Answering Prompts on Writing Tests

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:


Everyone needs a friend. A friend plays with you when you are happy and helps you when you are sad. Think of what you like in a friend. Write an essay explaining to your classmates the qualities you look for in a good friend. Tell why each quality is important and give examples.

PAST Analysis

  • Purpose: Why am I writing?

            To explain qualities of good friends

  • Audience: Who are my readers?

            My classmates

  • Subject: What am I writing about?

            What I look for in a friend

  • Type: What form should my writing take?

            An 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

            Good friends are glad to see you, like to joke and have fun, and stand up for you in tough times.

            —Good friends like you and you like them.

            —They are fun to hang out with.

            —They defend you from mean people.

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 Writers Express 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 Writers Express Teacher's Guide:

You can also find many student models with rubrics at four different levels of performance in each major mode.