Upper Level: Essay Study Guide for the ISEE

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General Information

Your ISEE essay will not be scored by the testing scorers, but a copy of it will be sent to the school(s) to which you are applying. A copy of it is not included in the parent score report.

The ISEE Essay has a time limit of 30 minutes. During that time, you need to plan, write, and review (proofread/edit) an essay written on a given prompt. The topic will probably concern something that you are interested in and knowledgeable about, but it still takes some effort to put your words down on paper, in a manner that is academically correct. Here are some things to keep in mind.


You will need to use the first 5 minutes (no more) to plan your essay on the planning paper you are given. Your planning sheet will not be forwarded to schools with your essay.

There are a number of strategies for planning an essay, including lists and graphic organizers. You may have a favorite or you may want to research these with the help of a teacher or the Internet.

Types of Plans

There are many different types of essay plans, including brainstorming charts, outlines, and lists. A brainstorming chart requires that one central idea be placed in the center of the paper, with topic sentences branching off of this idea and supporting evidence branching off of the topic sentences.

Outlines are a bit simpler, in that you use “A, B, C, D,” etc., followed by “I, II, III, IV, V,” etc. You can outline your topic sentence, your thesis, and your supporting evidence.

A list is a bit more disorganized; essentially, you list all of the points you want to cover and use the list to tick off each of your points.

Things to Include in the Plan

Your plan should always include your thesis (overall idea), your topic sentences, your supporting evidence, and the basics of your conclusion. If you have enough time, you should also include snippets of information and any phrases you might want to use in the body of your essay.

Stay on Topic

One of the main points in developing a plan is to stay on topic. You may refer back to your plan any time you begin to stray away from your given topic, or you feel lost in your own writing. Although it is extremely easy to stray away from your topic, it is vitally important that you remain consistent in your topic; straying away from your point will be marked against you quite heavily during grading.


Even though you will be reviewing your essay at the end of the allotted time, there are strategies to use as you write that will help reduce correction time.

Refer to Your Plan

Refer back to your plan as you write to keep your ideas on topic and to maintain a consistent sense of organization. Your plan is your blueprint for your essay, and it should regularly be glanced over to keep your essay consistent, organized, and easy to read.

Think as You Compose

As you write, make sure you are creating a body of work that has a certain amount of rhythm to it. This means varying your word usage, making sure you are using the best words for a sentence (not necessarily just the largest available word), and creating some variations in your sentences themselves. Typically, this requires writing a short sentence, followed by a longer sentence, with another shorter sentence thrown in, followed by a sentence using a conjunction. This way, your writing maintains a natural flow and beat, as though someone were actually speaking.

Cover an Idea Thoroughly Before Moving On

When you bring a new point into the fray, make sure you adequately identify and explore your point. This means providing enough supporting details and statements and exhausting all avenues required to get your point across.

Stay on Topic

As discussed earlier, stay on topic! As you are writing, review the sentences prior to the one you’re currently writing, and make sure that your sentences are aligned. If you find yourself drifting from your topic, refer back to your outline or work to uncover more details regarding your current point.

Express Your Thoughts Clearly

Express your thoughts as you might explain something to a middle or high school student. Essays are not intended to be used as stream-of-consciousness writing, but are required to use an academic, formal writing style. Keep this in mind as you write, and compose in a way that suggests you are an authority on your subject.


While this will need to be a very quick process, it’s your chance to find obvious errors before turning in your final copy. You will not have time to do any major reorganization, but you can find mistakes in these areas:

Is the Topic in the Box at the Top of the Paper?

Make sure you have not forgotten to identify your topic. Before you begin writing, ideally, you should write down your topic and use it to constantly refer back to and make sure you are keeping yourself on track.


As you write, glance over your work and make sure you don’t have any spelling errors. The most skilled scholar will make a spelling mistake or two—especially while under pressure—so don’t fret. Instead, take a moment to skim over your essay and identify any small errors you may have left behind.


In a similar vein, go back over your work to check for awkward or incorrect bits of stray grammar. Make sure you are using your punctuation marks and sentence parts correctly. Although you cannot spend an inordinate amount of time checking and rechecking your grammar, you do have a few moments to add in a missing comma, or rearrange a confusing sentence.


When writing an academic essay, many men and women tend to use large, overly impressive words that don’t quite fit the flow of the piece. As you write (and briefly review), make sure you pay close attention to word usage, and choose words that not only fit the flow of your piece, but fit the style of your writing.


Variety is important in creating an essay. As you compose, make sure to start sentences in varied ways, ranging from explanations (“This is why…”) to new introductions (“Environmental degradation is a powerful force for bringing about climate change…”).

Punctuation and Capitalization

Go back over your work and identify any spots where punctuation and capitalization may be problematic. Remember that sentences should begin with capital letters, as well as proper nouns (most often identified by remembering the components “person, place, or thing”). Periods should be used for statements, while question marks should be used for questions, and exclamation points used for exclamations. Colons are used to denote the presence of a list or immediate continuation of a sentence, while semicolons are used to connect two related, but complete, sentences. Finally, commas are used to denote a pause in a sentence.

A quick review of all punctuation rules is probably a really good idea.


Although you may be tempted to write quickly to make the best of your time, make sure you are writing clearly and legibly; a grader cannot possibly give you a good grade on your essay if they are unable to discern what it is that you’re saying. As you review your essay, make sure you alter any word or words that are not immediately identifiable.

Preparation Tips

Become Comfortable Writing

The testing company has developed over 100 different prompts. One is used for each administration of the ISEE, so, if you take the ISEE more than once, you will not see the same prompt. Practice writing to a prompt often so that you are comfortable addressing a variety of topics and issues.

Practice with a Time Limit

Set an alarm for 30 minutes before beginning each practice session. You may even want to break that down into three parts: 5 minutes to plan, 20 minutes to write, and 5 minutes to review and correct. That way, you’ll be used to writing within time constraints similar to those on test day.

Practice Writing with a Pen

In this day of keyboard use for writing, you may have gotten out of the habit of actually writing things down. Take time to become reacquainted with the pen! You will be allowed to write in either cursive or manuscript (printing). Whichever you prefer, be sure you can write legibly in a reasonable amount of time. This may take some practice!

All Study Guides for the ISEE are now available as downloadable PDFs