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

Make Studying Interesting

So you drew the short stick. A chunk of your shift has been dedicated to something that involves entertaining a group (read: three, maybe four) freshman. Or maybe you and your friends are looking for a way to spice things up. Or you could be presenting and need a couple ideas. Whatever the reason, here is a list of activities to do or topics to keep in mind during your study session.

It’s Story Time

Round Robin is an old familiar game that can be easily used for a study break. All you need is a sheet of paper, a writing utensil of your choice, a couple of other people and a story topic. Playing is simple. The first player writes down a sentence then folds the sheet over, hiding said sentence, and passes the paper on to the next player. Lather, rinse, and repeat until your story is complete. Unfold and read aloud your handcrafted tale.

Exploding Hot Potato

Another game-like activity that can help you get in the studying mood. For this you should have some balloons and strips of paper. Each strip of paper will have a tip or a fact and be placed inside each balloon. It is easiest to have each balloon be themed, such as having a “Thesis” balloon or a “Brainstorming” balloon, all filled with tips/facts relating to that topic. Once your balloons are finished, it’s time to start popping. If you’ve ever played “Hot Potato” the concept is the same. Everyone sits in a circle and passes around the “potato” to a song until the music stops. It’s a lot like musical chairs but not really. Anyway, in the normal game whoever has the potato is out. In this version, whoever has the balloon has to pop it (protip: sitting on balloons is the easiest way) and then read the tips/facts inside.

Mind Munchies

Have a list of tips? A delicious way to help them stick is to set up a numbered list with a correlating set of numbered cookies. Just make sure you read the number before you eat the cookie.

Paper Stars

A little feel good study booster are encouraging paper stars. You can make them for yourself or for others. Just write a little inspirational blurb and fold, fold, fold. Actually maybe you should write on the star after you fold it.


Novel idea really. The easiest way to use flashcards is with prompts on one side and information on the other. Use them to quiz yourself or others.

Not a pair of shoes, SpongeBob, paraphrase!

Something that could always use a refresher is paraphrasing. What’s the difference between it and quoting? How do I do it? Is it an instrument? Does it violate the Honor Code? The answers to all these questions and more can be addressed quickly (perhaps in a game of exploding hot potato). Our own handy dandy worksheet has a section on it as does the wonderful Purdue OWL website.

Where’s the beef?

A lot of students run into the issue of having all of the information they need for a paper but being unable to reach the length requirement. Transitions and cohesiveness can be helpful; sometimes brevity results in a choppier essay with less information over all. You could also try an exercise with taking a sentence and adding as many details as possible, not to set this as the ideal but just to highlight that writers can add to skimpy sentences/paragraphs.

Stuck Before You Started

The first step into an essay is often the hardest. Of course there are handouts to help with this but more interactive processes might help more. You can have a list (maybe a list attached to a batch of cookies) of brainstorming questions writers should ask themselves before each paper. Or craft brainstorming dice where each side has a different technique.




Again, just to make sure everyone is on the same page, it doesn’t hurt to go over what these are. Or why you need one. And especially how to make one. Compare strong and weak theses or create one as a group.


Although we are supposed to read every page of every book and understand it entirely by ourselves, spark/cliff/thug notes can be extremely helpful in reading comprehension. This comprehension, gathered from summaries and major plot events, can be used to your advantage and as a starting point to spark further discussion and thought, not a source of plagiarism.  (Note: crashcourse is helpful for history, politics and science as well)

And with that in mind, Wikipedia, or rather the bibliographies on Wikipedia pages, are also another well of wisdom. If anyone does not know, please point them in the direction of the sources section of your local Wikipedia page. They are often prime places to find sources that’ll lead to other further information about a subject.

Break Time

The lovely games suggested in this post aren’t always feasible or practical for any student studying in their room. Be sure to give a few suggestions about the best way to utilize study breaks. There are squats, frantic dance breaks and power walks around the dorm. Remind people to switch topics and take breaks in between each batch of studying. Don’t forget study times and locations, important aspects of the studying process.

One Last Thing – don’t forget that the most important part of an study session is snacks. Lots of (healthy) snacks. And chocolate (tis brain food).

–by Melanie, peer tutor