WRITING PLACEMENT TEST
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH
SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH
Your work on this essay test will place you into one of four writing courses: Seminar in
Composition, a 3-credit course in composition taken by most undergraduates at Pitt;
Composition Tutorial, which adds a 1-credit tutorial to the Seminar in Composition for students
who need more work in editing and proofreading; Workshop in Composition, a 3-credit course
for students who need more work in essay development, editing and proofreading; or Intensive
Workshop in Composition, a 6-credit course designed for students who are not yet writing at the
You will be given 90 minutes to read a passage and write a single essay in response to questions
that follow the passage. Your essay will be read by at least two composition teachers in the
English Department. They will assess your writing according to how well you are able to
understand and respond to the assignment,
relate the passage to your own experiences and ideas,
write a coherent essay, and
control errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
Be sure to
give yourself plenty of time to think about the passage and plan your writing;
make specific connections in your writing between the passages and your experiences
show clearly how your points and ideas build on or follow from one another; and
proofread your work carefully to correct errors.
Be sure to leave yourself enough time to read over your essay and to make any needed changes.
Again, once you begin you will have 90 minutes to complete this test.
Click the link below to begin.
We would like you to read the following passage and write an essay in response to it. The
passage is taken from a book by John Ralston Saul entitled Voltaire’s Bastards. It comes from a
section of the book where he is discussing American culture. The essay question will ask you to
think about Saul’s argument in relation to your own knowledge and experience.
Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that to be the best is to be something. The fastest runner. The
greatest inventor. The best high C. The most beers in a half hour. The best chess player. The skater who
turns the most times while in the air. The highest marks at school. At university. At dart throwing. The
term “excellence” is used as if we were seeking content, when above all we seek a measurable result: a
classification system or class system, with a king of the best at the top. How fast this phenomenon has
been growing can be seen in C. Wright Mills’s words:
The professional celebrity, male or female, is the crowning result of the star system of a
society that makes a fetish of competition. In America, this system is carried to the point
where a man who can knock a small white ball into a series of holes in the ground with
more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains social access to the President of
the United States.
The theory is that competition draws each individual along, bringing out of him or her the best he or she
has to offer. Competition and the resulting fame are thought to be among the greatest achievements of
our rational meritocracy. They promise both self-improvement and participation.
The reality is almost the opposite. In a world devoted to measuring the best, most of us aren’t even in the
competition. Human dignity being what it is, we eliminate ourselves from the competition in order to
avoid giving other people the power to eliminate us. Not only does a society obsessed by competition not
draw people out, it actually encourages them to hide what talents they have, by convincing them that they
are insufficient. The common complaint that we have become spectator societies is the direct result of an
overemphasis on competition.
How does your experience and knowledge as a participant in American culture compare with
Saul’s description of America as a “society obsessed by competition”? On the basis of your own
experience and/or your awareness of American society and culture today, how do you respond to
Be sure to refer, when relevant, to specific parts of the passage and to the specific sources of
your own knowledge on this subject.