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 couldnt have been more prepared to discuss
the novels wed read.
But I wasnt 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 Id 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
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?
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:
- 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.
- Create a list of the points youll 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.
- 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 dont 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 paragraphsas
specified in your brief outlineremember that each
assertion needs an example as evidence. Your position
means very little if you havent demonstrated an
ability to support it. Thats what your professor
is looking for. So specific, concrete
evidence is crucial. If you are arguing that a character
in a novel is greedy, dont 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 wont be perfect.
No one expects that. But they should be
clear, logical, and easy to read.
The steps Ive outlined here arent much
different from the ones youll use to write take-home
essays, except that at home youll 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, youll
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.