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Mastering In-Class Essays with Executive Function Strategies

“Write an essay analyzing the character development of Holden Caulfield throughout The Catcher in the Rye. Focus on the themes of innocence and maturity. You have ninety minutes.”

“Explain the significance of biodiversity in modern-day environmental science and identify one major challenge to preserving it. Suggested writing time: forty-five minutes.”

“Evaluate the similarities and differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Explain which one was more “revolutionary.” Defend your position. You have sixty minutes.”

The in-class essay is a staple of academic testing, particularly in high school. The prompts above show the variety and difficulty of times writing. It’s incredibly difficult to answer those questions in a take-home essay. Time pressure makes it complicated. And, with the spread of generative artificial intelligence technologies, teachers will likely turn to more in-class essays. How else are you supposed to know if the student is writing, or their computer is? Ignoring the debate about AI in the classroom for now (please see our other article on that subject), students need to know how to succeed on in-class essays now more than ever. In this blog post, we explain why Executive Function (EF) is key to mastering in-class writing.

Timed writing can be daunting. They’re not just tests of knowledge but also of one’s ability to organize thoughts, manage time, and express ideas under pressure. In many ways, the in-class essay is a microcosm of the education process. Some students have brilliant ideas, but they can’t express them under the unique pressures of an in-class essay. Likewise, some students are more than capable of succeeding in school, but their report cards fail to demonstrate their potential. In both cases, EF is the solution.

At SAOTG, we’ve built a curriculum to help students reach their full potential through the amazing power of Executive Function. Through organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management, any student can turn potential into results. Instead of focusing on innate abilities, we teach students to master systems of success. Habits, routines, systems, and accountability help students get to where they need to be. The same sentiment rings true for in-class essays. Through carefully curated, EF-driven habits and systems, students can crush timed writing assignments.

Continuous Improvement and the Reflective Mindset

Timed writing is a skill like anything else. Practice makes perfect, but only if the student intentionally aims for continuous improvement. The principles below focus on how to help students perform on timed writing assignments. However, a foundational component must be addressed first. Students must believe this is a skill that can be improved. The growth mindset is a consistent theme in our blog posts and in our EF curriculum. This topic is not the exception.

Students are encouraged to review their essays post-completion to discern which strategies were effective and identify areas for improvement. This reflective practice, rooted in EF, is crucial for continuous advancement, turning each essay into an opportunity for academic growth. Such reflection also cultivates resilience and a growth mindset. Students come to realize that every essay is a chance to enhance their academic strategy toolkit, lessening the apprehension of future assessments and equipping them with the confidence to tackle new challenges.

The Art of Anticipation and Adaptation

It all starts with impression management and learning skills. The best time writers can see the future. They pick up on their teacher’s subtle hints before test day, and they glean the key themes throughout the lectures. Anticipating essay prompts requires students to think several moves ahead, preparing flexible responses for various scenarios. This foresight—grasping the teacher’s expectations and the coursework’s prevalent themes—empowers students to tailor their prepared content to the specific essay question on test day.

But students must also be flexible. Adaptation is crucial once the essay prompt is revealed. Students must deftly adjust their pre-organized plans to align with the presented question. The symphony of EF skills, including swift decision-making, effective prioritization, and adaptable thinking, comes into play, allowing students to craft a coherent and targeted response. Helping students create “pre-writes” for timed responses combined with the expectation that plans might change is the best way to perform on timed writing.

Time Management and the Writing Process

Mastering time management during in-class essays is also crucial. Allocating time wisely is what separates a fully fleshed-out essay from an incomplete one. BEFORE THE PROMPT IS GIVEN, students should devise a strategy for how much time they will allot to outlining, drafting, and revising their essays and adhere to this structure throughout the writing process. Students can also ask the teacher if there will be a suggested time limit for the sub-parts of the prompt. The key is to have a plan so that students don’t waste time planning in the exam room. One of the keys to task initiation, whether it’s homework or an in-class essay, is decreasing lag time. Students should know what their first three steps are on test day.

Time awareness is the second component. When writing, students must balance the awareness of time with the need to maintain a steady workflow. Practicing timed essays beforehand can give students a firm grasp of the pacing necessary to confidently articulate their thoughts within the allotted time frame. But one of the easiest ways to help with time awareness in the exam room is to work in intervals. For instance, students can try writing in fifteen-minute bursts with a specific goal in mind. Steady progress ensures that time isn’t wasted but also keeps the goal small to reduce overwhelm.

Above All, Be Clear

Time writing requires one simple task: answer the question. You would be surprised how many students fail to do this. After task one, students should focus on clarity. The presentation of an essay is critical—it’s a visual and tangible extension of a student’s thoughts and knowledge. Students must ensure that their handwriting is clear and legible, reflecting their preparation and attention to detail. A well-presented essay can positively influence the grading process, serving as a non-verbal cue of the student’s commitment to their work. An essay’s structure showcases the student’s ability to construct and communicate ideas logically. Students should ensure that each paragraph transitions smoothly to the next, with clear topic sentences and transitions that uphold the argument’s integrity.

Your Academic Journey with SAOTG

Mastering in-class essays, like most academic endeavors, is a journey. The process matters, and the results will come with some patience and the right coaching. At SAOTG, we’re committed to guiding students to success. Our unique EF curriculum is designed to equip students with the skills to excel academically and thrive in all aspects of life.

If you’ve found these insights into tackling in-class essays helpful, we invite you to explore our blog page for strategies and advice for students determined to stay ahead of the game. For a more tailored approach, consider reaching out to us about one-on-one academic coaching.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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