Timed Essay Strategies
Timed writing assignments often strike fear in the heart of any beginning writer. Writing is often hard enough without the added stress of writing an entire essay in a specified length of time. But with careful planning and practice, you’ll be prepared for any prompt the teacher might throw at you.
Taking a timed written exam, or a timed essay, measures your ability to not only understand and respond to a given prompt, but also shows you can compose an essay without outside assistance. Most often, your instructor will give you a prompt for composing your timed essays. It might ask you to respond to another essay you are to read, or it might ask you to thoroughly answer a posed question. In either case, understanding what the prompt is asking you to do will set you on the right course for a successful essay.
Thoroughly read the prompt several times, underlining key verbs. The verbs are the key to unlocking the mystery of what you are to do. If the prompt is asking you to “summarize,” this is a different writing task than if it were asking you to “analyze” (see this post for more info on these types of essays). Failure to respond correctly to the prompt question is the most common reason for a poor timed essay.
Other verbs you might see in a timed essay prompt:
Argue (take a position and persuade reader)
Compare (similarities or differences between 2 or more things)
Contrast (only differences between 2 or more things)
Explain (offer meaning or answer “why” questions
Evaluate (offer your opinion, presenting differing perspectives)
Illustrate (offer examples, usually from text)
Yes, even a timed essay must have a thesis statement. The thesis statement will usually be the answer posed by the prompt question. Unless otherwise instructed, the thesis statement should be placed in the introductory paragraph, serving as an organizing structure for the entire essay. Spend some time on perfecting your thesis; a weak thesis will result in a weak paper.
Once you have a strong thesis in place, you’ll be in a good position to begin building your essay to support your main point. Be time efficient as you organize the body of your paper; too much time is wasted veering off topic. To stay on track, build the body of your essay with topic sentences that directly relate to your thesis. To make sure you are on topic, ask yourself as you write if 1) you are responding to the prompt, and 2) you are always relating back to the thesis.
Take a few minutes to conclude your essay. Even a short conclusion is better than none. Avoid restating what you’ve already said, but add reinforcement or something new.
Following the essay prompt and composing the essay is one thing, but working under strict time constraints is another. The following times are suggestions; you might work better under pressure, so you might need less time in outlining than someone who will benefit from careful planning. As you can see from the chart below, you may spend as much time planning or outlining, revising and editing as you do writing the essay:
You know your writing style better than anyone. Adjust your time accordingly: if you are confident you are proficient in spelling, grammar and punctuation, you may need little time in the final editing stage. Spend this time planning or writing. If you write slowly and methodically, you may need less time in the revision stage and more time writing.
One stage most instructors will advise you NOT to shortchange is the planning stage. Careful outlining will not only help you as you compose your essay, but will also save you time in the writing stage by giving you something to refer to if you get stuck. The outline will also help you stay on task by reminding you of the prompt question.
If the pressure of the timed essay is stressful for you, PRACTICE! Find some sample prompts online, set a timer, and try to write within the designated time your instructor will give you. Stress – in any situation – is reduced if we prepare ourselves and know what is coming. It’s the unknown that causes stress, and the more we are stressed, the more likely our brain won’t fire on all cylinders.
Make sure all of your questions are answered ahead of time (formatting, bathroom breaks, etc.) and consider even using earplugs to avoid the distraction of 20 other clicking keyboards.