How to Write an In-Class Essay   2 comments


With school already in session for some and right around the corner for others, let’s take a look at an academic boogeyman that may be jumping out at you in the near future. It’s many a student’s nightmare to have to fill pages without the safety net of Wikipedia, stranded with only a fading ink well. But never fear. Lifted by a cool confidence and armed with a few insider tricks, you’ll be ready to out class your in-class essay.

The first thing you need to know about in-class essays is that everybody sitting in class that day is your enemy. Nerdy kid in the front: enemy. Smelly girl on your left: enemy. Roommate on your right: enemy. It’s take no prisoners with in-class essays. This isn’t the type of midterm that’s strictly graded against a set standard– whoever writes the best one gets an A. Make that person you. Say, “I’m going to write a better essay than everyone else in this room.” Say it.

Now that you already know that you’re going to write a better essay than everyone else, there’s no reason to get nervous like some people do. That’s good because nervous writers don’t get ‘A’s— sucks for them. You’ll have that cool confidence as your steady pen glides calmly across consenting blue book pages.

Most professors will tell you to read the question thoroughly, make sure you understand what it’s asking, think about it, craft an easy-bake outline, provide evidence and stay relevant. Blah blah blah. Most professors also push the grading off to TAs as well who aren’t paid extra to read crappily written bore-fests. They want something that’s not too long, easy to read, interesting, and memorable amongst the drudgery of 100 other lame papers.

So, once you start writing, kick it off with a bang. The grader reads way too many versions of the same basic sentence at the start of each paper. Don’t bore him/her before you even start making points. The more you sound like other people’s papers, the more you’ll be graded like them– and that’s not good. The way to show mastery of the material is to be able to approach it with an amicable literary theme. Bite-sized anecdotes or a small sampling of witty wordplay tend to announce an A paper well.

Once you’ve crafted a dazzling introduction, the momentum should carry you into your biggest, baddest, fence-clearing point. The reader doesn’t want to stick around while you stack up uninteresting minor points to build some double-wide conclusion. Certainly, it helps to know the material, and if you do, you can pick out stellar theme that doesn’t even need to be very accurate. What it does is keep your essay coherent and interesting. Touch base with your theme every paragraph because you can’t be exactly sure when time will run out.

Mastering a theme is the key to writing an in-class essay. Here’s five stock themes I have found effective in the past (use only one per essay):

Numero uno–Circles and cycles, closed and vicious (respectively): This is number one because it’s 99% applicable— Most stories, fiction or otherwise, tend to have some cyclical theme which is always worth discussing. People in universities never get tired of reading about closing circles and getting dragged into vicious cycles. It can be a character from a book, the history of a nation, or the vibrancy of a movement. Round is ubiquitous. Circles and cycles take perspective to perceive, and that’s what you show you have when you address them.

2. Say something’s ironic: But stay true to the meaning of irony (don’t refer to coincidence or substanceless humor). To refresh, irony can be assertions meant to convey a message completely opposite of what’s literally said or a stark defiance of expectations. A policy was accomplished through means which violated its spirit. A hero’s strength is his weakness and downfall. The fire station burned down. Lots of things in this world conflict with each other when they’re supposed to be related. Find them as they relate to your essay material.

3. Be a contrarian: Just say “no.” You know how the majority of students are interpreting the text– the same way you are. So say the opposite is true and come up with a couple reasons why that pass the smell test, but don’t necessarily have to hold up under closer scrutiny. It’s always safe to just regurgitate information the way it was presented to you, but taking an unconventional stance is a good way to get noticed. Nothing a liberal reader likes more than an independent thinker that challenges conventional thinking, accuracy optional.

4. Two or more ideas? Throw them in a blender: Everything in academia blends smoothly. There’s not two ideas you can’t put together to produce an innovative, creative, multi-cultural, diverse understanding of both. This theme isn’t that difficult to execute. Pick the good things about two ideas pertaining to the topic and stack them on top of each other. Voila.

5. Compare, compare, compare: It’s best to do this before you step in the classroom. If there’s two or more texts with different ideas about a similar theme or topic, I promise you there will be a question asking you to compare. Many in-class essays ask you to compare two characters, events, or methods. Find the similarities and the differences. Use a venn diagram if you have to. The reason this is the fifth theme addressed is because you should incorporate themes 1-4 in your comparisons. Two texts with cyclical outcomes, where the hero/nation abolishes the virtue set out to accomplish, but in which the superficial similarities mask the drastic difference between the two and those very drastic differences blend to form a stunning multi-cultural philosophy– that’s a quality in-class essay.

There’s other useful in-class essay themes, and maybe you’ve had success with one of your own in the past. Here’s a secret: they’re recyclable. You can use the same theme over and over for profit and if you find one that easily melts into your style, you can jam most any text into it. While there may be an unlimited supply of frames within which you can pound out your essay, you only need master a couple to do well. Before you finish, make sure you’ve written something for  the grader to circle and write “good!”

That’s the essence of an in-class essay. Stand out with glitzy language in your introduction and move right into your brightest-burning point. Choose a theme, jam your material into it, and stick with it to the end. You’ll blow away the other guys who are just rattling off clumsy paraphrases of the text. Your theme-centered craft is much more substantive than their graceless garbage.

The only other thing is to make sure your essay is presentable. Nobody wants to read an essay that looks like crap. Write as neatly as you possibly can, double space if it looks better with your handwriting (don’t if it doesn’t). Anything to make your essay easier to read so that your theme will shine through brighter. Don’t write paragraphs that take up 3/4 of a page. Shorter paragraphs make a paper easier to read, which graders will appreciate. I use ampersands (&) when I write in-class essays. They save time and space and are not difficult to master.

One more thing–Bring backup pens. That’s plural. A reliable one for you and a cheap freebie for any classmate with the audacity to ask you to borrow one.

The last thing you want to do is help an enemy. (Circle closed)

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Posted September 7, 2010 by Wada in UCSD

Tagged with , ,

2 responses to “How to Write an In-Class Essay

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  1. this is awesome man

  2. im feeling it

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