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Nailing the “Timed Write” Assessment for Harvard-Westlake and Other Private Schools

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

If your teen is applying to private high schools or boarding schools, you may have noticed new application tasks on the portal that weren’t asked of students in prior years. This year, in my role as admissions consultant at College Torch, I’ve gotten the most questions from our families about Harvard-Westlake’s “timed write” assessment, which is required of both their incoming middle school and high school students.

Read on to learn more about this application component, what other schools may be requiring, how your child can do their best when they take it, and how you can get your hands on a timed write resource from College Torch that will help your child go into the assessment with confidence.

What is the timed write and how does it work?

For Harvard-Westlake, students will take a timed, thirty-minute impromptu writing assessment through the application portal. Students may only take the assessment once. They stress in bold that “no preparation is needed.” Read on to see how you can prepare anyways.

All students must take the assessment, regardless of whether they submit ISEE test scores. (Harvard-Westlake is test-optional and will still accept scores if families send them.) The assessment becomes available as soon as families submit the Application for Admission and pay their application fee. The deadline to take the timed write is January 15th, 2021.

For other schools, be sure to check the language of the instructions carefully for any small differences between their exercise and the descriptions in this post, which are specific to the Harvard-Westlake assessment.

Where did this assessment come from, and how will my child be evaluated?

In past years, when most private schools required the ISEE, HSPT, or SSAT standardized test, they were able to use the unscored writing section as a student writing sample. This year, many of the schools have chosen not to require a test score, but some still want the writing sample. That’s where the timed write assessment comes in.

Since the timed write is a brand new assessment, it is hard to say with certainty how schools like Harvard-Westlake will use the writing sample. However, it is likely they will use it for the same purpose as the ISEE essay. In this case, the private school does not want to harshly evaluate and critique the timed write. (Remember, the readers are educators and, if your child joins their community, the school will help them improve their writing!) Instead, the school is looking for additional context into the student and their grades, teacher recommendations, and application essays.

What is the school hoping to learn from the timed write?

Here are some information points the timed write could give:

  • Compared with the student’s application essays, how close is the impromptu writing in voice, style, mechanics, and depth of content? Does it look like the same student, or does it look like parents were involved in the application essays?

  • Does the student’s writing ability match their grades in English class?

  • If the student is ESL, how is their English coming along, and are they able to effectively communicate their thoughts?

  • Does the student appear to have access to their own thoughts and the ability to articulate and organize them?

  • Does the student putter out and lose energy, or are they not able to thoroughly complete the assignment?

  • Does anything stand out as unusual or worrying that might make the student a liability in the campus community?

How should my student prepare for the timed write?

As mentioned earlier, the school would prefer your child doesn’t prepare. However, in a way, your child has been preparing for this assessment every time they’ve picked up a pen. Your child should prepare for the writing assessment just like they would prepare for a pop quiz essay at school:

  • Get ready: They should be rested, hydrated, and ready with all materials, including pen and paper for taking notes and a bottle of water. They should use the restroom before the timed write.

  • Take the assessment at whatever time of day the student has the most energy.

  • Students should practice outlining at home before the assessment, since writing outlines is not a skill all students have practiced thoroughly.

  • Work with a tutor or teacher to identify glaring writing errors and bad habits (e.g. fragments, choppy sentences, run-ons) and work to eliminate these.

  • Have your child write a practice response without timing them, and decide on what a good length of response is… not too short and not too long. (3-5 paragraphs is a safe range.)

  • Don’t wait until the last minute! Take the assessment as early as makes sense for your family.

If your child is very motivated, they can work with Mary, one of College Torch's academic specialists, to do practice timed write tasks and learn how to improve them.

How can my child be successful during the timed write?

The number one thing is for your child to be their authentic self on the timed write. Application readers can sniff out a fake application, but if a student is being genuine, the readers will always be on their side.

Here are some of my best tips to prepare for the assessment:

  • Slow down and really, really read the prompt. It’s paramount to understand the prompt before writing a response.

  • Use five of your thirty minutes to plan, and more if it helps. Your child should have a bullet-point outline that lines up with the paragraphs they plan to write.

  • Identify the type of prompt it is. Persuasive? Personal? Critical? Informative? This affects the planning.

  • As you’re writing, take the opportunity to elaborate whenever possible by giving examples, details, and perspectives.

  • Remember content is king, and don’t get caught up in issues of spelling and grammar.

  • Fretting? Freezing? Skip where you’re at and come back. If you’re not able to finish it later, you could even leave it as is (as long as you finish your sentence). The evaluators would much rather read an essay without an introduction than an essay with only an introduction. Same thing with the conclusion… if you run out of time, just find closure and end the essay. (e.g. “It’s that simple!”)

Again, taking practice timed writes with the help of a specialist can give students a chance to navigate the task before they take the real assessment.

If you’re worried the student’s application essays won’t match their performance on the timed write, the solution may not be to coach the student into writing differently (inauthentically) on the timed write. Instead, this may mean your family is overworking the application essays. It’s okay to de-elevate those… after all, the students are just in middle school!

What other schools are implementing a timed write assessment?

Other schools may have similar assessments but not use the words “timed write.” For example, Polytechnic School in Pasadena, CA has an “Upper School Student Assessment,” which combines a timed write exercise with a brief academic test, including a math portion. (Polytechnic has chosen to be test-free and not test-optional this year, so no students will be submitting an ISEE essay to their office at all; however, arguably, this new assessment isn't really in the "test free" spirit.)

Some schools may incorporate a timed write into the interview process, asking students to complete a brief, impromptu, supervised writing task either before or after the conversation with the student.

The safest way to approach the timed write assessment is to prepare as if there will be one.

Want to connect with College Torch? Join our private Facebook group for parents:

Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process, as well as the private high school and boarding school admission process. For private high school consulting inquiries, please contact him directly at

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