Timed Essays: Planning and Organizing in a Crunch

When a timed test begins, avoid the temptation to start filling the page immediately. Take a few minutes to plan, first.

  • Remember, your grader will read your essay, not weigh it.
    (Go for organized substance, not sheer volume.)
  • Start preparing for the test on the first day of classes.
    (Ask your professor to explain what he or she expects you to accomplish. Ask for practice questions or mock tests. Very few professors will deliberately hold back if you ask for help.)
  • Leave your white out and your erasable ink at home. (Cross out sections; draw lines that show where you want to move paragraphs, insert asterisks and marginal notes.  Just write on every other line, and try your best to write legibly.  Your instructor will be pleased to see evidence of careful revision -- but if you slash and hack compulsively, you will appear desperate.)

For a timed essay, your grader won't expect perfection.  It's okay if it looks like a rough draft -- that's a sign of a mind at work.

Invest in a Good Thesis Statement

If you find a thesis statement you like, get to know it for a little while before you set your heart on pursuing a serious relationship. It might turn out to be a bore.  Worse yet, it might crush your poor little heart.

Throughout the ages, scholars have looked at the question of X.  When confronted with works A and B, we are left to ask ourselves, do works A and B present the idea that X is true, or do they challenge it?  Scholars have tried to answer this question for many years.  There are many ways to attempt to answer it, but...
Text supports proposition X, through the actions of characters 1 and 2, but text B challenges proposition X, through the presence of themes Y and Z.

Support Your Claims

Each of the following paragraphs has a decent thesis statement, but the one on the right is much more successful.  In the vague original (left), the student resorts to an unanswered rhetorical question ("Why do men think they have the right to make all the laws...?") in order to support a claim.  In the revision on the right, the student refers to a specific source by name.

vague original:

supported revision:

Women can be just as strong and capable as men are.  Why do men think they have the right to make all the laws and keep all the money, when women stay in the kitchen?  People should be judged by what they contribute to society, not by the kind of chromosomes they carry. In "The Rights of Woman," Mary Wollestonecraft said women appear weak because they lack men's rights: "Let woman share the rights and she will emulate the virtues of man".  She questioned the assumption that womanly jobs, such as breastfeeding, were inferior to manly ones, such as war.  Now that we have packaged baby formula and female fighter pilots, we may have to rethink some of her specific points, but her overall argument is still valid.

The passage on the right still includes the student's personal opinions, but it offers specific comments on complex issues, not pithy statements and sweeping generalizations.  

Sweat the Details (but not profusely)

Humanities professors do love to see accurate quotations.  But -- if you can't recall a detail with perfect clarity, you can always paraphrase.  The "supported revision" passage (above) would still be valid even if the student hadn't remembered the exact quote.

In another case, a student might remember a useful detail from a particular assigned reading source, but might not be able to cite it accurately. In such cases, it might be worthwhile to refer to "the anecdote about the man who was giving up his literature collection in order to go into computers," even if you can't recall that the anecdote was from Sven Birkerts's Gutenberg Elegies.

See also:

Other resources:

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