A Few Tips for WSU's English Proficiency Examination (EPE)

The GIS 2030 Instructional Team, Interdisciplinary Studies Program

Wayne State University

Information: 1. Registration: 313-577-3398. 2. Free workshops: 313-577-3165.

What to Bring? 1. An excellent dictionary (e.g., Merriam Webster Collegiate). 2. Pencils and pens. 3. A can-do attitude.

Time Management: You have two hours to complete the test--enough time to write and edit (but not, usually, re-write) your essay.

Preparing for the Test: 1. If you are a good reader and writer already, you only need to read the instructions below carefully and read a couple of enjoyable novels before walking into the test (reading for pleasure is the best way of becoming a good writer). 2. If you are not a proficient reader and writer, take a class which stresses reading comprehension and writing proficiency. Make sure to select a good, caring but competent and demanding, instructor for this one class. In your spare time, read as much as you can.

Taking the Test: When you show up for the test, you will be presented with a choice: A. Read-and-Respond, B. Responding to Data. The essay you write in either case is similar. In the Read-and-Respond case you are asked to respond to a short paragraph. In the data case, you are asked to respond to a list, table, or graph. Quickly read both formats and choose the one that, overall, is clearer, more familiar, and more interesting to you. When in doubt,  you should probably choose the Read-and-Respond option (data can be misinterpreted, in which case you will not pass the test, even if you write well). This tutorial will focus on the Read-and-Respond option. Here then are some tips for dealing with that option. It's terribly important that you read these tips carefully, for, besides grammar, failure to follow directions is the single most important reason for failing the EPE. You always proceed in the same manner, but, to make our suggestions a bit less abstract, we shall illustrate them through the following passage (taken from the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 22, 1989):

An English professor at Cornell University has a suggestion for those worried about how little is known by American students about literature and history. The federal government should offer financial incentives to corporations that include important facts and figures in their television commercials, says the professors, Jonathan Culler. Television of part of our common culture, he argues, and often reaches students in a way that academic subjects do not. At a recent meeting on the college curriculum, Mr. Culler offered a jingle of his own: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue / In 1992, Chrysler brings this car to you."

1. Read the passage a few times. If it contains words you don't entirely understand, look them up in the dictionary and make sure that you grasp their meaning in the context of that particular passage.

Let's say that you are not really sure about the meaning of the word incentive. Looking it up in your dictionary involves a bit of detective work, for the dictionary contains several definitions of this word. The most appropriate seems to be: something that makes people want to do something: a reward. So financial incentives here mean: money paid to corporations to induce them to include historical and literary facts and figures in their TV commercials. 2. You then summarize the main idea of the passage in your own words, in one or two sentences. If you can, add now a third sentence in which you illustrate that idea in a way which shows that you really understand the passage.

Prof. Culler, a professor of English at Cornell University, puts forward an innovative approach to combating lack of knowledge about literature and history among American students. The government, he believes, should pay corporations to include important literary and historical facts and figures in their TV commercials. Culler provides one example of the ads he has in mind, but many others can be imagined: "In Hiroshima, 200,000 people our country killed / In Chicago, 200 trillion Cheerios our company milled."

3. You are now ready for the big one--your thesis. Bear in mind that this is the main idea of your essay, the sentence around which everything else is organized, the anchor of your ship, the base of your pyramid, the key of your kingdom. So be careful.

Going back to our little essay, the thesis can be any number of things. You can say: "This essay will argue that Culler's idea is brilliant and will provide additional arguments in its favor." Or you can say: "I would like to explore alternative approaches to improving literary and historical literacy in the U.S." Or you can say: "This essay will explore practical barriers on the road to implementing Culler's proposal." Let us arbitrarily choose one thesis: "In this essay, I shall argue that Prof. Culler's proposal is unacceptable for both moral and educational reasons." Well, you are now done with your first paragraph. Note that without a good first paragraph, you cannot pass. Note also that the first paragraph must accomplish two goals: a. summarize the passage briefly and well. b. provide a coherent thesis for the rest of the essay. 4. Now it's time to reflect on the remainder of your essay. You want to make sure, before you start, that you will have enough to say in support of your thesis. You also want to make sure that your essay will be well-organized. To achieve these two goals, you now write an outline. Here is one possible outline:

I. A summary of the passage.

II. Thesis of EPE essay: Prof. Culler's proposal is unacceptable for both moral and educational reasons.

III. Prof. Culler does not understand that what's important in literature and history is not facts, but concepts.

IV. Commercials are an offensive aspect of our culture, a kind of blatant brainwashing: do we really want to use them to impart cherished aspects of our culture?

V. Instead of paying wealthy corporations to educate us, why can't we use the money directly for education--e.g., better teacher training, smaller students/teacher ratio, noncommercial TV programs like Sesame Street?

VI. Culler seems to be totally oblivious to the crass realities of commercial TV, realities that have been endlessly exposed by writers like Michael Parenti and Wilson Bryan Key.

VII. Conclusion.

Note the overall organization: Your thesis (II) is related to the summary of the passage (I). In turn, paragraphs III-VI support your thesis (II).

5. Each of these paragraphs must now be developed, fleshed out, supported, illustrated. We are not going to do that for the whole essay, and will only take point III above:

Prof. Culler does not understand that what's important in literature and history is not facts, but concepts. Let us examine, for instance, Culler's own example: Columbus's discovery of America. Now the date 1492 is of some value, but it does not even come close to being the one aspect upon which we might want to focus our students' attention. There are so many other more important questions to consider: What accounts for Columbus's single-minded pursuit of his goal? What kind of a person was he? Why did he doctor his ship's logs? Why did he deliberately decimate and subjugate so many "Indians" he came in contact with? What were the consequences of his discovery for Native American and European civilizations? And the same applies to literature: Culler would want to tell us, I suppose, that Jim was Huck Finn's friend, again missing such important questions of Jim's character and Twain's intentions. Needless to say, TV commercials cannot even begin to scrape the surface of such complex topics. So, if we follow Culler's advice, literature and history will be reduced to the same sad fate of contemporary TV news--a collection of disconnected, barely comprehensible, biased, sound bites. It is better to know nothing about our history and literature, I say, than "knowing" this kind of fragmented, commercialized version of it.

6. I similarly develop the other paragraphs and the conclusion.

7. All the while, I keep in mind the number of words in my essay (to figure that, I figure the average number of words in one line, then multiply that average by the number of lines), aiming at about 650 total number of words. For instance, if you have already written seven paragraphs, or four pages, your essay is probably long enough. Bring it to a close now, and spend the time remaining on editing it. Bear in mind that the graders are looking for quality, not quantity. Hence, it is far better to submit a well-developed, well-written, three-page essay, than to submit a long, wordy, disorganized, seven-page essay. 8. Armed with my first draft, I am now ready for a title, which I insert at the top of my essay. Don't underline your title and don't put it in quotes. Any title will do, as long as it pertains to the thesis of your essay. Three examples:

Why I Disagree with Dr. Culler?

Culler's Folly

Coca-Cola, Hemingway, and Wittner: Shall We Commercialize our Literature and History?

9. It's only now, with the first draft in your hands, that you begin to think about grammar, punctuation, mechanics, incomplete sentences, etc. Go over your essay with a fine-tooth comb. Check spellings and meanings of words with the dictionary. Quietly read the essay to yourself to check punctuation. If you know that you have problems with the spelling of decimate, look this word up. If you have trouble telling it's from its, make sure that the it's you used in your essay shouldn't really be its. If you repeated the same idea twice, delete the one version that is not as well-written.

10. Most likely, you will not have time to re-copy your essay. That's all right: graders expect to see errors in your text. At the end, ask yourself, for the last time, the key questions: Did I summarize the main idea of the passage? Did I expound a clear and relevant thesis of my own? Does every paragraph of my essay relate to my thesis? 11. Don't leave until the time is up--the editing you do in the last 5 minutes could conceivably spell the difference between passing and failing the test. Take-Home Exercise: To make the most of this tutorial, you need to apply what you have just learned to a mock-up test. So, at home, take two hours to respond to one of the three passages below. While doing so, try to follow the instructions above as closely as you can:

When I said that one businessman’s bribery was nothing but a crime, but a succession of business briberies over the years was a corruption of government to make it represent business, he [Philadelphia’s political boss Israel W. Durham] said thoughtfully, "Then contributions to campaign funds are more regular and, therefore, worse than bribes!"--The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (1931)


The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different. Reading was like a drug, a dope. The novels created moods in which I lived for days.--From Black Boy, 1944, by Richard Wright


It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble.--from The Burden of Sketcism, by Carl Sagan

Acknowledgment: Nancy Anters has graciously and competently edited an earlier draft of this tutorial. However, we alone are responsible for errors and misstatements.

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