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How to Write an In-Class Essay

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Many people fear the in-class essay. They wonder, “Will I be ready?” or “What if I freeze?” They also worry about how much writing is too much and how much is too little. The following guidelines will help you feel more comfortable with the prospect of writing on demand. Learn how to write an in-class essay with our 10 easy steps.

1) Prepare! In-class essays require that you do your preparation...beforehand. Make sure you attend class and complete the necessary reading and assignments. If you have to miss a class, make arrangements with a trustworthy classmate to share notes with you, or ask your teacher or professor if a tape recorder is allowed. Most teachers will not be able to “re-teach” the class for you, so assume that you will be responsible for any material you’ve missed.

2) Practice. Draw up a list of possible questions you think might be on the test, and ask a friend to choose randomly from your list and then time you. Even just asking your friend to come up with an unrelated topic on which you must write under a time deadline will be helpful in flexing your mental muscles.

3) Choose wisely...and relax! More often than not, you will be allowed a number of essays from which to choose. When you are handed your options, before you even look at the list, take a few seconds to take a deep breath and flex your hands. Tell yourself, “I can do this!” A positive frame of mind and a relaxed body will calm your nerves. Then scan for questions you feel confident in answering.

4) What kind of essay is it? There are two types of in-class essays: short and long.

  • Short essays: If you are writing a short essay, you will want to identify a term or concept and briefly discuss its significance. Don’t fall into the “quantity” vs. “quality” dilemma. Focus on being concise and direct. Your instructor is looking to see if you know the term well enough to both define and explain it. After you provide your definition/explanation, then focus on how the term was used in lectures or in reading assignments, or how the term is understood in context.
  • Long essays: Longer essays are aimed not only at your understanding of a term’s definition, but also your ability to discuss facts, theories, and themes. In a longer essay, you will want to answer some basic questions and expand upon them. Answer the “five w’s” (who, what, where, when, and why) and also “how” your topic is to be understood, in your opinion. You may also want to address what the question does and does not include.

5) Time is critical. Don’t waste time copying down the question. Instead, read the question thoroughly, and then circle keywords that require a response. This will serve as an outline for your essay and help to keep you on track. A real danger of the in-class essay is rambling. If you stick to your keywords, and perhaps add a few in the margin that you need to consider, your essay is more likely to stay focused and on topic.

6) Budget your time. If you are required to select a number of questions, then budget your time before you begin. Spend the most time on the question that weighs the most toward your grade. If they are all equal in weight, answer the ones that you know well first, and try hard to stick to a time limit, allowing the majority of your minutes to the hardest or to the one that is worth the most toward your grade.

7) Craft your first sentence carefully. Instructors will not expect the deft touch of an essay that is assigned out-of-class, but it will be to your benefit to create a concise and interesting introductory sentence. Doing so will also help establish your knowledge of the subject and keep you on track in the paragraphs that follow.

8) Support with specifics. A major pitfall of the in-class essay is the propensity to ramble. For each point you discuss, support your assertion with examples from lectures, reading, or context in other ways.

9) Make corrections clear. Nothing irritates instructors more than trying to decide what you meant or did not mean. But all teachers understand that in-class writing is an imperfect art, so don’t panic if you make a mistake. Simply make a clear line through any text that you do not wish to be considered. Avoid scribbling, erasing, and dark splotches. If the error is so egregious that you need a lot of correction, mark out the undesired text clearly, and use arrows to point to where you wish the reading to resume.

10) Allow a few minutes for editing. Give yourself a few minutes to review your writing. Does it make sense to you? If not, you can be certain that it will not be clear to your instructor. Make any necessary changes by using Step #9.

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