Come this fall, your college workload will hit you like a brick. Summer has ended and the cynical cycle of papers and pens returns. Professors like to think their material is your top priority, but in reality it’s just one of many with homework from other classes, a job or two to juggle and a social life to maintain. Truth is the only reason you’ll care about an upcoming essay is because odds are it’s 20 percent of your grade. Your time is limited, so you’ll end up writing this masterpiece the night before it’s due. Under this pressure and deadline, the real question becomes: How do you minimize your writing time while maximizing quality?
Step 1: Isolate Yourself
You won’t finish this essay unless you avoid distractions completely. Lock yourself in your room, go to your favorite library or slap in some earplugs. Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself any opportunity for distractions. Yes, this includes your phone. Unless you have a legitimate reason to have your phone on, turn it off until you crank out that essay.
Step 2: Peruse the Prompt
Your procrastination has paid off and now is the time to figure out what your professor wants from you. Whip out those highlighters and take a look at the prompt. You don’t have time to study it carefully, but at least go through it once. As you read through it your first and final time, mark all the important things such as page requirements, specific questions that need answering and required sources. Be sure to know when, where and how to turn in your essay. You don’t want to be scrambling to print last minute.
Step 3: Make a (Conceptual) Outline
You probably don’t know your specific topic yet, seeing as you just started. However, that shouldn’t limit your ability to make a plan of attack. Take a look at your highlights and generate an outline of the general items you need; “thesis” and “paragraph on context,” for example.
Step 4: Caffeinate
You’re going to need something to help you grind through the next steps, so grab some coffee or soda to boost your energy. With how little time you have, breaks aren’t an option. Get ready to burn your engines hot, full steam ahead.
Step 5: Crunch time
It’s time to add the meat to the skeleton. Take 10 to 20 minutes (no more) to figure out your argument and hone in on an approach. Develop a working thesis and your topic sentences. Focus on making your thesis functional, not perfect. You’re running out of time, so you just need a workable foundation to get you started. You can revise it later. Once you have your specific topic, write. Write like the wind, Bullseye! Treat it like a timed final and try to crank it out in less than an hour. Don’t worry about page limits, just generate as much content as you can with the material you’ve got.
Step 6: Sleep on It
Once you finish writing, the best thing to do is sleep on it. This might seem odd, seeing as your paper is due tomorrow, but I promise it’ll help. It doesn’t matter if your paper is due in the morning; I guarantee you won’t make much progress going straight into revisions. Set your alarm a little earlier than normal and go to bed. When you wake up, grab a snack and revise with a fresh set of eyes. Do another once-over to fix any awkward sentences and redundancies and to make sure you hit that page requirement.
Step 7: Celebrate
You did it! You wrote an entire revised essay in less than 24 hours. Celebrate with some much-needed caffeine and print (or upload) your newly crafted masterpiece.
You said you wouldn’t do it. You swore you’d get all of your work done on time and never wait until the last minute to start something important. It’s far too easy to put that paper off until whoops it’s due tomorrow and you have one paragraph done out of ten pages. All is not lost, however. You can and will survive this unfortunate event by keeping a few things in mind.
What kind of paper are you writing?
There are different levels of panic and the difference between them is determined by the type and length of your paper. A ten-page reflection paper on your favorite movie is going to be easier than ten pages on the racial history leading up to Melville’s Benito Cereno.
Recognizing the type of paper you’re writing will help you keep the end goal in mind—to inform your professor of your opinion, to convince him of something or to present a literary analysis that doesn’t read like you just pulled it from nowhere in desperation.
Do you know where you’re going with your paper?
Never underestimate the power of the outline. A bubble map may seem like a silly thing to do, but in reality even a few bullet points can work to keep you on track and ensure that you stick to your thesis while you write.
The most important thing to do when writing in a time crunch is to get as much written as possible first. On the rare (I swear it’s rare) occasion that I procrastinate to this extent, I find a good time to buckle down and write straight through to the end of my paper while glancing at my outline for guidance. What emerges is usually a mess, but at least it’s a step towards a completed paper.
Have you found the perfect writing spot?
The key to getting your paper done and hopefully also grabbing a few hours’ shuteye is to avoid distracting yourself. Do this by finding a spot that will encourage you to get your work done.
You might want to try a new study space like the top floor of the library, or somewhere without Wi-Fi, where the only thing you can do is write. I know I’ll get bored while working so I always buy a huge bag of candy from the school convenience store to snack on when I get fidgety. A ton of sugar in a time of crisis can only help, right?
Are you prepared to go hard?
You’re going to be in a very weird mood while writing your paper the night before it’s due; the combination of panic and the onset of exhaustion may send you spiraling into despair, which will lead to frequent study breaks. You do not have time for this. You’ve already procrastinated enough and now it’s time to get off Tumblr and write that essay.
Your mission is to stay awake and stay on task, so do whatever it takes. Have a 60-second dance party to wake up your body. Work next to a friend who will glare at you in stony silence until you close Facebook. Maybe even go so far as to install an application like SelfControl which will block certain websites for a set period of time. Or use my method and reach for a gummy worm whenever you find your finger twitching towards YouTube. All that matters is that you keep going.
That being said, can you recognize when it’s time to quit?
At some point during the night, you’ll be so tired that writing more will actually lower your grade. It’s time to stop, do one last read-through, end with a strong conclusion (because that’s your last chance to leave your professor with a good impression) and go to sleep.
You have done the best you can do in the time you had left, and it’s time to snuggle up to sweet dreams of never procrastinating again.