(ironically, this post was not particularly rushed)
In the wake of my friends’ surprise that I have the ability to write an essay in timed conditions, about 1,000 in an hour, and have it be awarded more marks than bugger all squared, I feel I have some effective advice for writing an essay in timed conditions for an exam.
1) It’s different from a homework essay
This sounds obvious, but few people actually take this to heart; homework essays are longer, with more ideas that are developed to a more detailed extent, and are generally more rambling and reflective of broad opinions on texts, not specific reactions to them in light of a question. And this is by design; homework essays are set throughout the year, while your opinions of texts and events are still developing, and so are likely to be marked in relation to the validity of your ideas and the clarity of their expression.
However, full-text exam essays are attempted once a topic has been studied in its entirety – the examiner will assume that you know the factual details of the course and that your points are logical and well-supported to a larger extent. Therefore, greater emphasis is placed on specific skills, such as language analysis and focus on the question, that can only really be developed after a full year of study.
2) Learn the Assessment Objectives
With this in mind, the examiner is less likely to penalise questionable ideas than questionable writing style; basically, your essay will not necessarily be marked by someone who has a knowledge of, or has even learned or taught, the content you’re writing on. Therefore, it is difficult for them to judge the validity of your ideas beyond the dismissal idiotic points like ‘The use of alliteration shows that I like pudding’.
They are likely to mark your essay in a more methodical, structured style, literally ticking boxes when you show an attempt to tackle that question’s Assessment Objectives, a series of criteria that are identical for all essay questions within an exam board, such as the use of critics. You should try to make an analytical point for each AO within every paragraph, to ensure the objectives are tackled throughout your answer, and so that it’s easy for the examiner to tick off each of them in order and give you a shed-load of marks; basically, you need to write a good exam essay, not a good essay.
Also, only hit each one once within each paragraph; if you explain your points in sufficient detail, you’ll soon find you’ve written a page for each paragraph, and you’ve only made four or five points.
3) Make fewer, relevant points
And now with this in mind, limit yourself to four, perhaps five, points per paragraph, that are structured around the AOs: this will reduce your planning time at the start of the exam, as you’ll have fewer points to come up with, and will mean that all of your points, regardless of how outlandish or illogical they are, are at least attempting to tackle the AOs; you won’t lose marks for relevant points that the examiner disagrees with.
Your points should obviously be analytically-driven; two AOs for my paper focus on the use of critics as a comparative technique and the use of language analysis as an analytical technique, so I would make a language analysis-based point to hit the second AO, then extend this idea with a new point about a critic, getting in the necessary comparison.
Furthermore, a few-points-lots-of-analysis structure is easy to rescue if it all goes tits up and you run out of time, or ideas; you can pad out a paragraph with extra language analysis or links to historical context, but taking a lots-of-points-little-analysis approach will force you to come up with new points on the fly, which can be dangerous. Also, if you’re short on time, it’s a lot easier to cut a sentence of analysis than an entire point, which may be integral to your overall argument.
This is a big one, as it’ll help you get the time and length of your essay down; I know that I can write about 1,000 words in an hour, equal to about 4 sides of A4, and so I can judge if my essay is too long or too short, and therefore in need of cutting or developing, as I’m writing it. This is very helpful in ensuring you stick to your plan, which should include timings (5 mins each for a plan, intro and conclusion, and 15 mins per paragraph is my standard setup), and keeping your paragraphs balanced.
5) Learn your evidence
Be they quotes for an English exam, dates for a History one or facts for a Geography paper, you’ll need evidence; not only do they allow you to hit the, often used, Assessment Objective of including evidence, but they’ll help you extend your English essay with language analysis and your other essays with micro-analysis of figures, which is fun.
On a more fundamental level, these examples give your overall argument strength, making you seem like a person presenting a considered and logical viewpoint, not a raving idiot; this is why I try to draw on examples from literature or my own life in these posts, to try to make my own ideas seem more relevant to you people.
Also, I can never remember if I put concluding paragraphs on these and, writing this on a school computer, the Internet is blocked to its eyeballs, and I can’t go on my own blog to check; but I guess I’ve put one here, even if it’s hardly relevant to this post.