Examples Of Timed Writing Assignments

Regardless of GPA, major, or luck, every student at SJSU will eventually have to take a timed essay examination. While they are not the most technically difficult tests to take, the mere mention of a timed writing exam often leaves students feeling panicked, sweaty, and terrified.

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While panic itself is not helpful, being able to recognize the cause of this panic can be useful because it allows you to resolve existing problems and prevent panic from ruining your essay. Since so many students share common timed writing experiences, we’ve compiled a list of the top thoughts that students have during timed writing tests, and we’ll offer you advice to help you manage them.

  1. What kind of prompt is this?! I don’t know anything! How am I supposed to write an essay on this topic?! OH NO, OH NO, I AM GOING TO FAIL.

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First, take a deep breath, and calm down. Stop these thoughts. They will only hurt your essay. They are not going to make your essay any better.

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Instead of thinking about all the many ways that you can fail, think of the ways that you can succeed; channel your nervous energy into productive and creative energy. At first glance, this prompt may not appear to have anything that you can relate to, but, upon further examination, most prompts offer all test takers plenty of options. When brainstorming, try to approach the prompt from as many different angles as possible.

To see this approach in action, take a look at this hypothetical situation. Pretend that you must evaluate and support or disagree with this quote: “True happiness lies in liking those things we approve of and approving of those things we like.”

Before you begin to respond to this quote, make sure that you understand it. Decide what “true happiness” and “approval” mean, and write down those definitions. Now that you have working definitions, you can shape your paper. Think of ways in which your definitions support the above statement and write them down. After you’ve taken this step, think of ways that your definitions do not support the statement. After writing down all of your responses to this question, decide which stance you agree with most. If you are undecided, choose the response that has a stronger list of examples. From here, you can begin to expand your responses, and then you can work toward a functional outline.

If you’d like more help on this topic, see our handout “Essay Planning: Outlining with a Purpose.” 

2.   I can’t think of this word. WHY CAN’T I THINK OF THIS WORD?

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Again, relax. It is completely normal to forget words from time to time, especially in situations when you’re feeling a little (or completely) stressed out. Rather than spending a minute or more trying to recall a specific word, leave a space roughly the size of two words where the mystery word would go, and move on. It might initially be difficult to leave blank spaces in your essay, but doing so gives your mind a break and the chance to approach the sentence from a new perspective. This makes it easier for your mind to place that word, or a similar word, in the place of the blank spot when you go back and revise. Even if you can’t find the “perfect” word, don’t worry; the fate of your essay doesn’t rest on the presence of a certain word. As long as you include a word that holds a similar meaning and works within the context of the sentence, your essay will survive.

  1. That’s it. I’m going to fail.

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This is one of the most common thoughts that people have during a timed writing exam. It generally occurs after a lackluster brainstorming session or in the midst of a particularly intense onset of writer’s block. While it may seem impossible, try focusing on the task at hand rather than thinking negatively about the exam. If you’re in the middle of a brainstorming session, think of ways that you can enhance your argument, such as personal or newsworthy events, and jot them down. If you’re in the middle of a paragraph, leave some space and move on to your next idea. Giving yourself some space from a paragraph that brought you into the pits of complete despair will allow you to take a breather and get your essay back on track.

  1. I can’t stop shaking! WHY CAN’T I STOP SHAKING?!

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Admittedly, this problem is not something that you can easily solve while in the middle of a timed writing exam (unless you begin to sprint around the room and show off your athletic prowess to your fellow test-takers), but it is something that can be minimized with a little planning. To prevent test-day jitters from rendering your handwriting incomprehensible, try to schedule a bit of exercise a few hours before your exam. You don’t have to perform any Olympian-worthy feats, but you should do enough to get your heart rate slightly elevated.

The exercise will not only lessen the adrenaline that you’ll feel during the test but also lessen the “flight” instinct (your urge to run away from school forever).

  1. Is this paper long enough? I don’t think that this essay is long enough.

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This thought, like many others on this list, stems from writing insecurities. The majority of timed essay exams do not have a length requirement. Let me reiterate: the majority of timed essay exams do not have a length requirement. With this in mind, take a deep breath. Your assignment is not to write a five-paragraph essay or a four-page essay but to write a “well-developed essay” that adequately addresses the prompt. You have some freedom; it means that you can write an essay that’s as long (or short) as you want it to be.

However, this is not to say that you can get away with writing a one-page essay. You still need to demonstrate that you know how to develop ideas and present a cohesive argument, so be sure that you have at least two solid body paragraphs in addition to your introduction and conclusion. While this length may seem inadequate compared to out-of-class essays, keep in mind that you have approximately an hour to make your case and make it well. I tend to write essays with four paragraphs during timed writing exams; I find that it gives me more time to be thorough. Rather than worrying about getting to my conclusion, I can use the extra time to develop my ideas further or proofread my paper.

  1. This paragraph is the worst thing that I’ve ever written in my life, and it should be burned and spat upon.

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While timed writing exams let students demonstrate their excellent writing abilities, they can also (unfortunately) let students highlight their not-so-great ideas. When your brain seeks to sabotage your effort, fight the urge to cross out all your hard work. Look at the paragraph in question and identify why it’s presenting such a problem. Does it lack focus? Does it not relate to your thesis? Spend a minute reflecting and then spend a minute or two more adding in sentences that attempt to solve the problem (or problems). Don’t spend too much time worrying about the issues in this paragraph; move on and save time to come back and edit it when you’re done writing the first draft. Don’t let a bad paragraph get you down!

  1. My professor is going to think that I’m an idiot.

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This is another terrible thought that stems from writing insecurities. No matter how scary your professor may seem, he or she is not conducting this type of exam for his or her own amusement. Professors know how stressful and difficult timed writing exams can be, and they usually have sympathy for their students. (Even professors have written their share of terrible timed essays.) Professors are more likely to forgive minor grammar errors that occur within timed writing essays because they know that even the best writers make mistakes in stressful writing situations. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do your best on your timed essay but that you should not be as worried about what your professor thinks. Any student who shows up for a timed writing exam demonstrates bravery and dedication, something that most professors respect. As long as your grammar errors don’t impede the meaning of the essay, you shouldn’t worry unnecessarily.

A note for the WST (Writing Skills Test): the WST is graded anonymously by a group of teachers and writing experts. They don’t know who wrote the essay, and you don’t know who grades the essay. In this case, you have even less of a reason to worry about what people think of you.

  1. Did I spell that word right? Is this sentence grammatically correct?! WHAT IS GRAMMAR?!

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You’re probably hoping to hear that grammar isn’t important at all. Grammar and spelling are always important, but, in these types of tests, perhaps not as much as you might imagine. While it is certainly better to have correct spelling and grammar, it is generally more important to have solid ideas and strong sentences. For these essays, the details are important, but the big picture (the content and delivery) is what really matters. If you’re uncertain about the spelling of a certain word, circle it and come back to it when you revise; it’s far more important to spend this time developing your ideas. If you’re uncertain about grammar issues, circle them and return to them later. Also be sure to keep an eye out for easy mistakes to make; if you’re feeling particularly uncomfortable about a particular topic, check out one of our handouts.

  1. I’m almost out of time! Everyone else is done, so I should turn this essay in now. This is so embarrassing. I’m never going to finish this paper.

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Whatever you do, do not turn in an essay that is incomplete. That’s one way to ensure that your score is lower than it needs to be.

If you’re worried about being one of the last people to turn in an essay, calm down. Worrying and comparing yourself to others is not going to help you improve your essay. Don’t think that these people are any better than you because they’re finished. (In fact, some of them might have felt pressured to be done and turned in their essays just to keep up appearances.)

Rather than focusing on how others are doing, take a critical look at how much you’ve written and compare what needs to be written to how much time you have left. Do you have 10 minutes? Five? Two? Next, honestly evaluate how much you can get done in this amount of time and develop a plan. If you know that you can write a strong concluding paragraph, one that provides thoughtful and new insights or specifics, then you should use that time to write the best conclusion that you can. However, if you know that it’ll be difficult for you to put anything new or thoughtful in your conclusion, spend your time writing a strong and convincing body paragraph and tack on a few concluding thoughts. Timed essays are generally graded holistically, so it’s best to make your essay as complete as you can.

For example, if you have three minutes left and have a body paragraph and conclusion to go, it would clearly be unwise to attempt to do both. Even if you have a really great idea that you’d love to include in an additional body paragraph, your time would be better spent writing a concluding paragraph because it demonstrates a knowledge of the essay-writing process. Remember, these tests are graded holistically, so omitting this “wrap-up” might cause more harm than good (even if your new body paragraph is awesome) because the reader may think that you don’t know that a concluding paragraph is necessary. In extreme time-crunches, a short or weak conclusion is still better than nothing.

  1. Whew, I’m finally done, and I’ve even got a few minutes to spare. Holla!

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Hold on, cowboy! Before you run off into the sunset, make sure that you’ve thoroughly edited your paper for sentence-level problems and content issues. It’s easy to allow an “its” to slip in where an “it’s” should have been. However, if you have proofread your paper and revised it, feel free to celebrate; you’ve just completed (and hopefully passed) one of college students’ most dreaded tests!

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Exams are almost upon us, and a familiar sense of foreboding has settled over the campus. One exam element that can be particularly intimidating for some students is the timed essay: an exam question which demands a full essay on a topic that is typically revealed for the first time during the test. While these kinds of questions may seem scary, there are plenty of ways to make them easy for yourself. Read on for tips about how to prepare in advance of the exam and how to approach timed essays before, during, and after the writing process.

While Preparing for the Exam:

Become familiar with the course content. If the professor hasn’t told you in advance what a timed essay prompt will be, it can be intimidating to think that you will have to write about a subject you’ve never seen before. However, this thinking process does not reflect the reality of the situation. In fact, even if your teacher hasn’t given you any hints about the essay question, you do know what it will be about: the concepts and ideas you’ve discussed in the course. Therefore, if you take the time to review your notes and ensure you understand everything that was discussed, it should be difficult for the essay question to catch you off guard. As soon as you read the question, relevant course concepts will start popping into your head, and you’ll just have to organize them into a coherent essay.

Start planning if you can. Although the situation described above sometimes occurs, it’s also very common for professors to give their students a fairly detailed idea of what an essay question will involve in advance of the test day. (After all, professors want to mark high-quality essays written by well-prepared students!) This heads-up gives you a great chance to prepare for the exam. If you have the time, consider mapping out a possible essay in point form before the day of the exam arrives.

Consider practicing writing under time pressure. You’ve probably written dozens of essays before--the only thing that sets a timed essay apart is that it’s timed. Students often struggle to complete the full essay within the time constraints, particularly if they have to write longhand when they’re accustomed to working on the computer. For this reason, it can be helpful to simulate the conditions of a timed exam before the actual day: pick a practice question, find some lined paper, set a stopwatch, and see how you do!

Before You Start Writing:

Read the question carefully. The most critical part of the essay-writing process actually happens before you write your first word. When you flip to the essay question, make sure you read it as carefully as you can, noting the difference between words such as ‘contrast’ and ‘analyze’ and highlighting any details which the professor specifically instructs you to include. It’s not uncommon for excellent essays to receive low marks because the student answered a question other than the one that was asked.

Make a clear and specific plan. Some students react to the time pressure of essay exams by scribbling down their introduction as soon as they’ve read the question and figuring out their points as they go. While it might seem counter-intuitive, taking five or ten minutes before you start writing in order to draw up a plan will be an enormous time saver. Decide on your thesis, the topic of each paragraph, and the arguments which you intend to cover, then jot down some quick point-form notes. This process won’t take long, and, once you complete it, all that’s left will be to expand those notes into a well-organized essay. Without a clear plan, you run the risk of realizing partway through that you’ve drifted off topic or written yourself into a corner, and fixing these mistakes will consume a ton of extra time.

Schedule a set time for each paragraph. On the topic of planning, it’s important to sketch out an idea of how long you want to spend on each section of your essay. (If you know the number of paragraphs you’ll need to write ahead of time, you can do this before the exam even starts!) Take note of the amount of time allotted for the exam and split it into reasonably-sized segments, leaving some time at the end for revision if possible. Without a schedule to follow, it’s easy to become too focused on a single paragraph and run out of time to finish the essay.

While You’re Writing:

Write clearly and double-space.
This tip may seem basic, but it’s easy to forget and it can make a big difference. Both these measures won’t just make it easier for the marker to read your paper; they'll also help you write it. If you have time left at the end of the exam for review, having the ability to skim quickly through your work and write revisions in blank spaces will be incredibly helpful.

Keep yourself on schedule. Remember the paragraph-based schedule we discussed above? It’ll be useless if you don’t do regular check-ins during the exam. Keep an eye on the clock to ensure you’re always on track. If you realize that you’re falling dangerously behind schedule, it might be necessary to cut some arguments or examples you planned to include. Although making these omissions can be painful, it’s better to leave out a few points from one section than to leave out an entire paragraph because you ran out of time.

Don’t worry too much about editing and revision before you finish. When composing essays, many students stop and read over each paragraph once they finish it, making sure that it’s well-written and free of errors before advancing to the next one. This approach is entirely logical when there’s no time pressure involved, but it can actually work against you during an exam. Perfecting paragraphs is a time-consuming process, and, if you spend too much time editing before the essay is finished, you might have to rush through the last few sections or leave them out entirely. For this reason, it’s best to focus on producing a complete first draft before you worry about edits and revisions.

After You’ve Finished Writing:

Re-read the question and ensure you’ve addressed all parts. The most important part of writing an essay exam is ensuring that you’re answering the question was posed. Even if you made sure you were interpreting everything correctly before you began, you may have forgotten to address a subquestion or integrate an example as you were writing. Before you submit, read the prompt again and make sure your completed essay matches up!

Edit if you have time. If you have enough time left over, read your essay again and make corrections. When you’re working under time pressure, it’s easy to make grammar mistakes or produce hard-to-follow sentences; the final few minutes are your chance to clean up those errors. Unless if you finished way ahead of schedule, don’t worry about major revisions like reorganizing the structure of the essay--it’s better to hand in an essay with an imperfect structure than a paper that’s impossible to follow because you had to stop halfway through the revision process.

Remember to have the right perspective. Once you hand your exam to the professor, relax! It’s easy to work yourself up after an essay exam when you didn’t get the chance to read your work over or you feel like your arguments were weak. However, it’s important to keep in mind that your professor understands the circumstances under which the essay was written. They’re fully aware of the time pressure you were dealing with, and they will judge your work far differently than they would judge a typical essay with a deadline set weeks after the assignment date. If you did your best to write a complete, clear, and insightful essay within the time allotted, you should have nothing to worry about.

Best of luck during the upcoming exam season!

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