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How to write damn good timed essays


Diagnostic exams. Exit exams. Placement exams. Teaching to the test. Even though most scholarship shows that the current test-crazed education culture isn’t educational, it’s a fact of life. To do well, approach timed writing from the grader’s point of view.

High schools have to justify results to colleges through timed essays with grading achievement rubrics. Colleges use aptitude exams–the GRE, SAT, MCAT, LSAT, GMAT–which out of fairness, have to put time limits on writing. And professors overloaded with lecture-size classes use timed essays for grading. None of this is the best way to learn.

First, what NOT to Do

Before the test

Know this: graders are mainly looking to see that you can understand the question and can respond with appropriate content. And they’re more interested in (and grade primarily) critical thinking and analysis than grammar and mechanics (GRE). They’re not trying to trick you.

First, find out about the exam type. Ask what your teacher mainly wants you to do. The most common types are:

Then do what you can to build a repertoire of details and a skeleton structure for your paper. If you know the essay will come from a previous class reading, look over that text and jot down key ideas and even quotes that you can potentially insert into the essay. Also jot down a few potential connections you could make to the theme of the reading.

Test prep services often provide clients with these “knowledge banks” prior to a test, which brings up ethical issues of plagiarism. In response, testing companies have developed software to detect similar essay content.

As for prefabricating a structure, this can save loads of time, but it can also backfire. Don’t be too determined to stick to five-paragraph structure just because you’re familiar with it.

Keeping in mind these potential risks, here are some very general guidelines for timed essay structure:

Finally, before class, do some freewriting to get into the flow of composing and to prevent writer’s block

Read the question(s) carefully, and mark and circle keywords. If you do not understand the structure of the questions, ask the professor to explain. Keywords will be useful to tell you what the essay mainly should do, and it will give a sense of words to emphasize in your response:

1. In his essay “Debating the Unknowable,” Lewis Thomas says, “It is the admission of ignorance that leads to progress, not so much because the solving of a particular puzzle leads directly to a new piece of understanding but because the puzzle-if it interests enough scientists-leads to WORK.” How does this idea relate to your reading of The Hot Zone?

2. What are the traditional characteristics of a fairy tale? Use examples to illustrate, either from your reading or your childhood memories.

In the above prompts, paying attention to keywords tells you that #1 should primarily be comparing/contrasting (“relate”), and gives you some of the key ideas to structure your response around (“ignorance,” “progress,” “work”). Details and facts (“what”, “examples”) should be the bulk of #2, and a good response will use both reading and childhood memories.

After finding keywords, always take time to form a clear outline. List main topics and points you can elaborate on. Organization always adds confidence in your writing and is the key to writing a well-written essay answer.

While you write

Don’t panic. If you start feeling frustrated or hopeless, pause, take a deep breath, and get all zenlike. Don’t waste your precious brain space worrying about how you’re running out of time.

Don’t try to be creative or highly original in your response. While creativity and iconoclasm has its place in writing, the timed-essay is not that place. Since the ultimate goal of grading timed essays is assessment (and “creativity” is not on any rubric I’ve seen), you have to answer the question the way you think the grader wants it answered.

Much of this has been stated above, but it bears repeating:

Early On

In the middle

By the end

After you compose: always revise!

It’s crucial to save time for revision. Unfortunately most of us intuitively believe we’ll get a better grade if we spend the whole time writing. This simply isn’t so. Here’s one potential explanation for why timed-essay graders give shorter but richer, revised papers better grade: they’re under enormous time constraints to grade essays quickly. So they don’t want their time wasted. Add to that the fact that they’re reading responses to the same prompts that they know, intimately, what information is answering the prompt and what is fluff.

Note that checking grammar is not among that list. Sure, you should be aware of grammar (and if grammar is a particular weakness of yours, do check), but generally, this will not be a large determinant of your timed-essay grade.

After the test

This one’s most important: celebrate. Do something physical, like bowling, to get all that pent up energy out. And after all that, spend a little time evaluating your performance, so that next time you can be that much better.