I went back to school at the age of twenty-three. I was an excellent student in high school and thought I would be fine in college, even after being out of the game for 5 years. I was dead wrong! I quickly realized that working a full-time job, being a mom to my two young girls (5 and 3 at the time), and going to school full-time was extremely overwhelming! I realized that my biggest struggle was actually the one thing I was good at: writing. I had no idea how to write a college essay without devoting my every waking moment to it, neglecting all other responsibilities, and get a good grade.
So, what did I do? I went back to my high school and talked with the most hated English teacher. (It should be noted she was hated because she didn’t accept crap. And apparently my work was crap. Who better to tell me how to fix it than the teacher with the highest standards, right?)
After reading my most recent essay (which she took great joy in turning the pages red with markups) she gave me a work sheet and some solid advice. In this post, not only will I share the worksheet here:
I will also give you all the advice she gave me to go from a C- essay to an A+ every time; plus some tips I collected throughout my college career. Be sure to fill out the form above to get your FREE copy of the Essay Worksheet!
How to Write an A+ Essay in 45 Minutes Flat!
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The first thing you need to know before starting your essay is knowing what makes up an essay. An essay consists of;
- An Introduction
- First paragraph
- Usually 5-10 sentences, including thesis statement
- Depending on your required length, the body consists of 1-3 points that support your thesis
- Final statements, usually 5-10 sentences, that summarizes and reiterates your thesis and points.
- You do not introduce new information here
There are two ways to write an essay:
- Start to Finish = Find your resources then write your outline
- Finish to Start = Write your outline then find your resources
The way you choose will depend on the prompt, topic, and your comfort with both.
You have your assignment. Now what?
You will usually receive your writing prompt in class as a handout. Most writing assignments will have several prompt options. Find the one that stands out the most to you. I always ask myself these 3 questions;
- Which one can I ramble on about? It is easier to shorten an essay than trying to pull points out of thin air to meet length requirements.
- Which one can be easily argued about? Some of the best (and easiest) essays are the ones you can play Devil’s Advocate and argue the original prompt. This also helps when all of your options are close to something you can ramble about but not close enough. You will need to find a way to make two thesis points, the first is what others say and the second will be your thesis.
- Which prompt has the most resources? I always do a quick search in Google Scholar, my university library, JSTOR, and even Pinterest to see what information comes up. The more resources, the easier it will be to write a lengthy essay. The best way to use Pinterest is typing your thesis into the search bar.
After picking your writing prompt, you will need to ask yourself;
- What does my professor want (what are you writing about)?
- How many paragraphs/pages/words are required?
- How many primary/secondary sources are required?
With this handout and a highlighter, find these questions and make sure you are clear on your topic question or statement.
What is your thesis?
Finding your thesis is the most important part of writing an essay. Once you have your thesis, you can easily find your resources, write your introduction and body, and finally from your conclusion without losing your point.
What most people fail to see is there are several thesis formats to choose. The best way to know is through your prompt.
If the prompt is a question, your thesis will answer the question. For example, my thesis to What are the immediate and long-term legacies of the Greek and Roman civilizations? would be, The [insert question] are urbanization, art, and religion.
If the prompt is a statement, your thesis can be either an argument, comparison, or collection.
- Argument. As said before, argument is for staying on topic, but side-stepping in a direction that will make it easier to lengthen your essay. An example would be a prompt I received about Alfred the Great that was supposed to reiterate the points made in Asser’s biography. I was honestly bored with it, so after a brief (6 sentences) summary of the biography, I made my thesis, “However, it can be argued that Alfred’s actions, though great in their own right, were led purely by fear of God, and his incompetence as a ruler, therefore diminishing his actions to meaningless.” I strongly suggest you don’t use the argument style unless you can really back it up. I ruffled my professor’s feathers with this essay, but I had such a solid argument he couldn’t take it out on my grade.
- Comparison. This is obvious; if your prompt is asking you to compare and contrast two or more sources, you compare them. The thesis here is what I call a “neon sign” thesis. Which is simply, “In this paper, I will compare [insert sources] and…” then state what you’re going to prove. It’s important here to know your sources. Ask yourself why these sources are being lumped together and use that as your thesis.
- Collection. Some professors will give you a group of sources and ask you to use them to create your own prompt based off of the “theme.” Great example would be from my US History class that asked me to take the six images and argue how they represent “Gentilism.” Images are the best sources because they are open to your interpretation, thus allowing you to prove any point under the suggested theme’s scope. Just remember if your prompt is giving you a theme, collect a bunch of resources and prove the theme.
Create your outline.
Here is where your worksheet will come in handy. Once you become comfortable with the outline, you can do this step between classes, at the grocery store line, or on the bus. After figuring out which prompt you will use and what your professor is asking for, write down your thesis. Then list your 1-5 points you will make that will back up your thesis. It will look something like this:
T: Pizza is the best fast food in America
- Roughly 3 billion pizzas are sold each year (thepizzajoint.com)
- Pizza is versatile (only 36% are classic pepperoni)
- go-to meal for kids (3-11 year olds prefer pizza for lunch and dinner over other options)
C: Pizza is a quick, easy, and cheap meal idea that can be ordered out or made at home, and the #1 choice for families of any age or size.
I wrote this outline in literally 5 minutes, the longest part was I actually googled “how much pizza is sold per year.” This led me to The Pizza Joint, and gave me my 3 prompts and a source.
I highly doubt you will be given an essay on fast food consumption, but I’ve never taken an Econ class so I can’t be certain. But you get the idea of how quick and easy the outline process can be.
Your points can be cleaned up to make a full sentences, which is used at the beginning of your paragraph, then you can list your sources you will use for that point. In another post, I talk about reading for the quotes. This is crucial for writing your essays and setting up your outline. If you read for the quotes, 80% of your sources are done for the entire year.
Filling in the gaps
Once you have your outline complete, writing your essay is easy-peasy. Just type it all into a Word document and fill in the rest.
I must point out a few pet peeves of mine most college students do that need to just stop!
- When filling in the gaps, remember you are writing an academic paper, NOT a text! Put some effort in proper grammar and word choices. Invest in a dictionary, thesaurus, and The Elements of Style.
- Bullshit with a purpose. I know that I told you earlier to find the prompt that you can ramble on about. But, for the love of all things holy, make sure your ramblings have a point. Think of your essay like a good steak. Every piece of meat comes with some fat, but you want more meat than fat. Cut out some of the fat to assure your essay is at least 85% of the good stuff.
- Don’t be afraid to rearrange your points to create flow. I have seen too many essays jump all over the place rather than having a solid path from A to Z. The best way to do this is organizing your points in some way; whether it’s chronological or least to most important. Write the main body of your paragraphs, read it all together to find your flow, then adjust your points to make your path. Once that is all finished, write your intro sentence at the beginning and your transition sentence at the end.
Start your timer!
Collecting sources will always take the most time when writing an essay. It could take a few hours or even weeks depending on the size of your essay and the requirements. Once you are finished with the hard part, though, it will be quick and painless (sometimes) to finish your essay.
Over the semesters, I have perfected the art of editing as I go. It has become second nature and has helped me in writing blogs now, because I can cut out an entire day of work dedicated to editing. The best way I can describe it is once you finish your “train of thought” (whether it’s a sentence or a whole paragraph) go back and read it for the good stuff. Fix your grammar, take out the passive voice, and cut away the fat. With your end goal in mind, this also helps you rearrange when needed. Sometimes my point takes a turn when I start filling in the gaps and I can move it to a different point.
I do not suggest this method for everyone. I think my brain is broken and that’s what makes editing as I go so easy. Go with what you feel. If editing the entire paper at the end seems overwhelming and you want to take a nap instead, try this method. If you feel like you will lose your groove if you stop writing too many times to edit, then get it all out and clean up the full picture. Go with what you feel!
I will say that simultaneously writing and editing has allowed me to write an essay during my lunch break, print it out, and only read it fully during the walk to my class before turning it in. This is truly where the “45 minutes flat” comes in!
I am in no way a fortune-teller and I’m too broke to bribe all the professors in the world to give you an A+ just because you read this post. (I wish, though) Writing an A+ essay in 45 minutes will fall completely on you and your efforts. A teaching assistant once told me “Write drunk; edit sober.” Meaning, regardless of how well you think your essay might be (because face it, we all think we’re pros when drunk) you still need to face the music (sober up) and edit your work. Never think you are too good for editing! Never think you will pass college with minimal effort.
Only time, effort, and persistence will build your grades. But if you follow these steps and use your outline (and remember to keep it 85% good stuff), you can see your grades rise tremendously. An added bonus is you can use this outline and steps for in-class essays as well. Just write it out on the back of your Blue Book cover before starting your test.
Do you have some tips and tricks for writing? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! Know someone in college, or getting ready for their first semester? Share this with them on Facebook, Twitter, or by email. Be sure to get your free worksheet!