🧭 The Guide
SUNY Geneseo’s Writing Guide

Writing Essay Exams

He that runs against Time, has an antagonist not subject to casualties.
—Samuel Johnson

Much of the advice offered under Writing Outside the Classroom cannot apply to in-class composition; the clock will not permit you to discover your thesis by writing or to ponder the rhythms of your prose. You may or may not have time to proofread. (Never walk out of an essay exam early without first reviewing your answers for errors and omissions.)

It is not only the hurried pace, but also the special purpose of in-class writing that sets it apart from out-of-class writing. Indeed, if you keep this purpose before you as you write, the time constraints of the essay exam ought to bother you less.

Generally speaking, professors are looking for you to do two things in an in-class essay:

  • Show your detailed knowledge of particular issues, texts, subject areas, processes, etc.
  • Use this knowledge in a focused way, usually to solve a problem not previously addressed in lecture or class discussion.

Many students fall afoul of one or the other of these objectives. One writer will open the floodgates of memory, letting everything he knows about the subject gush onto the page unchanneled by ideas about the problem. Another will tackle the problem head-on, neatly dividing her discussion into three main areas—to which she will devote three brief paragraphs unencumbered by detailed supporting evidence.

As a rule, professors don’t expect in-class essays to be highly polished, and they tolerate a fair amount of structural looseness. (Most, for example, won’t mind if you backtrack briefly in order to make a point you forgot to include earlier, as long as you make your intentions clear with an appropriate transition; e.g., “ I should have mentioned earlier that . . . “).

Nevertheless, professors do expect in-class essays to show a reasonable regard, given the circumstances, for the general features of good writing mentioned at the head of this Guide. Even in a 15- or 20-minute essay, you can show you’ve thought about audience, purpose, and organization. Moreover, provided you’ve fulfilled the primary objectives above, the clearer, simpler, and more economical your prose, the better you’ll do.

There is no single correct strategy for writing an in-class essay. Some students feel more comfortable drawing up a brief outline before starting to compose; others worry, understandably, that outlining eats up valuable time. You have to find the method that works best for you (and to obey any specific guidelines issued by your instructor), but the following general advice may prove helpful.

  • Choose carefully. Many exam questions ask you to select an essay topic from two or more alternatives. And many students waste their time answering (a) and (b) when they ought to have chosen (a) or(b). When confronted with a choice, take a moment to decide which topic will best enable you to show what you know in a focused way.

  • Think before you write. Spend a few moments considering the topic you’ve chosen, even if it’s one you are confident about answering. This will not be wasted time. Put yourself in your professor’s shoes. Why has the professor has asked this question in just this way? A common student complaint about essay exams is that the questions don’t relate to material covered in class. You can be sure, however, that your professor sees a relationship. What might it be? Remember that if your professor wants you to solve a new problem using knowledge you already possess, the exam question is bound to seem a bit strange at first. You will have to do a little new thinking. Now is the time to do it.

  • Show your professor that you’re answering the question. When it comes to in-class writing, students aren’t the only ones pressed for time. Most professors try to turn around exams more quickly than papers. This has its benefits for the student. Your professor is reading quickly, so, as mentioned earlier, you can probably get away with prose that’s a little looser and a little rougher. But if the professor doesn’t immediately see how your answer addresses the question, you will suffer. He or she will not stop to ponder how your sixth paragraph relates to your first. In a bluebook, the pages only turn one way.

  • Use the wording of the question to frame your answer. You can help your professor see the connection between question and answer by organizing your answer around key words in the question. Take the following question:

    In the Second Treatise of Government, how do the concepts of nature, reason, and law help John Locke build an argument about just government and justified rebellion?

The key words here are nature, reason, law, just government, justified rebellion. A six-paragraph essay based on these key words might have the following six lead sentences:

  • Paragraph 1 (Thesis): In the Second Treatise of Government, the concepts of nature, reason, and law help John Locke build an argument about just government and justified rebellion.
  • Paragraph 2: Locke’s concept of nature is…
  • Paragraph 3: Locke’s concept of reason is…
  • Paragraph 4: Locke’s concept of law is…
  • Paragraph 5: These three concepts contribute to Locke’s argument about just government…
  • Paragraph 6: These three concepts also contribute to Locke’s argument about justified rebellion…

Notice that the lead sentence for the first paragraph turns the essay question into a statement. It is not a straightforward copy of the question. Unless instructed to do so, you should never waste time copying an exam question into your bluebook.

  • Write in complete sentences. Bulleted lists and sentence fragments connected by arrows should not take the place of continuous prose held together by logical transitions.

  • Don’t apologize. As noted in the The Guide’s discussion of Conclusions, apologies (e.g., “I know I could have done better but the flu kept me from studying”) won’t help you and may hurt you. It’s not that your professors are unsympathetic. But they can only grade your work, not your intentions. Even if your apology is simply meant to let your professor know that you care about the course, it is likely to look like special pleading.