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

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

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.