Homeschoolers Scoring High on Literature and Essay Testing

Apr 28, 2017

How can homeschooled students earn AP or SAT II type college credit without Advanced Placement classes? More easily than you might think. Scoring well on the writing portion of such tests involves two components: harnessing and creatively expressing ideas, and organizing and formatting them correctly. Rest assured that your student probably holds the first component and the second is easily learned and practiced. Homeschooled students can pull from a vast array of ideas. It is one of the inherent beauties of homeschooling that students have the space and exposure to think deeply. This harnessing of ideas is much harder to teach than the ideal method for spitting it out on the page. The organizing and formatting for the test is the simple part.

Part 1 of this blog series addresses the close-reading or argument essays. Part 2 will give tips for the Synthesis and Rhetorical Analysis essay questions. As for the non-essay questions, students simply need to be well read and have an awareness of figures of speech (details to follow in Part 3).

In close-reading or argument analysis essays, students are asked to read a primary text and explain how an author gives a certain tone, conclusion, or argument to their subject matter. For these essays, students need to seize word choices, punctuation choices, images, figures of speech, line or paragraph breaks, and allusions to other pieces of art, history, or literature, and weave them together to justify a message given by the author. Your student may not be used to taking a brief association from reading a text and using it as a strong point in their essay, but this is good practice when woven with others.

Harnessing Ideas:

  • Scoring HighStudents need to determine their answer to the essay question quickly, proving their answer with ideally three observations from the text provided.
  • These observations should be sparked when reading the text provided and should use any association, nuance, or allusion that comes to mind. Your student has these sparks! He or she just needs to be aware of them.
  • The emphasis should not be on the right answer or best associations that may come to mind; instead, emphasize interesting and well-rounded interaction with the text. A student cannot make their answer interesting if they agonize over which word choice to unpack. As usual, there is not one right answer.

Format and Presentation:

  • Students should plan on restating the question with an answer tacked on as a stand-alone thesis statement. Then three paragraphs proving each of the three supporting ideas can follow. Extra introduction or a fourth conclusion paragraph should only be considered if there is excess time.
    • For example: What tone does the speaker express regarding death in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”? First sentence/Thesis: In Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, the speaker expresses a tone of ambivalence toward death through mundane imagery, slow iambic rhythm, and description outside of time.
  • The three supporting ideas should be fairly simple comments on the author’s or speaker’s choices that can be tied to greater meaning. Students can compare and contrast choices by an author or fill out an illusion or image further to make an argument.
    • For example: Dickinson’s imagery of a carriage ride, school children, harvesting, and so on make the experience of meeting death quite usual. She did not pick unusual sights, sounds, or ceremonies to make the meeting dramatic or shocking. Instead the image is of a slow Sunday carriage drive. This is highlighted in words like…
  • The three paragraphs should be packed with examples quoted from the texts and explanations from a student’s own imagination or study of other texts. Students should be as concrete as possible through such examples.
  • If there is not time to fill out three paragraphs, list the topic sentences with the supporting example mentioned.
    • For example: The iambic rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables rocks the reader along with the plodding of the horse’s footsteps, making Dickinson’s encounter with death again seem everyday and methodical.


With poems or excerpts of fiction and nonfiction, decide on an author’s main idea, an emotion expressed, and how that is communicated. Look line by line or sentence by sentence for any choice on the part of the author that can prove your idea about the emotions or conclusions of the author.

  • Questions to ask:
    • What does the author feel about this subject? How do we know?
    • What word choices, if replaced, would give a very different sense or idea?
    • What series of images does the reader picture and why?
    • Is anything reminiscent of another time, art, or piece of literature?


Get in contact with your region’s College Board office to find out the timeline for AP and SAT II tests.

Homeschooling parents are often concerned about the lack of formal writing instruction or timed essay test experience in their children. I’m here to tell you from personal and professional experience that most likely only a few small steps are necessary to help your student achieve high scores on literature or essay tests like SAT II, AP Test, and other standardized tests.

Homeschoolers often hold a priceless gem: the ability to think creatively and critically. Great writing and analysis begins with thinking. Students who have had formal and painstaking writing exercises jammed down their throats from a young age lose some of the creative thinking that your student probably holds closer to the surface.


Bethany Hathaway has been a cyber teacher for six years, now with Excelsior Classes, after several years in public education. She earned her MA in English from the Bread Loaf School of English, Middlebury College, VT and BA in English from Wheaton College, IL. A lifelong believer in living books, Bethany was homeschooled for most of her years and now teaches her four young boys (the oldest is in third grade). In a spare moment, you might find Bethany attempting to train for another half marathon with strollers, scooters, and biking children in tow.