Sweeping up tiny grains of rice that have somehow escaped from a container during dinner preparation, to me, is equivalent to what it was like to write essays under time constraints when I was a student. With the exception of a math assignment, (I was no good at math) nothing could reduce me to panic like a timed essay test. It seemed like I was chasing after pieces of information that would suddenly get away from me. How was I supposed to take something I just spent a few minutes reading and transform it into a well-written response in 50 minutes or less? I’m pretty sure I was offered strategies, but somehow I either never used them or they just escaped me in my aim to make sense of chaos. However, after spending many years as a writing teacher in both English and Spanish, I think I may have a few steps to pass on to future students and hopefully they might find them useful. They’re not the most unusual steps students have ever seen. Many might look familiar, but I’ve listed them here below for your consideration:
1) If the essay prompt is asking you to read a selection and make an argument, you could first skim through the selection and identify the author’s thesis or main point. Sometimes it’s at the end of the opening paragraph, but not always. Sometimes it appears in the second or third paragraphs, or it could be in the concluding paragraph. An author might not necessary say, “I completely disagree or agree with . . .” Instead, he or she may use key words such as “dangerous” or “unnecessary” or “should be/should not be” to give recommendations and opinions. Looking for these kinds of key words could help you identify the author’s main argument.
2) After reading the selection, you could ask yourself, “Do I agree with the author’s statement? Why or why not?” When answering the question, “Why or why not?” you could provide three reasons, which could eventually become three points for the body of your essay later on.
Fictional Example: I do not agree with B. Author’s argument that self-driving cars will be disastrous to society because self-driving cars can provide transportation to people of all abilities, reduce accidents, and increase the economy.
When I come up with three reasons why I disagree in this case, I think about all the various people or segments of society that might be affected by this topic. In this way, I can find three different and perhaps strong reasons to convince readers to take my side.
3) Most readers want to see some kind of “hook” in the first sentence to gain their interest, but you might not have time to invent a clever one on your own. One trick you could use is to begin with the title of the article or text, the name of the author, and the argument. Sometimes authors choose titles carefully and the word choices can pique a reader’s interest. If a title is particularly interesting, you could place it in quotation marks (if it’s an article or a work in an anthology) and go from there.
Example: “Losing Control: Self-Driving Cars and Society’s Loss” by B. Author argues that while self-driving cars may be convenient, they will shut down important brain functions people have developed over the years as a result of learning to drive.
The title above has some thought provoking words like “losing control” and “self-driving cars” that might draw a reader in, so I use them to my advantage in my opening sentence. You might try a similar strategy as you begin to practice writing essays “on the spot.”
Then, you could explain some key concepts from the article and transition into your thesis statement. In this case, I might write the following statement: However, I do not agree that self-driving cars will be disastrous to society. They can provide transportation to people of all abilities and reduce accidents. They may even help increase the economy.
4) The three points from the thesis statement can become topic sentences for each subsequent body paragraph. After each topic sentence, you could provide examples from the text or from your own personal experience (if allowed in the prompt) to back up your points. So, if my first point states that people of all abilities can benefit from self-driving cars, I might give examples of people who would previously rely on buses or other transportation because a disability may have prevented them from driving. I could make the case that more people could achieve independence and happiness to more freely pursue worthwhile goals and jobs if they had self-driving cars. Then, once I’ve provided at least 2-3 examples and explanations, I could provide a sentence or two at the end to show readers how all of my ideas relate to and support my thesis statement.
5) Finally, I could conclude with a paragraph that summarizes all of my ideas and leaves my readers with one more idea or overall thought. Sometimes identifying one last striking quote from the reading can help provide that final thought or impression.
Of course, remembering and following all of these steps takes time and plenty of practice. As you move about the world and do the things that make you happy, you might spend some time reflecting on your experiences. If you happen to see an advertisement on social media or read a headline in the news, you could stop and think about whether or not you agree or disagree with what you see. Then, grab some paper and take each step above slowly and carefully until you gain momentum and the pieces, rather than scattering about uncontrollably, fall into place.
If you need help with timed essay writing, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to lend a hand: firstname.lastname@example.org