How to Write the CBEST Writing Section Essays

You may feel a bit rusty when it comes to writing essays. Or, perhaps you have failed the CBEST writing section in the past.

Whatever the case may be, if you need to pass the CBEST writing section, you’ve come to the right place.

The CBEST writing portion of the test includes two essays that you have to write within a relatively short time. 

You are no doubt familiar with the rubric and the scoring criteria, so I won’t waste your time with any of that information. Instead, you and I will go straight to the meat of the matter. 

I will give you step-by-step instructions on how to write each of the essays. The first essay is personal, and the second is expository, which means it is argumentative.

So, let’s dive right in and learn how to write each of these essays on a tight timeline of the CBEST test.

How to Write the CBEST Personal Essay

First, let’s quickly discuss the main difference between the personal and the expository essays on this test.

The expository (argumentative) essay is the same 5-paragraph essay that they kind of taught you how to write in school. It is also a basic college essay in which you state an argument and support it. 

The personal essay, especially as described in CBEST prompts, is essentially a story with a lesson. This is the easiest way to approach it. 

So, in this part of the tutorial, we’ll be writing a 5-paragraph personal story with a lesson that you learned from it. I will use my personal example as an illustration. 

Our Sample CBEST Personal Essay Question

“Most people have experienced a significant challenge that changed their life in some way. This challenge is usually a loss of some kind, such as a loss of health, of a job or financial asset, or of an important relationship. In an essay to be read by an audience of educated adults, discuss one such challenge and how it changed you as a person.”

Note that any CBEST personal essay question will involve some kind of a challenge, something from your past you wish you could change, or some kind of a loss. 

Does this sound familiar? 

Every Hollywood movie is structured this way. You have a character who has a problem, and she overcomes that problem, but she has to change in order to do that.

In your personal essay, you are essentially doing the same. Your 5-paragraph structure becomes your 5-act movie. Let’s break it down into paragraphs.

CBEST Personal Essay Structure

Paragraph 1

In the first paragraph, you want to immediately answer the posed question. This will also mean that you are stating a problem that you had in the past. Describe the outer world problem.

Paragraph 2

Here, you reveal your inner world problem. This is something psychological about the situation. Think – there is a flat tire and there is a “story of the flat tire.” You also describe the situation in more detail, providing more context. 

Paragraph 3

Describe what you did to overcome the situation. This is about what you did in the outer world and what challenges or problems you encountered. 

You did not overcome the challenge yet. You had to deal with another problem that prevented you from winning at this point.

Paragraph 4

You realize that something needs to change for you to get the result. Something in your mindset had to shift. 

Paragraph 5

Describe how you finally achieved the result, what lesson or lessons you learned, and how you changed as a person. 

Please note that this structure is an approximation. You are simply telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. 

This structure gives you ideas of what to put in each paragraph. Use it as a reference when telling your story because each story is different. 

Also, keep in mind that if your story is somewhat simple, you can write only four paragraphs. That is okay, too. 

And now, let’s write an essay, using this template. Notice how this sounds familiar in terms of a Hollywood movie or any good story you’ve ever heard or read. 

CBEST Personal Essay Example

“One fine April evening many years ago, during an exercise routine, I made a wrong move and twisted my body in an unusual way. I heard a loud pop in my left knee and fell on the floor, writhing in pain. As it later turned out, I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament, a major stabilizing ligament in the knee. I now walked with a limp and had intense pain whenever I tried to extend my leg or when stepping onto a sidewalk. I was 30 years old, and I had a trauma that changed the way I walked. 

That injury did not just affect my physical body. I also became very stressed out about the situation. Doctors told me I needed an operation. But when I looked up the procedure on the internet, I realized that it involved cutting off parts of my leg, drilling holes in my bones, and fixing things with screws. I really did not want that done to me. But it seemed I had no other options. I was very scared, despondent, and was even becoming depressed. 

After months of looking for solutions, I came across a clinic in Europe where they treated joint diseases. It was located in a nice spa town, so I figured I needed a break from it all and had a chance to heal my leg at the same time if I went. So, I bought airplane tickets and packed my bags. I spent a couple of weeks in that town, all the while being treated at the clinic. But I saw no results. My hopes were being crushed. However, I met an interesting person there who suggested that I should look for an active way to achieve healing rather than trying to find someone to “do it for me.”

I had never thought of that before. That advice really shifted my mind. When I came back to New York, I started to look for self-healing solutions rather than for doctors who wanted to “do something to me.” Miraculously, I came across a website that taught people how to heal from an injury using a set of exercises. When I saw that, I immediately knew that this would work for me. It was a strange intuitive feeling. I called up the people in charge, made an appointment, and my self-healing began. 

The result did not come right away. The trainers taught me to be patient and keep doing the work. Persistence would have to be the key. Two months later, while doing my exercises, I suddenly realized that my pain was gone, I could extend my leg freely, and I could walk without a limp. I couldn’t believe it! I was healed. This healing made me realize that in order to achieve something, the ultimate place to look for answers is within. Nobody can do for us what we can do for ourselves when it comes to overcoming a major life problem.”

Key Points about this Essay

  • This essay has 492 words.
  • It is based on the 5-paragraph structured outlined above. 
  • It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • It contains a shift – from outside healing to self-healing.
  • It ends with a triumph and the lesson learned. 

Key Takeaways and Tips

Your personal stories are fascinating.

If you really think about any of your personal stories, you’ll find that there is always more under the surface. 

Something happened, but why did it happen? What was a possible hidden cause?

As an exercise, just sit back and think of one of your stories of adversity and triumph. And by following the 5-paragraph structure, just retell that story to yourself. 

You’ll find that the structure I gave you helps bring out things that perhaps you never noticed before. Your stories are dramatic and interesting. 

Every good story involves an inner shift.

Luke Skywalker can only become a Jedi if he can overcome self-doubt. 

Rocky can only gain the respect of others if he first gains self-respect. 

In my story, I had to shift from the idea of being healed by someone to the idea of taking my healing into my own hands. 

The structure is only a guideline.

You can find elements from the 5-paragraph structure in any of your personal stories. So, just use those elements you can identify. 

But try to find as many of them as you can:

  • the loss itself
  • the inner problem resulting from it or causing it
  • the early ineffective solution
  • the final effective solution
  • the lesson(s) learned. 

Any CBEST personal essay question is about adversity and triumph.

If you’re asked to describe a time you disappointed a loved one, this is a dramatic story. It’s about the disappointment, how it resolved, and what you learned in the end.

If you’re writing about a personal loss or challenge, this is a drama. You started at a low point, fought through obstacles, and triumphed. You definitely learned something.

If you have to write about something in the past that you could change, that’s a dramatic story. Why do you wish you could change it? Because it was some kind of a loss. 

In other words, the 5-paragraph structure that I gave you will work for any essay prompt you get on the CBEST test.

It’s time to move on to the CBEST argumentative essay. 

How to Write the CBEST Expository Essay in 5 Steps

An expository essay is simply an essay in which you present an argument and then support it, using evidence. A simple, college argumentative essay is an expository essay.

And that is the second kind of an essay you have to write on the CBEST writing test. It is also known as an opinion essay. 

In this essay, you want to stick to a 5-paragraph structure and shoot for about 400 words. Let’s get right to it. 

Writing a CBEST expository essay is a 5-step process:

  1. Take a stand 
  2. Write the thesis statement
  3. Write the support (body of the essay) 
  4. Write the conclusion
  5. Write an introductory sentence

Our Sample CBEST Expository Essay Question 

“Amit Kalantri once said that ‘great losses are great lessons.’ In an essay intended for educated adults, state whether you agree or disagree with Kalantri’s observation. Support your argument with logical reasoning and specific examples.”

I deliberately chose a prompt that is very similar to our personal essay question. You’ll see that the ways we write the personal and the expository essays are very different.

Let’s shoot for 400 words in this essay. This makes for an easy way to judge how much to write in each paragraph, as I’ll show you in a minute.

Step 1. Take a stand

This is a very simple and easy step in which we simply decide whether we agree or disagree with the statement and write it as a complete sentence.

You’ll notice that most choices whether to agree or disagree are really easy to make. They kind of “beg” for either a positive or a negative answer. 

This quotation I chose just begs for you to agree with it. So, let’s make this simple decision and choose to agree with Kalantri. And let’s write out the complete main point:

Our Thesis

“I agree with Kalantri’s statement that great losses are great lessons.”

And we’re done with step 1. 

Step 2. Write the thesis statement

The thesis statement must include not only your main point but also your supporting points. For a 5-paragraph essay, you always want to have three supporting points or ideas.

Each of these supporting ideas will correspond to a body paragraph of your essay. To find the supporting points, you must ask yourself why you agree (or disagree) with the statement in the prompt.

Let’s find three reasons why we agree that great losses are great lessons:

  1. Losses make people think
  2. Losses reveal people to themselves
  3. Losses usually lead to greater advantages

When coming up with these three reasons, make sure that they are different from one another. 

Now that we have our reasons, let’s write out a complete thesis statement. We can simply copy and paste our main and supporting points together and make sure they flow:

Our Complete Thesis Statement

“I agree with Kalantri’s statement that great losses are great lessons. Losses make people think. They also reveal people to themselves. Finally, losses often lead to greater advantages.”

As you can see, we simply copied and pasted all of our points together and made a few tweaks to make the paragraph flow. 

We now have a complete thesis statement that is also our outline. Note in the diagram below how we will distribute the 400 words across paragraphs. 

And we’re ready for the next step. 

Just so you know, I wrote a detailed tutorial on how to write a thesis statement, in case you want to master this skill. 

Step 3. Write the Support (Body of the Essay)

Our body of the essay will consist of three paragraphs, about 100 words each. If you know an exact number to shoot for in each paragraph, your life becomes a lot easier. 

Each paragraph must proceed from general to specific. The first sentence in a body paragraph is called a lead sentence (or a topic sentence). It is the most general sentence in the paragraph.

The next most general part of a paragraph is some kind of an explanation why we believe this statement is true.

And finally, the most specific part of a body paragraph is an example.

Here’s what an overall structure of a body paragraph looks like:

Let’s go ahead and write the body of the essay.

Paragraph 1

Losses make people think, and great losses make them think a lot. Comfort tends to relax people, and when people are relaxed, they simply do not need to think. But as soon as a loss has occurred, the person’s significance, security, or even livelihood may be threatened. To quote Tony Robbins, “When people succeed, they tend to party. When they fail, they tend to ponder.” I remember when I lost 80% of my income in the crash of 2008. That loss made me think and look for ways to compensate and establish better financial security in the future. 

Paragraph 2

Losses reveal people to themselves, and personal revelations are the greatest lessons. It is a well known phenomenon in psychology that a crisis is a very powerful way to make a person see something in her life that was hidden theretofore. This is illustrated very well in the Wizard of Oz. Each of the characters who accompanied Dorothy to Emerald City thought he lacked a quality. But by dealing with a crisis, they eventually realized that they actually had the courage, the brain, and the heart. I know that this happens in real life because it was not until I faced a financial crisis that I found out that I had the strength and courage to start again in the face of difficulties. 

Paragraph 3

Great losses usually lead to far greater advantages. Some of the most important lessons that lead to great success are not even available to human beings until and unless they face a crisis of some sort. For example, Lee Iacocca was fired from the Ford Motor Company in 1978. That was a big blow to Lee’s ego and finances. But he found a way to rebound. He subsequently went to work for Chrysler and led that company’s growth in the 1980’s. That was an even greater success for Lee, according to his autobiographical account. 

And we’re done with the body. Please note:

  • Each paragraph is about 100 words long.
  • Each one starts with a lead sentence, proceeds to an explanation, and provides an example.

It’s time for the next step. 

Step 4. Write the conclusion

Writing the conclusion for the CBEST expository essay is really easy. All you need to do is simply restate what you already said – in different words. That’s all.

Use the same structure as the thesis statement. But use synonyms and paraphrase so that your conclusion doesn’t sound like a copy of the thesis statement.

Just use your thesis statement as reference. Let’s do it.


“Amir Kalantri was certainly right when he stated that great losses are great lessons. These great losses are crises that force people to use their brains on a whole new level. They make people see something in themselves they could not see before. And they often lean to much greater success than the person had before the loss.”

This conclusion is 58 words long, which is perfect for our overall word count. And it does what it should do – it restates the main and the supporting points using different words and phrases. 

By the way, I wrote a detailed tutorial on how to write conclusions, if you want to dig a bit deeper into this skill. 

Step 5. Write an introductory sentence

This step is easy, as well. You just want to add a sentence in the beginning of your opening paragraph, in which you introduce the main point. 

This introductory sentence will be the very first sentence of your essay. To write it, you need to take a step away, zoom out from your main point and provide a perspective. 

In other words, in this sentence you explain why what you’re about to argue is important. 

Here’s our full opening paragraph, including the introductory sentence and the thesis statement:

“People often become devastated as a result of a great loss, but they really shouldn’t. I agree with Kalantri’s statement that great losses are great lessons. Losses make people think. They also reveal people to themselves. Finally, losses often lead to greater advantages.”

As you read the paragraph, can you hear how the first sentence introduces your main point really nicely? 

The first sentence is just a way to “get into the subject.” How do people usually react to great loss? They freak out. But they shouldn’t, and here’s why. 

And guess what – we’re done writing our CBEST argumentative essay! It has 416 words of high quality persuasion. 

I hope this was helpful!

Now practice a little and go ace that test.

Tutor Phil

Tutor Phil

Tutor Phil is an e-learning professional who helps adult learners finish their degrees by teaching them academic writing skills.

Recent Posts