Outlines for Timed Essays


Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Last-minute panic works for some. Calvin probably can’t focus on a school-related task until panic becomes a tectonic force squeezing diamonds out of his brain. But for most of us, and probably for his furry feline friend Hobbes, this pressure doesn’t forge sparkling nuggets of wisdom. The force turns us into a gelatinous black goo that centuries later people harvest to fuel their air conditioners and chainsaws.

Time pressure, like on an SAT or GRE essay, can cause anxiety and stress that inevitably complicates what should be concise and confuses what should be straightforward. But with a little preparation before hand, you can show up on test day calm and cool like a Pacific breeze on a spring day.

So how can you be pacific on test day?

Develop outlines for different types of essays.

Multiple outlines, aside from the standard essay form you learned in school, will not only release pressure and anxiety, but also is an effective way to write a critical, thoughtful response to the issue. Instead of your typical three-part thesis with three supporting paragraphs, why not take a stance that is more balanced, that considers the range of opinions, that allows for multiple interpretations, that avoids black-and-white categorizations, that embraces the shades of grey? (Not fifty, though. That’s way too many.) By coming to the test with a few essay structures in your back pocket, you can spend your time coming up with examples, brainstorming, and ultimately, writing and revising your essay.


Standard Five Paragraph Essay
I. Introduction
II. Support 1
III. Support 2
IV. Support 3
V. Conclusion

This is what you learned in your high school English class.
Useful when you want to fully support a thesis.
Useful when you can’t think of counterexamples.
Useful when you have a couple of reasons for supporting your thesis.


Support Your Opinion by Disproving an Opposing Opinion
I. Introduction
II. Point & Support
III. Counterpoint & Support
IV. Rebuttal to the Counterpoint
V. Conclude with original point

Useful when you want to support your point.
Useful when you want to strengthen your side by attacking the other side of the issue.
Useful when you can think of a lot of examples to support your opinion.
Useful when you identify a flaw in reasoning in the prompt.
For full effect, present the counterpoint as if you believe it. Don’t build a straw man because that will only weaken your side.


Present a Qualified opinion.
I. Introduction
II. Point & Counterpoint
III. Point & Counterpoint
IV. Point & Counterpoint
V. Conclusion

This structure can be used in two ways.
Useful for presenting equal weight to both sides of the issue.
Useful when you have reasons and examples on both sides of the issue.
Useful when you can’t say one way or the other.
Useful when your reasons and examples also contain reservations and qualifications.


Useful when you want to present an opinion that is contrary to an accepted one.
Useful for undermining a commonly held belief.
Useful for exposing multiple flaws.
Useful when you have a strong understanding of the issue and understand the logic behind both sides.


Critique a Theory
I. Introduction
II. Present Theory
III. Critique 1
IV. Critique 2
V. Conclusion

Useful when presented with a claim or theory in the prompt.
Useful when you disagree with the claim.
Useful if you have clear reasons for not agreeing with the prompt.
Useful for critical analysis.


13 thoughts on “Outlines for Timed Essays

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