10 Thoughts Every Student Has When Writing a Timed Essay (and How to Deal with Them)

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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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