Strategies for Taking the Essay Exam or Timed Essay

  • Warm up beforehand by writing something. We all perform better once we've got the rhythm. A smart test-taker writes a letter to a friend while waiting for the test to begin.

  • Get excited. If you can get excited by what you're saying and become energized by your own performance, the way an actor gets energized just by being on stage in front of an audience, you'll have won half the battle. As always, the easiest way to excite yourself is to say something that matters to you and to write directly to someone with the intent of moving him or her. Of course, many essay test topics make this difficult. Do your best, and remember, a car salesman isn't excited by the car, but by the selling.

  • Get down to cases. You may feel you don't have time, but that's like thinking you're in such a hurry to leave town that you don't have time to gas up. No idea is worth a hoot without some "for instances," so however short the essay is, you must use them. If your test answer is two sentences long, make the first sentence a thesis and the second an example.

  • Map out where you want to go. In essay tests time is short, so take a moment to prewrite. The urge is to go right to your first paragraph, but two or three minutes spent mapping will usually pay for themselves by giving you a sense of direction early. Too many writers discover the real direction of their essay on page three, when it's too late!

  • Get on with it. Make sure that your first sentence jumps into the heart of things. Skip all essay etiquette like a leisurely introduction. Never repeat yourself.

  • Write in your own language. It takes time to translate your thoughts into someone else's language, and you don't have time.

  • Write only one draft. You won't have time to rewrite. If you write a few lines and then decide that they don't belong, just cross them out and keep on writing. Almost any instructor will accept such messiness, and your crossouts offer evidence of your thought process.

  • Be aware of the time. An unfinished good essay is worse than a finished okay essay.

  • Proofread for garbled meaning. You'll hate to spend the time, but hasty writing is often garbled in ways that will crack UP Your instructor. Just skim to see if you wrote the words you intended. It takes less time than you think -- perhaps twenty seconds to proofread a thirty-minute quiz.

  • Proofread your mechanics. Look only at your pet problems. Proofread for them alone. You don't have time for a thorough editorial polishing.

These strategies were provided by Jon Plaisted of Stony Brook's Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

Program in Writing and Rhetoric • Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-5340 • 631.632.7390
Writing Center • 631.632.7405