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Writing Test Guides

Take advantage of these sample assessment questions and tips for earning the best possible score on your test essay. 

Taking the TSI Writing Test

There are two parts to the TSI writing test: the multiple-choice part and the essay. You should spend most of your time writing the essay because if you score an essay level of 2, 3, or 4 and make a 100 on the multiple-choice part, you fail the test. If, however, you score a level 6, 7, or 8 on the essay and a zero on the multiple-choice part, you pass the test.

The score you make on the objective part is only used as a tiebreaker if you score a level 5 on your essay. If you score a level 5 essay and have a 70 average on the multiple-choice part, you pass. Thus, passing the writing section of the TSI largely depends on the essay you write. So, how can you make the best possible score on the essay?

The Essay Writing Prompt

Although you won’t know the essay topic until the day of the test, the writing prompts follow a pattern: a controversial topic is presented and several arguments are listed for each side of the issue. Then you are asked to take a stand on the issue presented and to present reasons and evidence to support your beliefs. Below is the sample prompt listed in the 2004-2005 THEA bulletin:

Should art projects that are supported by public funding be required to meet certain standards defining what is socially acceptable? Some believe that the government has both a right and a responsibility to ensure that works of art produced with the help of public funds reflect society's commonly accepted values. Others regard government guidelines for art as a form of censorship that violates our nation's commitment to freedom of expression.

Your purpose is to write an essay, to be read by a classroom instructor, in which you take a position on whether or not the government should establish guidelines limiting the kind of art that can be produced with public funding. Be sure to support your position with logical arguments and appropriate examples.

Think of the arguments listed in the prompt as a starting point for your prewriting. You are not required to include any of the given arguments in your essay, but if you choose to use some of these statements as main ideas, rephrase them and add a substantial amount of your own material as supporting detail.

The Basic Essay

The five-paragraph essay is one possibility for writing the TSI essay. The first paragraph is an introduction, there are three body paragraphs, and the last paragraph is the conclusion.

The introduction should start with a lead-in directing the readers toward your thesis, which is typically stated as the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. “The government should not establish guidelines that limit the kind of art that can be created with public funding,” is a possible thesis for the sample THEA topic. Notice that this thesis chooses a side on the issue: to limit the kind of art created. (Although the thesis can also be implied or appear in the conclusion, if you do this, you are taking a risk. The readers may not easily understand your position or they may think your thesis is an afterthought, not your guiding theme.)

Each body paragraph should develop an idea that supports the thesis. Three topic sentences are outlined below for the sample topic. Each topic sentence would be developed in a separate body paragraph.

  1. One reason the government should not set guidelines for art produced with public funding is the public will never agree on a definition of what is “socially acceptable.”
  2. In addition, setting guidelines for public-funded art restricts diversity.
  3. Finally, the government should not set guidelines for tax-supported art because censorship is dangerous.

NOTE: Restating your thesis in each topic sentence will keep you focused as the writer of a timed essay, and it will help keep your readers focused.

Your conclusion should restate your thesis and summarize your main points in different words. It should also leave readers with a sense of closure.

The five-paragraph essay is very direct in its approach to the topic, but it can help you demonstrate to your readers that you understand the basics of writing an essay.

Essay Writing Steps

Phase 1: Prewrite
Carefully read the prompt. Spend time prewriting on the topic to generate information and to work out a plan to organize your essay.

  • Circle or underline ideas that could form the main points for your essay.
  • Establish an order for them and generate details for developing these ideas into paragraphs.
  • Decide on a lead-in for your essay that engages the reader and focuses on the topic.
  • Write a clear thesis statement stating your position on the topic.

Phase 2: Draft
Draft the essay. Make your paper believable and sensible. Support your main ideas with specific examples and details.

Phase 3: Revise
Take a mental break: five minutes if taking the T-COM; more if you are taking THEA.

Read over your draft carefully and make sure your ideas are easy to follow for someone unfamiliar with the topic. Add any details and transitions that would make your meaning clearer. Delete any details that don’t clearly develop your main points. Move information that is in the wrong place.

Phase 4: Proofread
Read through your essay watching for omitted words, sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-ons. Cross out information you don’t want readers to see.

Before you go take the test, review papers your instructors have marked and make a list of the kinds of errors you typically make and ways to identify those errors. By doing this, you will know what kinds of error to look for in your final essay.

Try reading your paper from the last sentence to the first sentence. Reading your sentences out of sequence is a good strategy for locating errors.

The TSI writing criteria place more importance on how well you organize and express your ideas than on how you handle the mechanical aspects of writing. Be as precise and correct as possible, but focus your attention on making sense and on saying exactly what you mean. It is okay to use a word that expresses just the right meaning even if you aren’t 100 percent sure of the spelling.


Scorers will evaluate your essay for the following:

1. Appropriateness:

  • Have you addressed the topic?
  • Have you stated a position on the issue?
  • Do you argue the stated position?
  • Is the language appropriate? Do not use awkward, artificial phrasing. Do not overuse slang and “street talk.” Do not use profanity.

2. Unity and focus:

  • Do you state and maintain your position throughout the essay?
  • Do you make your point clear to the readers?
  • Do your examples clearly develop the point?

3. Development:

  • Do you support your point with specific detail?
  • Is there a sufficient amount of support?
  • Is there depth to the support?

4. Organization:

  • Is the information organized logically?
  • Does each paragraph relate to the thesis?

5. Sentence structure:

  • Are the majority of your sentences error free? Avoid fragments, run-ons, comma splices, subject-verb agreement errors, pronoun agreement errors, unnecessary repetition, and wordy sentences.

6. Usage:

  • Is the writing free of word errors?
  • Do you use precise word choice?

7. Mechanical conventions:

  • Do you spell common words correctly?
  • Do you use capitalization and punctuation correctly?
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