In-Class Essay Exams

In-class essay exams give students the opportunity to showcase their writing skills and content knowledge within a set amount of time. Students are expected to use their critical thinking skills to analyze texts, develop arguments, and synthesize information. Instructors who use in-class essay exams are testing for students’ ability to apply knowledge.

Before the Exam

  • Attend lecture and take notes, especially if review sessions are offered. Instructors will often cover relevant material during these sessions, and the essay topics may even be posted at that optional lecture.
  • Gather information about the format. Information about the type or genre of the essay, such as persuasive or compare-and-contrast, is important to know. Most instructors allocate at least 30 minutes for in-class essays, but students should ask how much time they have for that part of the exam if it is not clear.
  • Identify course themes and brainstorm sample prompts. Taking a step back from the class material can help you identify common, encompassing themes. Brainstorming sample prompts based on those larger themes can help you come up with examples that could be useful for the actual in-class essay.
  • Return to prior feedback. On top of identifying all-encompassing ideas within the course, you should also consider any feedback you’ve received from the instructor about previous writing assignments. Sometimes you can determine what instructors are looking for within in-class essays by analyzing what has been commented on.
  • Get some sleep! Studying is important, but so is sleep. It becomes difficult to write well when you’re fatigued.

During the Exam

Student taking examEvaluate the prompt. Take time to evaluate what the prompt is asking you to do; this strategy will decrease the possibility of misreading the prompt. If you have the option to choose one prompt out of many, start by reading through all the prompts and writing a few ideas that answer each. You can ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much do I know about each prompt?
  • Do I have enough examples/sources/points for my chosen prompt?
  • Can I think of any counterarguments against this possible thesis?

Plan your strategy. Ensure that you allocate time to brainstorm ideas, make an outline, write your essay, and proofread—and if you have multiple essays, be sure to use this process for each one. Wearing a watch will help you keep time in order to avoid rushing, especially if it is difficult to see the clock in the classroom. For example, consider a 50-minute class that asks a student to answer 1 question:

  • Reading and evaluating the prompt(s) – 3.5 minutes
  • Brainstorming ideas – 3.5 minutes
  • Making a rough outline – 8 minutes
  • Writing – 30 minutes
  • Proofreading – 5 minutes

In-class essays do not differ much from normal essays. The largest difference is the time constraint. The same rules apply to both of these essay types:

  • Include a clear thesis statement
  • Logically organize ideas (avoid a “think-as-you-go” structure)
  • Present evidence that supports the thesis statement
  • Use key words from the prompt and course texts / concepts
  • Include and argue against counterarguments if it is an argumentative essay
  • Be as clear and concise as possible

In-class essays do not have to be daunting. By preparing ahead of time and taking your organization skills into the exam, you can confidently approach these essays and showcase your writing skills.

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