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How to Answer Essay Questions on an Exam or Test

Updated on July 21, 2012

In an English, History, or other exam, you may be required to answer essay questions, which call for paragraphs explaining what you've learned about a particular subject. You may be familiar of these questions from taking the SAT (Standard Aptitude Test), that asks you to write an essay in the first section of the exam.

Sometimes, those essay questions can be daunting, difficult to process, and required in such a short amount of time that you feel like you may not be able to complete them. This article will give you the tools to take what you've learned and communicate them perfectly so that there is no way you can't get full credit on those essay questions (just as long as you've studied).

Sometimes Tests Can Make you Feel Like This...


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Examples of Essay Question Formats

Essay questions on an exam can be written in multiple formats, but the most common are listed below using the topic of volcanic geology as an example. It is important to know the format of the question in order to decide how to answer it; tips for this are also listed under the question/prompt below.

Explain how a volcano is formed.

  • You can use this prompt to explain a process. When explaining a process in an answer to an essay question, make sure to go step-by-step, in chronological order, to assure that you are sticking to a solid format.

Analyze how the Hawaiian Islands were formed.

  • When asked to analyze in an essay question, you will want to stick to the format in the next section of this article. You want to have about three major points that you will back up with evidence to prove.

Compare and contrast how the Hawaiian volcanoes were formed to the formation of continental volcanoes.

  • When comparing and contrasting in your essay question, you will need to balance the two things you are asked to compare. This can be difficult, but if you choose to format the essay by topic or point rather than the two things you are comparing, you will be more successful.


My Special Tip

When you are writing for an exam, you don't have much time.

Write your three "Major Point" paragraphs first and then go back and sum it all up in the thesis or conclusion.

Even though you should already know what they are going to say, things may change as you write. Saving the thesis and conclusion for the end assures that you don't have to go back and edit.

How to Answer Essay Questions on an Exam

Now that you know the numerous formats of the questions that can be asked, you will need to know how to answer them. Above, I explained that you need to first choose your three major points you will be discussing in your essay. Once you have those written down, you can then quickly communicate your answer on a test.

How to Format Your Test Essay

If each bullet point is a short paragraph, then imagine your essay formated as listed below.

  • Thesis
  • Major Point 1
  • Major Point 2
  • Major Point 3
  • Conclusion

Each "Major Point" should have a simple paragraph format. An example of one that I always stick to is below.

  • Summarized Point
  • Explanation/Proof
  • Summarized Point Rephrased

If you begin your paragraph with a clear topic sentence and then prove that topic sentence, writing the same point again to assure that your reader understands is going to get you that A.

Let's say that your first major point was to prove that the Hawaiian Islands were formed by a hot spot. This is how you should format the paragraph (topic and rephrased topic sentences are in bold):

The Hawaiian Islands were formed over a hot spot. The islands do not rest on the edge of any plates. In fact, the islands are in the middle of the Pacific Plate and have no connection to the mantle. Therefore, the Hawaiian Islands were formed over a hot spot, or, chamber in the crust that pushes magma to the surface.


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