Last week, I substituted for another teacher who offered these tips to his students so I thought I’d pass them on here. These “Tips for Writing In-Class Essay Exams” are adapted from “A Student Guide to Writing at UCI” 9th ed. My comments are in italics.
1. Warm up beforehand: You will perform better after getting into the rhythm of writing. Write a note to a friend or freewrite about anything while you’re waiting for the exam to begin.
Before the essay part of the test, my students have short answer questions which also serve as a warm-up.
Free Writing by hand (instead of typing) can also warm up the creative side of the brain and connect your hands with your imagination.
Free Writing about the topic can also get your imagination going.
If you’re nervous about the exam, writing about it can help! Try writing a letter to a friend about your worries.
2. § Read the assignment carefully: Once the exam is in your hands, resist the temptation to start writing immediately. The five minutes you spend reading the assignment and prewriting will maximize your ability to produce better quality writing in a shorter time. Understanding every task the assignment asks you to do and thinking about how you will address each of them dramatically increases the chances that your response will be relevant and your argument well organized.
Reread the assignment halfway through the essay to be sure you’re still on target.
3. § Pre-write: A clear sense of purpose prevents time-consuming digressions later. Mapping out a plan or making a simple outline takes only a few minutes. Jot down the main points or concepts you’re going to discuss. Quickly generate a reasonable specific thesis that presents your argument clearly.
Remember the 4 Ts? Jot them down and note some relevant ideas connecting the 4 Ts with the prompt. How does your thesis answer the question or address the prompt?
4. § Jump right in: Your first sentence should jump right into the points of your whole essay. Long introductions aren’t necessary in this kind of writing; get right down to business by opening with your thesis statement.
If you’re writing about a text, be sure to mention the author’s full name and the title using correct punctuation right away.
5. § Write only one draft: Even though you may be used to drafting and rewriting for other assignments, recopying and rewriting take lots of valuable time. Instead, add ideas in the margins and neatly cross out unwanted material.
Don’t spend too much time agonizing over the drafting on paper and/or revising on the computer. Go with your gut. Do be careful about proofreading. Writing leads to writing. Easier to get a lot down and delete the excess. Try not to second guess yourself but see where the ideas lead you.
6. § Be concrete and specific: Be sure to provide specific examples and details to support each point you make. Your reader will be persuaded by your essay if you include lots of “for instances” and “for examples,” supporting your claims rather than just listing them.
Use plenty of quotes from the text. Reference the text by title and use the author’s name in every paragraph.
7. § Be aware of time: Unfinished essays don’t work as well as finished ones. Ask your instructor to announce the time remaining if he or she has not already volunteered to do so.
If you’re running out of time, quickly bring the essay to a close. Sometimes it can be helpful to write the close early and then revise it when you get to it.
8. § Proofread: Setting aside the last five minutes of your writing time to read over the entire essay, making sure each word means what you want it to, gives you a chance to be sure you’ve reached your original goals, and presented a coherent argument for your reader. Also, check your essay for your particular error patterns – word choice, agreement problems, commas, fragments – whatever you seem to do most often.
Proofread after you print, too.