Answering Prompts on Writing Tests

Student Test

Many high-stakes writing assessments, including those that test the Common Core, require students to respond to a prompt. A prompt is a compact set of writing instructions that students must follow within a set amount of time (often between 30 and 90 minutes). Answering the prompt is critical. A student could write a brilliant essay but get a low score if the essay does not target the key features of the prompt. As a result, students need a quick and accurate strategy for analyzing prompts.

How can students analyze writing prompts?

The PAST questions help students rapidly analyze the four important pieces of information conveyed by most writing prompts. PAST stands for the following:

  • Purpose: Why am I writing? (To explain? To persuade? To narrate? To evaluate?)
  • Audience: Who are my readers? (Test graders? Other students? The principal? Community members?)
  • Subject: What am I writing about? (An experience? A person? An opinion? A reading?)
  • Type: What form should my writing take? (Essay? Letter? Story? Editorial?)

Here is a typical writing prompt and an analysis using the PAST questions:


From early childhood, we all have a sense of justice: "That's not fair!" we would proclaim. But what is "fair"? Think about what you mean when you say something is "fair" or "not fair." Write an essay that defines one or both of the terms, giving examples, anecdotes, and other supporting details. Help other students understand what is "fair" and "not fair."

PAST Analysis

  • Purpose: Why am I writing?

            To define terms

  • Audience: Who are my readers?

            Other students

  • Subject: What am I writing about?

            The terms "fair" and "not fair"

  • Type: What form should my writing take?

            A definition essay

Note that some prompts may not indicate a specific audience. In such cases, students can assume the audience for the writing to be the grader of the test.

You can use this free online minilesson to give your students practice using the PAST strategy.

How can students organize their writing?

After students have done a PAST analysis, they should jot down a quick list containing a one-sentence focus for their response and several supporting points:

Quick List

            The word "fair" means getting what you deserve.

            —Hard work deserves reward.

            —Dishonesty deserves punishment.

            —The "Golden Rule"

            —The time I turned in someone's wallet with $100 in it

How should students manage their time?

Students should complete their PAST analysis and quick list in the first 5 minutes or so of the writing assessment. Then they should spend the bulk of their time writing their responses. Near the end, they should spend 5–10 minutes revising and editing the response, making sure it is on target with the PAST analysis. In this way, on-demand writing uses a modified version of the writing process, with a brief period of prewriting, a long period of writing, and a brief period of revising and editing.

Where can I find more support for high-stakes writing assessment?

The Write Ahead student handbook includes sample prompts, PAST analyses, planning quick lists, model responses, and guidelines for the major modes of writing. Check out these free resources available in the Write Ahead Teacher's Guide: