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
- Do not start with an empty statement like, “It is common knowledge that the world is a complex place” or a vague quote like, “Someone once said, ‘Practice makes perfect.’” Timed-essay graders take this as a signal that you’ve got nothing to say. First impressions!
- Do not write before you know precisely what you want to say and how you’re going to support it with details. You don’t want to write half of a 2-hour essay and then realize you should have begun somewhere else.
- Do not use clichéd language (“first and foremost” “as different and varied as the grains of sand at the beach”) or vague terms (“the American Dream” or “our universal hopes and desires”). Like vague beginnings, this shows you’re not thinking through ideas, just serving up canned thought.
- Do not write as much as you possibly can in the time given. Yeah, yeah, quality, not quantity. You know that already. But it’s true.
- Do not rely on a five-paragraph essay structure if it doesn’t seem appropriate for the prompt. Prefabricated structure can be a boon in timed writing, but if done poorly, it signals that you’re not thinking. In other words, decide on what you need to say, then how to say it.
- Do not use complex words just to sound smart (like “transpire” when you mean “happen” or “momentarily” when you mean “soon”). Graders can tell. They know this is a timed essay, and want complex, well-reasoned ideas written simply, not complex words.
- Do not hesitate to cross out words or make revisions. Believe it or not, teachers appreciate this. Neatness is somewhat important, but showing you’re thinking is critical.
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:
- analyze an issue
- repeat facts you’ve learned
- make a persuasive argument
- reflect on your personal experience
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:
- Make a clear statement about your point and purpose near the beginning. Continue to support your thesis throughout the essay by providing examples and description. Avoid restating it without support.
- Budget your time for a)organizing thoughts, b)composing, and c) checking/revising.
- Do not worry about spelling and grammatical mechanics.
- Structure your paragraphs clearly. Make sure each has a topic sentence and that each paragraph focuses on a single point.
- Use examples, facts, stories, hypothetical situations, and explanations to support your ideas. If teachers only see generalized statements–even if they’re on-topic–they’ll think you’re writing bull.
Restate, in your own words, what the prompt is asking. Remember: you have to demonstrate to the grader that you understand what’s being asked and the grader expects you to summarize information before analyzing, like you would in writing without prompts. One of the most common comments I make grading timed essays pertains to abrupt responses:
For a prompt asking you to analyze an immigration proposal by Governor Schwarzenegger:
Too abrupt: “I disagree. First of all…”
Too abrupt: “This an unreasonable plan because…”
Still lacking summary: “While Schwarzenegger’s plans for controlling immigration seem to be relatively reasonable, they are presented with no reason to support them.”
Better: “In his recent proposal to solve the California immigration problem, Governor Schwarzenegger proposes a plan that both deals with stopping new immigration and with immigrants already in the state. Specifically, he wants to secure the border, develop a work-visa program that would allow a temporary legal option, and assimilate immigrants into American culture. While these ideas seem reasonable and balanced, Schwarzenegger’s plans are unfeasibly optimistic, fail to consider potential risks, and use terminology that is not fully explained.”
Make a clear point about what you’re trying to accomplish in the essay. Unlike non-timed writing, where you can use a more nuanced development of ideas, you have to write for graders reading lots of essays quickly. If they don’t find a clear point, they’ll start taking off points.
In the middle
- Have clear topic sentences that show the direction of your essay as well as the main points you’re making. Again, in non-timed writing, you have the freedom to be more complex and creative with topic sentences. But due to the speed at which graders are grading, you need to put transparency foremost.
- Give examples, hypotheticals, facts, philosophies, comparisons, analogies, and even anecdotes to make concrete the points you’re making in those topic sentences.
By the end
- Without saying, “in conclusion,” reaffirm your main point.
But if you can, add some new perspective or dimension to what you’ve already said. This will show the grader that you can take a step back from the sequential analyzing of details and understand the prompt globally:
“Beyond these issues of practicality and terminology, it is important to consider why Schwarzenegger might be making a proposal like this. The fact that this statement was released prior to elections may suggest that it was primarily a political move, which would mean that…”
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.
- If the essay is not very clear, then you might want to see if you can add short sentences and or even a paragraph that elaborates and sums up what you have applied.
- Avoid repetitiveness in the essay.
- Look for confusing or murky sentences, words, and ideas and eliminate them.
- Get rid of clichés, generalizations, and quotations that aren’t related directly to the topic.
- Check that the information you included is understandable, readable, and to the point.
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.
- Camp, Roberta. “New Views of Measurement and New Models for Writing Assessment.” Assessment of Writing: Politics, Policies, Practice. Ed. Edward M. White,William D. Lutz, and Sandra Kamusikiri. NewYork: MLA, 1996. 135-47.
- Tepper, Nana, and Rocio Costa. “Discussion: Making Assessment a Process.” Alternative Perspectives in Assessing Children’s Language and Literacy. Ed. Kathleen Holland, David Blooms, and Judith Solsken. Norwood: Alex, 1994. 157-61.
- The GRE’s list of policy and research reports on timed writing