The College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, tests prospective students' mastery of basic college skills. Students take this exam to demonstrate that they know material normally covered in a freshman-level course. Instead of actually taking the course, they receive college credit for passing a CLEP exam in that subject. The English Literature exam replaces a two-semester course and features an optional essay section. Some colleges require the essay for credit.

General Essay Writing

According to the University of Chicago Writing Center, a general, college-level essay consists of an argument, key points and a well-planned, cohesive draft. Such essays include a central, debatable point that states the writer's position on a topic. For the CLEP English essay, for example, this could be the candidate's assertion about a poem's meaning. Additionally the essay must display clear organization of points supporting the argument. While creating a detailed outline is not necessary -- in fact, it's too time-intensive for the CLEP exam -- most writers profit from a focused planning of their main points. A polished essay is cohesive, showing clear flow between points and paragraphs by way of transition words and phrases.

CLEP English Essay

The English exam assesses whether candidates have read a wide variety of English literature and understand its basic development over literary periods. The exam requires candidates to write two essays on topics related to English literature. For the first, candidates analyze a poem and write a position paper based on this; College Board advises spending 35 to 40 minutes on this task. Candidates choose between two topics for the second essay, either writing about any work from a specific author or choosing from a given list; they write a position paper either about an observation or theme featured in the given literature. College Board advises 50 to 55 minutes for this essay. The essay tests candidates' abilities to write clearly and effectively.

Essay Tips

The CLEP essay is timed, so candidates need to use their time efficiently. First they interpret the prompt by reading it carefully and identifying instruction words. Instruction words include verbs like "analyze," "demonstrate" and "rank." Candidates must know the exact meaning of those words so that they know what position to take in their essay. For example, a prompt asking them to "rank" English authors differs from one asking them to "analyze" their work. Because of the ticking clock, candidates may be tempted to start writing immediately; however, they should spend a couple minutes planning their response. The essay is graded for "ability to write clearly," which requires planning. At the end, candidates also should proof their work for spelling and grammar errors, as well as for cohesion if time permits.

Study Tips

Since the CLEP exam assesses abilities equivalent to two college-level classes, candidates should make a study plan. Thirty-five to 40 percent of the exam tests candidates' literary background and ability to use literary references and terms, so memorizing literary terms and movements is a good start. The rest of the test focuses on their abilities in relation to analysis and perception, such as analyzing for theme or perceiving meaning from a passage. As such, in addition to developing essay writing skills, such as planning and proofing, candidates need to devote time to reading and analyzing literature, including poetry. The key to effective study is getting a sense for the major movements in literature.

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About the Author

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.