The Best Way to Prepare for Your In-Class Essay

You’ve known for a week that this day was coming. It’s the day you’ll have to write the dreaded in-class essay.

You don’t work well under pressure. You have no time to organize your thoughts. You never know what to write. You’re freaking out and can feel your heart pounding out of your chest. You need a panic button or, at the very least, an Easy Button.

in-class essay
“That Was Easy!” by slgckgc, (CC BY 2.0)

Even if you do have one of those, chances are, hitting it during the middle of class isn’t going to make writing your essay any easier. It certainly won’t impress your prof, either.

So what to do?

The best thing you can do is stay calm and prepare before you have to write an in-class essay (and maybe leave the Easy Button at home).

in-class essay
“this is how they all look at me” by Greg Westfall, (CC BY 2.0)

The Best Way to Prepare for Your In-Class Essay

If you know you’re going to have to write an in-class essay, your prof might assign the essay in one of two ways:

  1. Your prof might simply tell you that you’ll be writing an essay (and provide no clue as to what you might be writing about).
  2. Your prof might give you a list of possible topics or questions to help you prepare for the essay.

I’m going to give you a few tips to help you prepare for either type of in-class essay.

Writing an in-class essay without prior knowledge of topics or the essay prompt

If your prof tells you nothing more than to expect to write an in-class essay on a specified date, you have to do your best to anticipate the what you’ll be asked to write about.

Here are three strategies to help you anticipate the questions.

#1: Get inside the mind of your prof

in-class essay

If it’s the beginning of the semester, this may be a little harder to do. But if it’s at least mid-term, you should have a pretty good sense of what your prof is like.

No, I don’t mean knowing that he’ll wear that goofy tweed jacket with elbow patches just because it’s Thursday and that’s what he wears every Thursday. I mean knowing what types of topics he thinks are important and what he’ll likely ask you to write about.

For instance, does he constantly remind you to review the study questions at the end of each chapter? If so, he’s most likely giving you a hint as to what type of information to study.

Has he done nothing but ramble on about the causes of the Vietnam War for the past three weeks, then seemingly at random mentions an in-class essay? If so, you can probably assume that he’ll ask you to write something about the causes of the war.

#2: Review your notes, the course handouts and PowerPoints, and the text

Think about the major themes of the information you’ve been studying. Consider the goals of the chapter or module.

Has your professor already given you objectives or told you what you should learn? (If you don’t remember, try the syllabus. Course descriptions usually have the goals and objectives of the course.) All of these can help you anticipate possible questions.

#3: Try to anticipate the type of question your prof might ask

Is your prof into comparing characters from different novels? If so, any type of comparison question could be an excellent candidate for the essay.

Does your prof start every lecture discussion by asking the class to relate course content to current topics or today’s news? If so, chances are pretty good he might ask this type of question on the in-class essay.

Writing an in-class essay with knowledge of the topic or the essay prompt

in-class essay
“Cat thinks studying is boring” by Christian Jensen. (CC BY 2.0)

If your prof gives you lots of tips for studying for the essay or even gives you sample questions, don’t assume that you can just blow off studying. Winging it when you get to class isn’t a good option.

You’re not going to be able to write a successful essay without any practice or preparation. It would be like getting a top rank in Call of Duty the first time you play the game. It just isn’t going to happen. Good writing (and good gaming) takes practice.

Here are three study strategies you can use to prepare for an in-class essay.

#1: Review the sample questions carefully

Remember, these are essentially assignment guidelines, so make sure you know what you’re supposed to be doing. Should you compare and contrast, explain, analyze, or argue?

Also, pay attention to the details. If you’re asked to include at least three examples, make sure you’ve included three. If you’re specifically asked to avoid certain topics or arguments, then by all means avoid them.

Don’t lose valuable points for simply failing to read the directions!

#2: Annotate your text or take notes on a separate page

If you’re allowed to use your book or your notes as you write an in-class essay, take advantage of the opportunity. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ll have time to look up information as you work. You’ll need that time to write.

Instead, mark sections in your book or take note of what passages you might paraphrase, quote, or otherwise use to support your arguments.

Even if you can’t use the notes in class, the simple act of writing the information helps you remember it. This means, of course, that when it comes time to write the essay, you’ll have a better chance of remembering the important stuff.

#3: Try a practice essay or outline

If your prof has given you two or three questions and tells you that you’ll have to write about one, you might try writing out the answers to the questions.

If you decide to write a practice essay, don’t forget to time yourself. This will help you budget your time for the actual in-class writing. If you have a list of 10 possible questions, you may not have the time (or energy) to write 10 sample essays. But you can certainly outline ideas for each question.

Even if you can’t use your notes during the in-class essay, you’ll be better prepared to write the essay because you’ll have a clear sense of what you want to write about.

You might also try reviewing example essays on your anticipated topic to give you ideas for how to approach your own essay.

“That Was Easy!”

Don’t you already feel better about writing an in-class essay? A little preparation goes a long way in relieving the stress that often comes with timed writings.

If you’re one of those people who now feels a little more prepared but is already stressed out about how to budget your time once you’re sitting in class, check out How to Write a Timed Essay in 45 Minutes or Less.

Good luck, and breathe easy!

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