How to Prep for an Essay When You Don’t Know the Prompt

Argh! It’s annoying having to prep for timed essays when you don’t know the prompt, isn’t it?

Recently I got this GREAT question from a student who stumbled across my videos on YouTube:

A junior in college named Yaya asked, “I have a timed essay coming up in January and don’t know the prompt. However, I do have the readings which are 4 different articles, and all kinda surround Angela Duckworth’s idea of Grit. Any ideas on how I can prepare for such essay??”

Yes! I DO have an idea. Watch the video for my complete answer to Yaya.

Hey there, don’t have time for the full video? No worries, I’ve got your back, here’s a summary:

The problem we’re looking at this week is how do you prepare for an essay when you don’t know what the prompt will be? For Yaya, this was causing her stress, and that’s completely understandable, after all, how do you prepare for something when you don’t know what you’re preparing for?

Well, the first thing we can do is look at the 4 articles she was assigned to read. We can note that they all revolve around Grit, and there are some themes we can see right away just from reading the subtitles, such as “The limits of grit”, “Is grit overrated?”, “how grit helps with perseverance and passion for long-term goals”, etc. So when you start reading you should be looking for these themes and marking down stuff like, when is their passion showing up, what are some limits to grit, when are long-term goals brought up, etc.
Gretchen Wegner | The Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying | How to Prepare for an Essay When You Don't Know the Prompt | Essays | Writing | Academic Life Coach | Academic Coach | Academic Coaching

Then I’d create a chart like the one above. I’d list each of the readings and the themes, and I’d annotate every time I found the themes and I’d fill out the boxes. This way, I have a good understanding of the building blocks of each of these articles. Once you understand the core themes of the articles you should be very well prepared to write any essay on these readings.

An added step you could take is to consider or ask others, what some potential essay prompts from these articles could be, and then practice making an outline for them. Just from reading the titles and the subject matter, I could make an educated guess that one potential prompt they would give you is, “Analyze Grit, is it a good thing? If so why or why not?”

I hope this is helpful to you all, and if you want more tips like this, click here to check out my course which has a lot of tips for preparing for essays.

College Prep Podcast #143: How to Read a 400 Page Book in Under Two Hours

Gretchen Wegner | Megan Dorsey | The College Prep Podcast | How to Read a 400 Page Book in Under Two Hours | Speed Reading | Tips | One of the most time-consuming activities for students is reading!

Tune in to discover simple tips for reading faster and more effectively than you ever thought possible.

  • The section of the book readers usually skip (but shouldn’t)
  • How to skim for the structure of the information so you remember the main points
  • How to find secret clues inside the chapter that will allow you to quickly identify main ideas
  • How to use your hand while you read to help you read faster
  • How to annotate a nonfiction text (it’s not what your teacher taught you!)
  • and more.

If you’d like to check out the original video 4-part series that this podcast is based on, check out Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of How to Read a 400 Page Book in Under Two Hours.

Click here to head over to the College Prep Podcast to listen to this episode.

College Prep Podcast #140: 7+ Books That Megan & Gretchen Should Read

Gretchen Wegner | Megan Dorsey | Books | Educators | Parents | Read | Success | Reading | The Art of Inspiring Students to Study StrategicallyDo you ever buy books that are important professionally but never get around to reading them? Megan and Gretchen both have books on their shelves that they haven’t read yet.

Listen in as they list these books, and explain why they’re important for educators and parents to read. Maybe doing this podcast will also inspire Megan and Gretchen to actually get reading!

Here’s the list:

Click here to head over to the College Prep Podcast to listen to this episode.

How to Read a 400 Page Book in under Two Hours, Part 1/4

What if I told you it was possible to read a 400-page book in under two hours?

You wouldn’t believe me, right?

This summer I had a stack of books I wanted to catch up on, but I only had limited time. So I challenged myself to skim each of the books as quickly as possible.

In this week’s video, I walk you through the first step in how to read efficiently and effectively. You don’t have to read every word in order to walk away with the main idea, after all! Enjoy.


Stay tuned for Part 2 in this four-part series next week.

For more time management and study solutions for students, parents and educators, please sign up for the Anti-Boring Approach to Successful Studying Course HERE

How to Make Yourself Read a Boring Book

Have you ever opened to the first page of an assigned reading and thought, “Ugh. How am I possibly going to focus? It looks sooooooo boring!”

Well, here’s a tip that I recommend to my clients. Maybe it will work for you?

Hey there, don’t have time for the full video? No worries, here’s a short summary:

Do you ever have to read a book for school… and you just can’t seem to get through the first paragraph, let alone the first few pages? Well, I recently had this experience, and I want to tell you about it because I think I found a way to make reading that I don’t necessarily want to do, a little more interesting. First though, a little backstory. I have a client who doesn’t have that much to do in our sessions, so we decided to have her read Animal Farm to help increase her reading level – as she’s prone to reading lower level books, specifically the Warriors series. To help incentivize her to read Animal Farm, I promised her I’d read Warriors while she was reading Animal Farm. The problem was, I just… couldn’t stand this book. The first few paragraphs I just couldn’t get into. There were too many names, like “Lionheart” and “Ravenclaw” and all these people I just couldn’t track – not to mention I just didn’t care about these characters. However, I promised this young woman I’d read the book, and I know that this is the same experience kids all over the country are having with their assigned reading, so I felt I owed it to you all to read it.

So the first thing I did was I found a summary online of the book. Then as I read the summary I made a drawing of the summary. I drew a thundercloud and lightning for the “Thunder Clan” and a river for the “River Clan”, and below these images, I outlined some of the characters and which side they were on. This drawing helped me understand the layout of the book and the characters better so I could read the book more efficiently and grasp what I was having a hard time with. So don’t be afraid to read summaries and use creativity to help you lay the groundwork for your reading.

Need more help learning how to handle massive amounts of reading in high school, college or grad school? Or perhaps you can read just fine, but have no clue how to actually remember what you read? Check out my course.

Reading Comprehension Tips: How to Find Main Ideas in a NonFiction Book

Several seniors with whom I work have recently been assigned their first nonfiction (read: non-textbook) book: The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria. This is not light reading, and several of them feel lost. It’s a big jump to go from a textbook that force feeds you main ideas and subheadings, to a nonfiction book where main ideas have to be hunted down and highlighted.

It’s especially a big leap if the student has never really *thought* about how ideas are structured, whether in textbooks or otherwise. So much of my job as an academic coach is to get students to slow down and pay attention to structure — of learning activities, the teacher’s lecture, or their own thinking. Perhaps I should call myself a meta-cognition coach!

My client Toby was writing a book review for The Future of Freedom and needed to identify Zakaria’s main ideas. However,  Toby struggles with dyslexia and slow processing; he felt overwhelmed by the volume of ideas in the book and didn’t know how to glean the main point.

I pointed out that most nonfiction books are structured like a 5 paragraph essay, only longer. In a five paragraph essay we are guaranteed to find a concise statement of the main idea/theme of the book at the end of the introductory paragraph. Similarly, a nonfiction book will usually have a concise statement of the main idea in towards the end of the introductory chapter.

Toby and I checked it out; we scanned the final pages of the introduction looking for a clue, and sure enough: we found a paragraph that began with the words, “This book is a call for…”

Aha! I got really excited. If a book is “a call for” something, that’s a verbal clue that what follows will be a main idea!! As Toby and I read through the rest of that paragraph, it sure seemed like Mr. Zakaria was pointing to a main idea; however, before totally trusting what we’d found, Toby and I needed to  double-check our thinking.

“Where else in a 5 paragraph essay can we find a concise restatement of the main idea?” I asked. “The conclusion?” Toby responded. Yes, yes! So we scanned the conclusion chapter of the book, to see if there was a repetition of the main idea we’d found in the introduction. Again, success!

By the time Toby left our session, he had not only figured out the main idea of The Future of Freedom, but he’d learned a great deal about how authors structure their own thinking. Plus, he’d discovered that the 5 paragraph essay structure is not just a method of torture, but it’s a basic way that anyone — even the most accomplished authors — often organize their ideas.

Not a bad lesson from a 40-minute coaching session!

Do you feel overwhelmed with reading, and taking notes on, nonfiction books? For step-by-step instructions about how to read more efficiently (so you have time for fun as well as studying), check this out. When you have a clear and specific set of guidelines that follows some basic brain rules AND works for your unique learning preferences, you’ll watch your grades go up while being able to enjoy your free time more. Doesn’t that sound like exactly what you need?

Pleasure Reading for Teens (or Anyone!), Courtesy of My Facebook Friends

Whenever I’m in a pickle with one of my academic coaching clients, I often turn to my Facebook friends. Such a smart and savvy group; rarely do they fail me.

Last week a client revealed that during her entire high school career, she has not read a single book for pleasure! “I don’t even know what genre I like to read,” she said sadly.

After a little more questioning, I posted the following on my Facebook profile:

Before the end of the school day, over 57 book suggestions from 23 friends flooded my Facebook account! My client was thrilled, and I was too. Here’s the list in full, with occasional commentary (apologies in advance for any spelling mistakes; my friends may be brilliant, but they make the occasional spelling mistakes). Happy reading, ya’ll!

  • Watership Down
  • Book of the Dun Cow
  • Tender Morsels. “Very dark and VERY intense themes.”
  • Lionel Shriver – Game Control and/or The Female of the Species
  • Song of Fire and Ice series by George R. R. Martin. “Dense but chalk full of beautiful worlds, fascinating characters and interesting mysticism.”
  • Life of Pi
  • Another Roadside Attraction
  • Their Eyes were Watching God
  • The Bean Trees
  • Slaughterhouse 5 (or other Vonnegut)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey;
  • Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories by Orson Scott Card.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • The Ink Series (InkHeart, InkSpell, and InkDeath)
  • The Books of Ember (City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold)
  • The Dark Matter Series (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.)
  • Warrior Woman by Maxine Hong Kinston.  “I love how she weaves stories together across continents. it’s adventure, identity, searching, dreams, fantasy, san francisco.”
  • Dresden Files
  • True Blood
  • The Red Tent
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • The Autobiography of Henry VIII
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel
  • Anne McCaffrey, Dragonriders of Pern, and all the rest of the Pern series.
  • Clan of the Cave Bear by Jane Auel. “This series totally engrossed me when I read them!”
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain. “Since she likes animal stories.”
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books.
  • The Book Thief  by Marcus Zusak. “Even tho’ it’s adult, it’s written from the point of view of a young girl AND it was recommended to me by a (precocious!) 12-year old girl. The writing is tremendous, and the human spirit, for me, rises way above the pain.”
  • Hunger Games. ” One of the best I’ve read in a while–it’s a trilogy and only the first two have been release yet.”
  • Marley and Me.
  • Eragon series.  “a really good fantasy story with a very cool dragon. Can’t wait to dive into the next installment.”
  • Hawkmistress by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
  • The Alchemyst (Book 1 of 6 book series) by Michael Scott
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan,Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief series. ” The books bear NO resemblance to the horrible movie. The books are much better.
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
  • American Born Chinese (graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang)
  • The Eternal Smile (graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang)
  • The Gunslinger by Stephen King
  • Lovely Bones
  • The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor,
  • Son Of Witch part of the Wicked series
  • Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper.

Phew! That’s a lot. But I bet ya’ll know even more. Feel free to comment additional book suggestions.