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Tips For Writing A Timed Essay

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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Exams are almost upon us, and a familiar sense of foreboding has settled over the campus. One exam element that can be particularly intimidating for some students is the timed essay: an exam question which demands a full essay on a topic that is typically revealed for the first time during the test. While these kinds of questions may seem scary, there are plenty of ways to make them easy for yourself. Read on for tips about how to prepare in advance of the exam and how to approach timed essays before, during, and after the writing process.


While Preparing for the Exam:

Become familiar with the course content. If the professor hasn’t told you in advance what a timed essay prompt will be, it can be intimidating to think that you will have to write about a subject you’ve never seen before. However, this thinking process does not reflect the reality of the situation. In fact, even if your teacher hasn’t given you any hints about the essay question, you do know what it will be about: the concepts and ideas you’ve discussed in the course. Therefore, if you take the time to review your notes and ensure you understand everything that was discussed, it should be difficult for the essay question to catch you off guard. As soon as you read the question, relevant course concepts will start popping into your head, and you’ll just have to organize them into a coherent essay.

Start planning if you can. Although the situation described above sometimes occurs, it’s also very common for professors to give their students a fairly detailed idea of what an essay question will involve in advance of the test day. (After all, professors want to mark high-quality essays written by well-prepared students!) This heads-up gives you a great chance to prepare for the exam. If you have the time, consider mapping out a possible essay in point form before the day of the exam arrives.

Consider practicing writing under time pressure. You’ve probably written dozens of essays before--the only thing that sets a timed essay apart is that it’s timed. Students often struggle to complete the full essay within the time constraints, particularly if they have to write longhand when they’re accustomed to working on the computer. For this reason, it can be helpful to simulate the conditions of a timed exam before the actual day: pick a practice question, find some lined paper, set a stopwatch, and see how you do!

Before You Start Writing:

Read the question carefully. The most critical part of the essay-writing process actually happens before you write your first word. When you flip to the essay question, make sure you read it as carefully as you can, noting the difference between words such as ‘contrast’ and ‘analyze’ and highlighting any details which the professor specifically instructs you to include. It’s not uncommon for excellent essays to receive low marks because the student answered a question other than the one that was asked.

Make a clear and specific plan. Some students react to the time pressure of essay exams by scribbling down their introduction as soon as they’ve read the question and figuring out their points as they go. While it might seem counter-intuitive, taking five or ten minutes before you start writing in order to draw up a plan will be an enormous time saver. Decide on your thesis, the topic of each paragraph, and the arguments which you intend to cover, then jot down some quick point-form notes. This process won’t take long, and, once you complete it, all that’s left will be to expand those notes into a well-organized essay. Without a clear plan, you run the risk of realizing partway through that you’ve drifted off topic or written yourself into a corner, and fixing these mistakes will consume a ton of extra time.

Schedule a set time for each paragraph. On the topic of planning, it’s important to sketch out an idea of how long you want to spend on each section of your essay. (If you know the number of paragraphs you’ll need to write ahead of time, you can do this before the exam even starts!) Take note of the amount of time allotted for the exam and split it into reasonably-sized segments, leaving some time at the end for revision if possible. Without a schedule to follow, it’s easy to become too focused on a single paragraph and run out of time to finish the essay.

While You’re Writing:

Write clearly and double-space.
This tip may seem basic, but it’s easy to forget and it can make a big difference. Both these measures won’t just make it easier for the marker to read your paper; they'll also help you write it. If you have time left at the end of the exam for review, having the ability to skim quickly through your work and write revisions in blank spaces will be incredibly helpful.


Keep yourself on schedule. Remember the paragraph-based schedule we discussed above? It’ll be useless if you don’t do regular check-ins during the exam. Keep an eye on the clock to ensure you’re always on track. If you realize that you’re falling dangerously behind schedule, it might be necessary to cut some arguments or examples you planned to include. Although making these omissions can be painful, it’s better to leave out a few points from one section than to leave out an entire paragraph because you ran out of time.

Don’t worry too much about editing and revision before you finish. When composing essays, many students stop and read over each paragraph once they finish it, making sure that it’s well-written and free of errors before advancing to the next one. This approach is entirely logical when there’s no time pressure involved, but it can actually work against you during an exam. Perfecting paragraphs is a time-consuming process, and, if you spend too much time editing before the essay is finished, you might have to rush through the last few sections or leave them out entirely. For this reason, it’s best to focus on producing a complete first draft before you worry about edits and revisions.


After You’ve Finished Writing:

Re-read the question and ensure you’ve addressed all parts. The most important part of writing an essay exam is ensuring that you’re answering the question was posed. Even if you made sure you were interpreting everything correctly before you began, you may have forgotten to address a subquestion or integrate an example as you were writing. Before you submit, read the prompt again and make sure your completed essay matches up!

Edit if you have time. If you have enough time left over, read your essay again and make corrections. When you’re working under time pressure, it’s easy to make grammar mistakes or produce hard-to-follow sentences; the final few minutes are your chance to clean up those errors. Unless if you finished way ahead of schedule, don’t worry about major revisions like reorganizing the structure of the essay--it’s better to hand in an essay with an imperfect structure than a paper that’s impossible to follow because you had to stop halfway through the revision process.


Remember to have the right perspective. Once you hand your exam to the professor, relax! It’s easy to work yourself up after an essay exam when you didn’t get the chance to read your work over or you feel like your arguments were weak. However, it’s important to keep in mind that your professor understands the circumstances under which the essay was written. They’re fully aware of the time pressure you were dealing with, and they will judge your work far differently than they would judge a typical essay with a deadline set weeks after the assignment date. If you did your best to write a complete, clear, and insightful essay within the time allotted, you should have nothing to worry about.

Best of luck during the upcoming exam season!

Source: Quick Meme