-intensive classes help you cultivate through sustained practice. Reviewing the writing skills you have learned throughout your time in high school and college can help you prepare to succeed on the WPE.

There are also a number of resources to help you with WPE preparation:

  • Review the General Strategies for Writing the WPE.
  • Familiarize yourself with the WPE Scoring Guide and learn tips for writing the WPE based on the scoring guide's four main categories: comprehension, organization, development, and expression.
  • Visit the front desk at the Writing & Rhetoric Center (Kennedy Library, Room 111C) and ask to review sample passing and failing WPE essays. Read through the essays and notice common writing characteristics evident among those earning passing scores and those earning failing scores.
  • Practice by writing an essay response—or even outline a response—to a previous WPE topic (sample topic 1, sample topic 2, sample topic 3) and bring your practice essay into the Writing & Rhetoric Center (35-111C). One of the writing consultants can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your response and discuss additional strategies for passing the WPE. 
  • Read through some additional WPE essay writing tips for more writing strategies that may assist when writing your exam response.

General Strategies for Writing the WPE

Read the prompt and underline key words before you read the article. Use these key words to help you focus as on important points in the article. This can help you remain focused on the ideas you are being asked to address instead of reacting to the content of the article itself. Consider using the key words as the basis of an outline. For example, if you are being asked whether or not Cal Poly should require students to take a GE course on personal finances to help them make better financial decisions, key words might include: required GE course, personal finances, and financial decisions. You may then want to reference content from the article (i.e., with direct quotes) to support your claims as you discuss each of these concepts.

Remember that you are being asked to make an argument, so graders will be looking for a strong thesis statement early in your essay. Consider using your thesis to directly answer the question posed in the prompt. If you are unsure of what your stance should be, briefly outline arguments for both positions. Can you make a stronger argument for why Cal Poly should require a GE course on personal finances or for why there should not be a personal finance GE requirement? Take the position that will provide you with support for the stronger argument.

Graders expect you to take a clear stance on the question asked, but addressing a counterargument in your essay can strengthen your argument, make your essay more engaging, and demonstrate to your reader that you’ve given some thought to your response. However, do not spend a lot of time setting up the counterargument. While the ability to refute an opposing viewpoint can help the development of your argument, too much discussion of why someone might disagree with you has to potential make you appear to waiver in your stance. Acknowledge the opposing view then tell your reader why it is wrong.

Writing Tips Based on the WPE Scoring Guide

Below you will find writing tips specifically aligned to the four categories on the WPE Scoring Guide.

Comprehension: Can you demonstrate an understanding of both the reading and the prompt through your response?  To meet reader expectations for the comprehension category, consider doing one or more of the following: Identify the article you will be referencing by title and author early in your introduction. In just a couple of sentences, summarize the article’s thesis in your introduction and provide a couple of key supporting points. Connect (or transition) this summation to your argument’s thesis and use your thesis statement to directly answer the prompt. You can also meet the expectations of this category by using direct quotes from the article or key words from the prompt throughout the body of your essay.

Organization: Do you address all parts of the prompt and demonstrate effective paragraph and whole-essay organization? Basic essay organization strategies apply here. If you are talking about ducks and then discuss mechanical engineering, don’t go back to ducks. Keeping all your ducks in a row can strengthen your overall essay and help your reader’s ability to follow your logic. Consider outlining your ideas before you begin writing. This can give you a chance to put your argument in a more logical order and also gives you something to reference if you forget where you were going in your argument. The topic sentences for each paragraph should do two things: 1) Tell your reader what that paragraph is about, and 2) Advance/add to your argument. Try to avoid topic sentences that include quotes from the article, but instead begin and end paragraphs in your own words to create a stronger argument. WPE scorers already know what the article says; they are more interested in what you have to say in response to the prompt, using the reading as your guide.

Development: Do you develop your controlling idea throughout the essay using specific and appropriate details presented in a logical manner? This section deals with how you support your claims. Using detailed and specific examples, with clear analysis connecting those examples back to your main argument, paints a picture for your readers that allows them to have a clearer understanding of what overall argument you are trying to make in response to the prompt. Many WPE prompts will ask you to discuss whether Cal Poly does or does not (or should or should not) do something. If this is the case, be sure to stay Cal Poly-centric as you develop your arguments because if your examples are too general, it may appear as if you are not adequately addressing the prompt. Do not be afraid of using the first person “I" in your essay (e.g., “When I took English 134 during my first year at Cal Poly…”), but be sure to avoid an overly narrative response.  In other words, toggle back and forth with examples from your own experience and examples from the reading to support your main points.  

Expression: Is your prose clear and mostly error-free? Is your tone appropriate for an academic audience? The majority of WPE essays are handwritten and this creates a lot of anxiety for writers who are accustomed to relying on technology for assistance with grammar, spelling, and mechanics. Generally speaking, if these errors do not interfere with your reader’s ability to understand what you are saying, this category should not be an issue. That being said, if a writer continually confuses homophones such as “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” a reader’s understanding may be inhibited. Extensive run-on sentences or fragments can also be problematic for reader comprehension. The rule of thumb here is to try to save a few minutes toward the end of the exam session to review your essay and revise/edit any unclear passages.

Additional WPE Essay Writing Tips

The following pages offer general WPE essay writing tips that may be helpful when preparing to take the WPE.

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