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February 23, 2018
3 mins read

5 tips for writing an in-class essay

Thinking about your next in-class essay? Here are 5 tips to set you up for success.

What can I do to get ready? How am I going to have enough time?

As a peer writing consultant at UBC’s Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication, I’ve had many students request help in preparing for their in-class essays. Here are some tips I’ve shared with them:

1. Practice, practice, practice

Try to anticipate the exam question by writing practice essays on what you think it will cover, going through all the motions of outlining and wordsmithing that you will do during the actual exam. Take advantage of any available resources such as past exam questions and suggestions from your instructor. If you know what readings the exam will apply, then double-dip by writing on those readings. Your practice habits will carry into your exam ones!

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2. When the exam starts, take a deep breath and plan

Resist the temptation to start writing immediately. Instead, read and reread the question, noting keywords (such as “argue,” “discuss,” and “contrast”) that tell you what kind of essay you should write. Be careful not to do any less or more than the question asks. For example, if you are asked to address 3 out of a total of 5 listed issues and you only address 2 out of 5, then your essay is incomplete; if you address 4 out of 5, then you’re not making the best use of your time.

Planning out your writing will save time and stress. Spend 5-10 minutes on making an outline that will serve as your paper’s foundation. Work from the top down: iron out the broader points that you want to make and then decide how you will support these points with specific evidence. As you do this, keep thinking about your thesis statement, which is a concise 1-2 sentence answer to the essay question. Having a clear thesis statement in mind will help keep you focused on the big picture.

3. Know your pace

The best way to avoid having only half the essay done with 5 minutes left is to know your writing speed beforehand, and the best way to figure that out is, again, to practice.

Replicate your exam environment and use the time limit that your exam will have. The goal, besides getting more practice, is to know how long it should take you to write an introduction, the first body paragraph, and so on. If you usually write your introduction in 10 minutes during practice sessions, but find that it’s taking 15 during the exam, then you’ll know that you need to speed up; if you write it in 5 minutes during the exam, then you know that you will have some breathing room for the remaining time.

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4. Work with what you’ve got

Here’s a moment we all dread: you had a confident start, but now you’re halfway through the exam, losing steam, and realizing that the ideas you were so sure of before aren’t looking so hot anymore.

There’s no benefit to second-guessing yourself in this situation. Instead of thinking “How can I get better ideas?”, think “What can I do to better support my thesis?”. Rather than starting from square one again, focus on further developing the argument that you’ve been painstakingly crafting and trust that this will bring out your best work.

5. Proofread and, if necessary, revise

Always give yourself enough time at the end to proofread your entire essay at least once. This will be your chance to fix minor grammatical and clarity issues, but can also be a time to further develop any ideas that could strengthen your essay.

Your instructors understand that writing an entire paper by hand within a time limit is a messy process. Don’t be afraid to add entire sentences into the margins if you have to, so long as you’re confident that doing so will make a stronger essay. Remember, however, that they can’t know how awesome your writing is if they can’t read it. Make sure to point them in the right direction—arrows or superscript (think footnotes) should do the trick. Writing double-spaced will also leave you plenty of room for additions.

When removing things, there’s no need to cramp your hand blacking all the letters out—a horizontal line through the middle is enough!

If you’d like more tips and strategies on how to ace your next exam or paper, book a one-on-one appointment with us at the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication, which now has International Tutor Training Program Certification from the College Reading and Learning Association. As students ourselves, we understand your perspective and will help you hone your skills for success.

The CWSC also provides topic-specific workshops and online writing resources. For common essay pitfalls to avoid, check out these 10 writing tips.