How to write an essay in 30 minutes

By Matt Burdett, 28 February 2020

This article is about how to write a Geography exam essay in just 30 minutes.

In most Geography exams for pre-university courses, such as the IB Diploma or the UK A-level, you’re expected to write one or more essays. This is on top of the short-answer questions that come before then. And your teachers tell you to read all the questions first…and plan your answers…and leave time for checking… so it can seem impossible to actually write a full essay. So here’s my eight tips on how to cover all the bases in the time available.

Tip 1: Plan your essay

Your teacher will always tell you to plan your essay. They are 100% correct. A well-planned essay gets points for structure. You’ll also write more concisely, so you’ll fit in more information. And your argument will develop in a logical way, so you’ll have many more marks for evaluation.

Tip 2: Write your essay plan as a flow diagram…

I was marking an exam when I discovered a really clever idea from a student. They wrote their essay plan in flow diagram form, rather than a table or concept map. This was a really smart idea. It meant that, as an examiner, I could easily follow the essay.

The main point is that it didn’t lose marks. Remember, essays are almost always marked positively. That means you gain credit for clear, concise writing. You don’t lose marks for getting something wrong, so write the essay in a way that helps you to gain credit even if you later change your structure a little bit.

Tip 3: …then draw a box around it and label it ‘Figure 1’

The even smarter thing about this idea is that the student then drew a box around the plan and called it ‘Figure 1: the links between X and Y’. Throughout the essay, they referenced the ‘Figure’ to show the links between the issues being discussed. Even if they hadn’t finished writing the full set of paragraphs, I could have credited ideas they included in the plan. Genius!

Tip 4: Write an introduction that sets the direction of the essay

There’s more about this in my post ‘How to write a good introduction’. Basically, make sure you don’t just waffle. There’s no point in saying ‘The transmission of disease can be for many reasons. These reasons will be debated in this essay’. It doesn’t set up the essay well.

Instead, say something simple like ‘Diseases may be transmitted through relocation and expansion diffusion, which have different social and biological causes’. The direction of your essay will be much more clear to the examiner.

A good essay can be written in just three sentences:

  1. The direction of your essay (like my example above).
  2. Identify the case study locations you’ll use.
  3. If necessary, define key words from the question. There is no need to define words that have a commonly agreed definition e.g. ‘hectare’ but you do need to define words where there is debate over their use, such as ‘resilient city’.

Tip 5: Don’t cross anything out unless (and until) it’s repeated later.

It’s so frustrating when students cross out a perfectly good paragraph, then write it all out again anyway but miss out the key point that got a mark in the first place. Examiners are used to stressed out students waffling a bit. If there is repetition, it will be ok. Just don’t cross out work because once it’s crossed out, the examiner won’t read it and it can’t get any marks.

Tip 6: Read what you’ve written, and stick to the plan

As you write, make sure you’re sticking to your plan. It’s fine to add extras, but you had a plan for a reason: it helps you avoid wasting time.

Also make sure you read what you’ve written. If you notice yourself becoming waffly, stop and think carefully about exactly what you want to say. Never start writing just because you’re running out of time. Three sentences of well considered words is worth far more than a page of nonsense.

Tip 7: Write in paragraphs

Paragraphs have a beginning, middle and an end. Make sure you use a consistent formula to write your paragraphs so that you don’t keep writing unnecessarily. I’ve written more guidance on paragraph structure in my post ‘How to write a good paragraph’.

Tip 8: Always write a conclusion that answers the question

Even if you’ve run out of time, always always always conclude – and use words from the question. It’s essential for the examiner to see that you have answered the question. I’ve written more about how to conclude in just three sentences in my post ‘How to write a good conclusion’.

Tip 9: Keep to time

Sometimes it’s tempting to keep going on a point because you feel you’re writing good stuff. But, you’re probably not leaving enough time for the counter-argument, or the second or third major theme of your essay. Make sure you allocate yourself a specific amount of time for each paragraph, e.g. 6 minutes. If you are going over that time, read it back and check whether it’s worth continuing.

That’s it! If you have any more tips on how to write an essay in thirty minutes, leave a comment below. And good luck with all that writing!!!

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