In the past, a well-known Catholic University in St. Louis, Missouri espoused the value of the essay examination to such an extent that no member of the student body could pass from freshman year to sophomore year without passing its exit exam. The theory behind this intense attention to this three hour essay exam process was a philosophy that embraced education itself. Simply put, it is of little service to the student, the university, or the society at large when a student cannot competently communicate in writing that which the student has learned. To its credit, the university taught the entire freshman class how to approach an essay exam and survive the rigor this communication skill demands.
Choosing the topic
In the example of the exit exam, the topic may be chosen by the examiner in a generic sense but this particular exam did allow a bit of nuance for the student as well. The students were informed what the generic topic would be. In one case, it was Greek Classics. So, the university required as a freshman course that all students take Greek Literature. One or more of those literary examples that are the basis for Western Civilization would do more than prepare the student to be able to tackle any essay, no matter how obscure; it would also train the student about the tradition of Western culture in the process.
While initially a quite daunting thought to any student just out of high school and with limited knowledge of Greek culture, the university was cleverly demonstrating that a well educated person can write competently about anything at all after learning basic skills.
The basic skill of essay writing is to create a topic sentence. This is so true, the Greek Literature instructors would practice students on acquiring just such a competence. This went a long way toward giving the student experientially what the student knew to be facing then in the exit exam. Practicing topic sentences is a valuable skill. The entire essay is intended to revolve around the topic sentence. Soon, students learned that they would be given the choice of six topic sentences come exit exam time. The student would be expected to choose one of the six about Greek Classics and write about that for three hours on exam day.
Spelling and grammar
Choosing a topic sentence then leads the student to consider what to write about in relation to that topic. For this, proper grammar is critical. It is immediately obvious that the writer is not doing well when the verb tense changes as paragraphs move on. Dangling modifiers are unacceptable. No one can fully understand what is meant when it is unclear what noun the adjective is modifying. An example might be Having met Mary and Melissa, she liked her very much. Who was liked – Mary or Melissa?
Having mastered adequate grammar skills, students learned that the in the exit exam of a 3,000 word essay, only five grammatical errors would be allowed. Spelling errors allowed would be three. This was because students could bring a thesaurus to this timed exam.
Transitional phrases, sentences and paragraphs
When an essay moves from one sentence to another, subtleties can arise as focus of the topic shifts. An example of this might be when telling of two boys in a field, one who is reading and another flying a kite. Where the essayist is writing about the kite flying boy, an entire paragraph or perhaps only a few sentences will be devoted to kite boy.
Shifting to a focus on the boy who is reading is not one that should be done suddenly but rather by preparing the reader for a shift in focus as well. It is possible to do a transition using an entire paragraph to do so. An example of this might be much like one seen when watching a movie. The camera is on the kite flying, and kite flying boy, then shifts to scenery and over to the boy reading. The scenery shift is the transitional part of the scene. In writing that device must be put into words.
When it came time for the actual exit exam, all freshmen students went to an assigned classroom at the same time on Saturday. They were allowed a pencil and a thesaurus. The proctor handed out blue books in which to write the essay. Next, the proctor began to write six sentences on a chalk board. Each was a topic sentence. The proctor then said, “Choose one of these sentences, Write no more than 3,000 words considering each page to be a certain approximation. Be sure to use transitional words, phrases, and paragraphs.”
In three hours, everyone will be asked to put their pencils down and turn in the blue book. If you fail, you are allowed to re-take the exit exam two more times in the summer. If you have not passed by then, the university will not accept you for the fall. Three spelling errors and five grammatical errors constitute a failure. Begin.