Essay Writing for Timed Exams and Tests

“I hate open-ended questions! What’s wrong with filling in the blanks?” “It's impossible! Nobody can write a full essay in less than an hour!”

Some people love writing. The idea of being able to communicate their thoughts on a subject excites them like nothing else. Others hate writing to the point where short paragraph answers are like pulling teeth. Never mind taking the CLEP English Composition exam with the essay. No matter which category you happen to fall under, however, there’s one writing task that test-takers seem to generally agree on: timed essay writing. If the thought of coming up with an essay under pressure makes your blood run cold, then you'll definitely want to keep reading.


The Thesis Statement

In basic terms, your thesis statement lets your reader know what your essay’s going to say. Since this is your main argument, you want it to express a clear and definite position. Why? In a way, it goes back to the whole concept of “like produces like”. A vague thesis that tries to hedge its bets will lead to a vague essay that lacks coherence. Not only does that bring down your score when you’re writing for standardized tests, such as the SAT, GRE, LSAT, or AP exams, it also makes the essay portion more tedious than it needs to be. Your thesis is your foundation so you want it to be strong.

Pro tip: Usually you’re asked to pick your topic by looking through a list of open-ended questions. Can you summarize your answer in one sentence? There’s your thesis.


Make a Quick Outline

Many people think that writing is done by sitting down and going purely on instinct. In fiction writing, there’s even a term for this called “pantsing”. In analytical writing, however, flying by the seat of your pants will likely lead to writer’s block. When the clock is ticking away, the last thing you want is to get stuck. An outline lets you know what you’re going to say beforehand while also giving you a chance to figure out how you'll formulate your sentences. It might take a few minutes to do, but you’ll thank yourself later.


Focus on Structure and Organization

 “Don’t agonize. Organize.” –Florence Kennedy

Okay. This is where we get to the meat and potatoes. If you want to get a great score on your timed five-paragraph essay, this is how to structure it:

  1. Introduction
  2. Argument #1
  3. Argument #2
  4. Argument #3
  5. Conclusion

Learn it, love it, live it. If you have extra time or you need more words, just add more arguments until you have reached your count. As you can see, you want your arguments to support your thesis in order to ensure continuity. From there, concluding is a simple matter of summarizing your arguments and pointing everything back to that thesis statement. Once you understand this structure, writing timed essays will be a piece of cake.

Pro Tip: You can structure your individual paragraphs the same way. Introduce your argument where it says “introduction”, use concrete examples where it says “arguments”, and conclude with an explanation of how your paragraph supports your thesis.


Putting It All Together

Sometimes your essay question will ask you to address certain issues or to incorporate specific words. For many of those sitting through these exams, overwriting and the neglecting of keywords can easily lead to a subpar essay and score. So be sure to watch for that. Speaking of common mistakes, you'll also want to go back and proofread. With a computer-based test in particular, the opportunity is there for you to catch embarrassing errors and fix them. After reading through to make sure it flows properly, you can submit your essay whenever you’re ready.

That wasn't so bad was it? Writing a timed essay doesn't have to be a nerve-wracking race against the clock. It doesn't have to be the section that sinks your final score either. In fact, with a strong thesis statement and a solid outline you can actually write better in less time. This is where a little organization goes a long way.


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