In Class Essay Strategies

Jerz > Writing > Academic

If you’re facing a timed essay very soon, this handout offers some very basic, very quick tips.

  1. Plan your time wisely.
  2. Answer the right question.
  3. Collect your thoughts.
  4. Leave time to revise.
  5. Revise your thesis statementbefore you turn in your paper, so it looks like the conclusion you stumbled across was the one you planned from the start. (This small step can often make a huge difference.)

1. Plan your time wisely.

If you are, at this moment, frantically cramming for tomorrow morning’s exam, that first tip may not sound all that useful. Procrastination is probably the biggest reason why bright students sometimes get poor grades. (Start early!)

You can also plan your time during the test itself. Your professor knows which paragraphs are harder to write, and will evaluate them accordingly. Does the question ask you to “evaluate”? If so, don’t fill your page with a summary. Likewise, if the question asks for “evidence,” don’t spend all your time giving your own personal opinions.

  • Start with the larger essay questions, so that you answer them before you burn out or run out of time.
  • If one essay question is worth 50% of the test score, spend 50% of your time on it.
  • If you finish early, you can always go back and add more detail.   (As long as your additions and changes are legible, your instructor will probably be happy to see signs of revision.)

2) Answer the right question.

Before you begin your answer, you should be sure what the question is asking. I often grade a university composition competency test, and sometimes have to fail well-written papers that fail to address the assigned topic.

If the question asks you to “explain” a topic, then a paragraph that presents your personal opinion won’t be of much help. If the question asks you to present a specific example, then a paragraph that summarizes what “some people say” about the topic won’t be very useful.

3) Collect your thoughts.

Resist the urge to start churning out words immediately. If you are going to get anywhere in an essay, you need to know where you are going.

To avoid time-consuming false starts, jot down an outline, or draw anidea map.  An idea map is like a family tree for your thesis.  Start with the “trunk” (a circle in the center of your paper).  Draw lines that connect that central idea to main branches (circles that represent subtopics), and keep fanning out in that manner.   If one particular branch is fruitful, cut it off and make it a separate entity.

If a branch doesn’t bear fruit, prune it off.   You should identify and avoid the deadwood in advance — before you find yourself out on a limb.  (Sorry… I’ll try to leaf the puns alone… I wood knot want you to be board.)

Get right to the point.  Don’t bury your best points under an avalanche of fluff.

The Great Depression was an important time in our nation’s history.  Unemployment, urban decay, and a sense of hopelessness filled almost every part of human life.  Yet, even in the midst of great misery, people needed to entertain themselves.  People tried many different ways to relieve their tensions, from religious revivals, to Jazz music, to membership in the Communist party.   But a whole lot of average people who were suffering in their daily lives often sought escapist entertainment in the form of movies.  One such movie was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism.

The author of the above passage not only wastes time composing six sentences before getting to her thesis (the very last sentence), she also clouds the issue by bringing up topics (religion, music, and Communism) that she has no intention of ever mentioning again. She could have spent that time on more depth, or on proofreading, or even on some other section of the test. If she had at the very least crossed out the unnecessary introduction, she would not have mislead the instructor.

In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism — leisure, self-reliance, and compassion.

The revised example is simply the [slightly edited] last sentence of the original wordy and vague paragraph.  This clear, direct thesis statement helps the student focus on the communication task at hand.
Too often, the only revision students do is crossing out their false starts, or explaining their way out of a corner by adding to the end of their essay.

4. Leave time to revise.

Note: simply tacking on additional paragraphs or inserting words is not revision (see: “Revision vs. Editing“).

Sometimes, in the middle of a difficult paragraph, students will glance back at the question, and get a new idea. They will then hastily back out of their current paragraph, and provide a rough transition like: “But an even more important aspect is…”.  They continue in this manner, like a builder who keeps breaking down walls to add new wings onto a house.

  • To avoid this problem before it starts, see the previous tip, or this nifty handout on “Blueprinting.”
  • To handle this problem when it occurs, don’t automatically add to the end of an essay — write in the margins, or draw a line to indicate where you want to insert a new paragraph.
  • Leave space to revise too — write on every other line and leave the backs of pages blank, so you will have room to make legible insertions if you need to.
  • Obviously, if you are writing your test on a computer, you should just insert and rearrange text as you would normally.

5) Revise your thesis statement

If inspiration strikes while you are in the middle of an essay, and your conclusion turns out to be nothing like you thought it would be, change your thesis statement to match your conclusion. (Assuming, of course, that your unexpected conclusion still addresses the assigned topic.)

When a writer realizes that an essay is veering off in a new direction, and handles it by tacking more paragraphs onto the end, the result can be extremely awkward.

  • Joe Student writes a thesis statement that examines the relationship between “independence” and public morals.
  • Midway through his essay, Joe hits upon a different idea that relates to “prosperity.”
  • To mask the transition, he writes a sentence that refers to “independence and prosperity”, as if the two concepts are interchangeable.
  • After writing a few more paragraphs on “prosperity”, Joe realizes he needs to unify the two ideas in his conclusion. He writes a new paragraph that examines the connections between independence and prosperity.
  • He then writes a conclusion that “proves” that independence and prosperity are inseparable.

Unfortunately, Joe started out by making a claim about independence and public morals. If Joe tacks yet another paragraph onto the end of the paper, he will further dilute his conclusion. If he ignores the problem, his essay will appear disorganized.  Such hasty additions will rapidly obscure the original structure.

Joe will have to wrap up his essay with something ghastly like “Therefore, this essay has discussed such important issues as A, B, C and D, all of which shed an important light on [rephrase essay question here].”

To avoid linear additions, you should ideally avoid going off on tangents.  But even a very short paper is a result of a process. If you stumble onto a good idea in the middle of your paper, go back and change your thesis statement to account for your new ideas. Then, revise the subpoints and transitions so that your whole essay points towards that conclusion. Your professor will be pleased to see that you were able to make the connection, and your whole essay will be much stronger.

Dennis G. Jerz
04 May 2000 — first posted
26 May 2000 — typos corrected; puns added
26 Jul 2000 — minor edits
04 Dec 2002 — revision


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Writing the In-Class Essay Exam

By Emily Schiller

The first in-class essay exam I took when I returned to college was a disaster. I had done all the reading, TWICE; thought extensively about the material; and filled pages with notes from my own responses as well as from class. I couldn’t have been more prepared to discuss the novels we’d read.

But I wasn’t at all prepared to write essays with time limits and no chance to revise. So what did I do? I took the questions as jumping-off points and
wrote everything I could think of, had thought of, or might even consider. Every once in awhile I’d indent, so they at least would resemble essays with real paragraphs. There was no logic to anything I did; I just spewed. Not good. The professor commented (kindly, gently) that my ideas were superb and my insights quite inspired. However, not only were my answers not essays, they never really responded directly to the questions. Aargh!

After that, I learned to contain and direct my enthusiasms. Essay exams are not a license to babble. They require reflection and control. Here are some
steps I created to help myself and, later on, to help my students.

1) First, read the question carefully. Pick out the salient points. What is the topic? A book, an event, an idea? What is the focus? A character? A problem?
What are you being asked to do with this? Discuss? Contrast? Agree/Disagree?

2) Next, make a few very quick notes in answer to the question or in response to the topic.

3) Stop and take a breath. Read over your ideas and ask yourself which ones directly address the question or essay prompt. Throw out whatever
is irrelevant to the task at hand no matter how much you love it. Really!

4) Now make a very brief (very rapid) outline:

  1. What is your thesis? What will you argue? Remember that your thesis is your promise to the reader: You are promising that by the end of this
    essay, you will have convinced the reader of such and such and nothing else. Once again, check to make sure the thesis responds directly and specifically to the question. The thesis will keep you honest as well as help prepare the reader.
  2. Create a list of the points you’ll need to make to prove your thesis. Throw out any point that only shows off another bit of information
    you have in your head rather than builds the argument for your thesis. Each point should be in the form of an assertion, a mini-thesis and will serve as the topic-sentences for your body paragraphs.
  3. Arrange these topic sentences in some sort of logical order rather in the order they have just occurred to you. What piece of information
    does the reader need first? Second? etc. Each point should build on the one that comes before and towards making the case for your thesis.

5) Now start writing the essay. Do not let yourself write a long introduction. You don’t want to take time away from the argument itself. Just use a sentence or two to introduce the problem being addressed, transition to your thesis, state your thesis, and then stop.

6) As you work your way through your body paragraphs—as specified in your brief outline—remember that each assertion needs an example as evidence. Your position means very little if you haven’t demonstrated an ability to support it. That’s what your professor is looking for. So specific, concrete evidence is crucial. If you are arguing that a character in a novel is greedy, don’t simply assert that she is greedy. Give the reader an example from the plot that illustrates her nature and then explain or analyze how it does so.

7) Always try to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to look over your essays. They won’t be perfect. No one expects that. But they should be clear, logical, and easy to read.

The steps I’ve outlined here aren’t much different from the ones you’ll use to write take-home essays, except that at home you’ll have time to do lots of brainstorming and freewriting. In-class exams leave precious little time to be creative. But if you come to class prepared and then carefully tailor your insights to the questions being asked, you’ll be able to express your ideas with grace and intelligence while staying on-topic.

Emily Schiller has been a re-entry student twice. She left college after two years to pursue work in dance, theatre and teaching and then returned six years later to complete a B.A. in Theatre Arts with a minor in Philosophy. After working as an office manager for a chiropractic office, manager of a national playwriting competition, free-lance reader, and public radio producer, she returned to college again, this time earning an M.A. in English from California State University at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in English from UCLA where she taught American Literature and Writing.

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