The comment “Unreadable” may refer to two issues: 1) you haven’t answered the question; your analysis is entirely different from the essay question; and/or 2) your paper may simply just be unintelligible; in other words, your penmanship prevents your professor from reading the whole essay. As a result, some points become muffled throughout the evaluation process. Students who struggle with one or both issues often are ones who have not learned how to prepare well in terms of managing their time.

Before answering an essay question, always “analyze” it by breaking it down into different parts. First, know immediately what your professor wants you to answer. If the basis of your paper is to determine the relationship between two themes, then this represents the “what.” Second, start counting the “what.” If you are supposed to discuss two themes, in two works, by using two characters from each work, then you are supposed to discuss at least two themes, at least two works, and at most four characters in all. Notice that the professor wants you to discuss two characters from each work. This doesn’t mean one character from each work. With these instructions, you may discuss more than two themes, but most importantly adhere to the “two works” element so you don’t forget to include at least two.

When a take-home midterm or final is not an option, you have to learn what “Divide the Clock” means. For example, if you have a 50-minute in-class essay to complete, first allow at least a couple of seconds to write your name on the paper. This is the most important thing to do! I can’t tell you how many students turn in papers with no names written on them.

Second, allow five minutes to break down the question and develop an outline, something you can have prepared already before taking the test. Third, if your professor wants you to compare and contrast, dedicate 15 minutes for each paragraph, comparing and contrasting the two works. That’s a total of 30 minutes and two seconds. Leave whatever time left for proofreading major errors and adding transitional words where you may have forgotten to do so.

Typically, when you haven’t prepared and don’t really know what to write about, your penmanship reflects this anxiety. However, when you have studied and have developed a system in your head for how to tackle a 50-minute in-class essay exam, then your penmanship reflects confidence.

In all respects, it is important for your professor to read and understand every word on the page. Professors tend to deduct points because an exam is unreadable; in many cases, they simply cannot understand what you are attempting to convey. In addition, professors also deduct points for papers that do not fully reflect the instruction. Your paper is not complete until it meets the essay prompt.

With this in mind, divide the clock. Manage your time well whether you are developing the prose of a take-home exam or an in-class essay.

For extended explanations, see also the comments “Doesn’t Respond to Question” and “Focus on the Question.”

Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.

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