How to Ace In-Class Essay Exams

The in-class essay exam is perhaps one of the most intimidating exams a college student can face. It’s a timed exam that requires you to put together a coherent essay to a prompt that you most likely haven’t seen until you get the exam booklet. You often have to write the exam longhand. And you usually do not have access to course materials that will help you answer the question.

Of course, professors understand that the exam’s restrictions can limit the content of your paper; however, it doesn’t mean that it should affect the quality of your paper. There are still ways to prepare for the exam, and professors expect you to do your best.

For many students, it’s not the preparation that is intimidating but the actual process of answering the exam question during the class. Many students often do poorly on these exams because they don’t have a good strategy for writing the essay. Don’t be one of those students; develop a strategy!

First you should make sure you understand the question in the prompt. Be sure you understand key words from the prompt, as these will tell you exactly what the professor expects you to do. Know the difference between “compare and contrast” and “summarize and respond to.” These key phrases will dictate the nature of your task. And finally, make sure you answer the question! Don’t let yourself get off-topic.

After you fully understand the question, you should take some time to brainstorm and outline a response. Start with your thesis statement. This statement should directly answer the question and provide points that support the thesis, which you will later explain in body paragraphs. From your thesis draw out an outline of key points you must cover as well as any brief ideas you can think of to will help you come up with evidence. A good rule of thumb is to spend between five and 10 minutes working on this brainstorming session. Any longer, and you risk taking away from your writing time.

Once you have your outline completed, dive into the writing. Use the activity of the writing to get your mind flowing. Don’t worry about erasing or fixing minor errors. Cross out errors quickly and move on. Erasing takes time and can damage the paper. If you have bad handwriting, try leaving a black space between each line so your professor has a better chance reading the essay.

Leave yourself a couple minutes at the end to reread the essay. You’re just checking for basic coherence. Again, you’re not worrying about spelling errors; instead, you’re checking to make sure you maintain the thesis throughout the essay and have provided good supporting detail.