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Emily SchillerWriting the In-Class Essay Exam

By Emily Schiller

The first in-class essay exam I took when I returned to college was a disaster. I had done all the reading, TWICE; thought extensively about the material; and filled pages with notes from my own responses as well as from class. I couldn’t have been more prepared to discuss the novels we’d read.

But I wasn’t at all prepared to write essays with time limits and no chance to revise. So what did I do? I took the questions as jumping-off points and
wrote everything I could think of, had thought of, or might even consider. Every once in awhile I’d indent, so they at least would resemble essays with real paragraphs. There was no logic to anything I did; I just spewed. Not good. The professor commented (kindly, gently) that my ideas were superb and my insights quite inspired. However, not only were my answers not essays, they never really responded directly to the questions. Aargh!

After that, I learned to contain and direct my enthusiasms. Essay exams are not a license to babble. They require reflection and control. Here are some
steps I created to help myself and, later on, to help my students.

1) First, read the question carefully. Pick out the salient points. What is the topic? A book, an event, an idea? What is the focus? A character? A problem?
What are you being asked to do with this? Discuss? Contrast? Agree/Disagree?

2) Next, make a few very quick notes in answer to the question or in response to the topic.

3) Stop and take a breath. Read over your ideas and ask yourself which ones directly address the question or essay prompt. Throw out whatever
is irrelevant to the task at hand no matter how much you love it. Really!

4) Now make a very brief (very rapid) outline:

  1. What is your thesis? What will you argue? Remember that your thesis is your promise to the reader: You are promising that by the end of this
    essay, you will have convinced the reader of such and such and nothing else. Once again, check to make sure the thesis responds directly and specifically to the question. The thesis will keep you honest as well as help prepare the reader.
  2. Create a list of the points you’ll need to make to prove your thesis. Throw out any point that only shows off another bit of information
    you have in your head rather than builds the argument for your thesis. Each point should be in the form of an assertion, a mini-thesis and will serve as the topic-sentences for your body paragraphs.
  3. Arrange these topic sentences in some sort of logical order rather in the order they have just occurred to you. What piece of information
    does the reader need first? Second? etc. Each point should build on the one that comes before and towards making the case for your thesis.

5) Now start writing the essay. Do not let yourself write a long introduction. You don’t want to take time away from the argument itself. Just use a sentence or two to introduce the problem being addressed, transition to your thesis, state your thesis, and then stop.

6) As you work your way through your body paragraphs—as specified in your brief outline—remember that each assertion needs an example as evidence. Your position means very little if you haven’t demonstrated an ability to support it. That’s what your professor is looking for. So specific, concrete evidence is crucial. If you are arguing that a character in a novel is greedy, don’t simply assert that she is greedy. Give the reader an example from the plot that illustrates her nature and then explain or analyze how it does so.

7) Always try to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to look over your essays. They won’t be perfect. No one expects that. But they should be clear, logical, and easy to read.

The steps I’ve outlined here aren’t much different from the ones you’ll use to write take-home essays, except that at home you’ll have time to do lots of brainstorming and freewriting. In-class exams leave precious little time to be creative. But if you come to class prepared and then carefully tailor your insights to the questions being asked, you’ll be able to express your ideas with grace and intelligence while staying on-topic.


Emily Schiller has been a re-entry student twice. She left college after two years to pursue work in dance, theatre and teaching and then returned six years later to complete a B.A. in Theatre Arts with a minor in Philosophy. After working as an office manager for a chiropractic office, manager of a national playwriting competition, free-lance reader, and public radio producer, she returned to college again, this time earning an M.A. in English from California State University at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in English from UCLA where she taught American Literature and Writing.

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