How to Conquer In-Class Essays

in class essay
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Writing an essay can be difficult. Writing an essay on the spot can be even more difficult. I always dread in-class essays. From forgetting information to losing feeling in my fingers, nothing is enjoyable about them. Some may say that there is no way to prepare for an in-class essay and that you just have to “wing it.” Whether you know the prompt ahead of time or not, this isn’t entirely true. There are a few things that you can do to set yourself up for a successful in-class essay.

1. Prepare ahead of time. If your professor has already revealed the prompt to you, then preparing should be pretty easy. You should study your notes or readings accordingly and think about what sort of information you want to include in your essay. Have a thesis in mind before you show up for your in-class essay. If you do not know what the prompt is going to be, try to imagine potential prompts based off of class lectures and discussions. If you were the professor, what would you ask in the prompt? Make sure you have a reasonable understanding of a variety of topics discussed in class, so you’ll be prepared for anything.

2. Whatever you do, do NOT write in pen. Actually, don’t even bring a pen to class that day. Use pencils instead! That way, if you make a mistake or want to change something, you can just erase it. Bring more than one pencil, too, in case the point breaks or you run out of lead.

3. Brainstorm first. Take a minute or two before you start writing to decide what exactly it is you are going to write. Maybe even jot down a quick outline or make a list of the major points you want to make in the essay. This will save you some time in the long run because it will keep you from having to pause to figure out what direction you should go in next.

4. Manage your time wisely. Keep an eye on the clock (or wear a watch if there isn’t one in your classroom). If you know you are going to struggle with writing a particular section of the essay, then manage your time so that you have enough time to focus and figure out how to say what you need to say.

5. Prioritize. There are some pieces of information or aspects of your argument that are going to be more important than others. Make sure that these more important items make their way into the paper before you add the small details or less important fillers.


6. Don’t give up. If you get stuck, take a minute or two to relax. Having a timed essay can be really stressful, so sometimes taking a short break can be more useful than working yourself into a panic.

7. Edit. If you finish the essay early, don’t just turn it in right away. Take the extra time to go back through and edit. You’ll be amazed by how many errors you find. When we write in a hurry, we have a tendency to make small errors that we wouldn’t normally make. Maybe you’ll find that you wrote down the wrong date for a historical event or cited the wrong philosopher. You may notice that you forgot to capitalize a proper noun. No matter how big or small the errors are, you’ll be glad that you caught them!

-Rebekah, peer tutor

“Don’t quote me on this…”

It’s important to integrate information from whatever text you’re studying. However, there are many different ways to integrate information from the text, so you should make sure to add some variety.

Integrate the words of the author into your own sentence:

One way to integrate a quote is to mix the author’s words and your own to form one continuous sentence. If necessary, you can add or change the authors statement with brackets to make the sentence grammatically correct, or to clear up any confusion (such as if the author omits words because it makes sense in the context of their own work). You can never use brackets if it will change the meaning of the sentence, so use brackets sparingly. At the end of the sentence, add an in-text citation according to whatever style of citation you are using. Take this quote about the character of Charlie in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Finest Story in the World” for example:

“When next he came to me he was drunk—royally drunk on many poets for the first time revealed to him. His pupils were dilated, his words tumbled over each other, and he wrapped himself in quotations—as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of emperors.”

-Rudyard Kipling, The Finest Story in the World

If I were to write about “The Finest Story in the World,” I could say:

When drunk, “[Charlie] wrapped himself in quotations-as a beggar would
enfold himself in the purple of emperors” to seem smarter than he
really was (Kipling).

It is important that the sentence flows naturally. Don’t force a sentence to fit; use a different technique instead.

"You done..?" -Rudyard Kipling (from

“You done..?”
-Rudyard Kipling

Not yet Kipling…

Use a ‘Signal Phrase’:

A “signal phrase” is a short phrase, but not a complete sentence, that names the author and what source you are drawing information from, usually set off from the quote by a comma. Think of the “signal phrase” as any other introductory phrase that would be followed by a comma. Take this quotation for example:

“Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”
― Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

To introduce this with a signal phrase I could say:

In The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines a quotation as “the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”

Because you already said the name of the work and the author, you don’t need to mention that with an in-text citation; however, if you had a page number, or named the author but not the work, then mention those in an in-text citation.

"can you not with the quotations" -Ambrose Pierce (from

“can you not with the quotations”
-Ambrose Pierce

Use a colon:

Courtesy of the author :)

Courtesy of the author 🙂

If you want to use an entire sentence, or you can’t get a sentence flow organically with your own words, write a complete sentence and then introduce the quote with a colon. Don’t start a sentence with a quote, or leave a quote placed randomly in your paper with none of your own words to support it. Here’s another quote about quotation.

“[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.”

― A.A. Milne, If I May

If I wanted to use the whole quote, and include my own sentence, I would write:

Quotes can be a very useful way to incorporate information from other sources, but if you rely on them, you won’t really be thinking for yourself: “[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business” (Milne).

So, no matter what Kipling, Bierce, and Milne say, quotes are an important tool in academic writing. But ultimately, your professor is looking for your own thoughts, not just the repetition of another author’s!

Jehan, “peer tutor”