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How to Get a Good Grade on an Essay Test

Updated on March 31, 2015
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy is an adjunct university professor and the 2015 recipient of Park University's Provost Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Important Tips for Taking Essay Tests

Tips from a university instructor on how to ace essay exams.
Tips from a university instructor on how to ace essay exams. | Source

How to Write Great Answers for Essay Tests

Test time is nerve wracking, and many people especially dread essay questions.

But those questions can make or break your chances of passing your college courses, or getting into the right university, graduate school. Most essay tests carry a higher point value than multiple choice or true/false quizzes and tests. So learning to write good essay answers is an important factor in a good grade once you're enrolled in a course.

Essay questions tell instructors and college entrance committees many things.

They demonstrate that you have critical thinking skills and can integrate information in a written form. Essay tests show how well you communicate, how much you pay attention to detail, your grasp of the language (no matter what language) and your knowledge of the subject matter.

You can score high on short essay questions if you learn what professors or colleges are looking for, and you learn how to properly prepare.

These important tips will help you when exam time rolls around!

Great Tips on Writing an Essay

What to Write for Essay Questions

First, pay attention to what the question asks. If the test instructions say 'short answer,' it's usually fine to do a paragraph or two.

"Short answer," however, does not mean just one or two words or one sentence.

Look at all elements of the test question. Most essay questions will ask for multiple points in the answer. Many students make the mistake of answering the first thing they notice, or the first thing that comes to mind, and they don't pay attention to the components of the question.

If the question asks to 'list and discuss,' you need to list examples of the topic (predatory animals in Africa, for example) and then briefly discuss them in the context of the question - their habits, where they live, survival issues, whatever else the subject matter covers.

Write clearly and concisely, but in a narrative manner. One- or two-word answers won't cut it here; you need to use sentences, and the sentences need to be well-constructed.

What University Professors Want in Essay Answers

Your instructor will want to know, through your answer, that you understand and can discuss the subject or topic of the test.

Essay questions are designed to go further than True/False or Multiple Choice questions by asking for you to come up with the information independently (rather than giving you clues in the multiple choices, for example) and by asking you to analyze the material.

Avoid First-Person Writing!

Unless the essay clearly asks you for your opinion, personal experience or thoughts, the word "I" has no place in an essay answer. Your instructor wants to know what the textbook says, not what you personally think.

The word "I" is visual clutter for an instructor trying to wade through dozens of tests and determine the points to award. When a student begins their answer with a phrase like, "I really liked the book . . . " or "I think this character is . . . " the instructor has to look even harder for the factual elements of the answer.

You're not writing on Facebook or on Twitter, you're documenting your knowledge in an academic area, so your writing should be sophisticated and academic.

There are many ways to avoid mistakes in term papers and on essay questions if you do some preparation.

How To Write Short Essays for Online Discussion Board Posts

Basic Tips for Posts
Content Tips
What to Avoid
10 original sentences or more when posting your answer to a question
Be analytical! Discuss various elements of the question!
Don't copy text from outside sources (that's plagiarism). Don't copy and post readings from your text; your instructor already knows what the book says!
At least 10 original sentences for responses to other students.
Do not quote outside sources without references.
Avoid insulting your classmates! Show respect!
Avoid short responses, such as "Great post!" or "I agree!"
Address all elements of the question.
Avoid using abbreviations (such as 'R U kidding?' or other terms used in texting).
If possible, respond to questions not yet addressed on the board.
The majority of your post should be YOUR OWN words.
Avoid simply repeating what others have said.
Don't be shy! Discussion Boards are fun!
Offer contrasting viewpoints in your responses to classmates.
Don't procrastinate; if you post early in the process, your instructor may leave comments to help you improve.

This brief guide will help you avoid common problems on discussion boards, and help you get the most points for your contributions.

What do YOU think?

Do you like essay questions?

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How to Study for College Essay Exams

Since essay exams go further than just the facts of the course, a few study tricks will help you prepare better and increase your grade results.

Don't be overwhelmed - you can do this!

Steps to Prepare for Essay Tests:

Suppose your course is Marine Biology, and the test is about mammals in the oceans.

  • Make a list of the basic topics or elements the exam might cover (types of salt-water mammals, etc.).
  • Make a list of the types of things your class or the book discussed about (what they eat, their breeding habits, etc.).
  • Make notes or list points about how these things are alike (common elements for survival, how they breathe, etc.).
  • How are they different? (size, lifespan, number of offspring, where they live, etc.).
  • What issues are unique to the topic? (survival rate, ecosystems, global warming, etc.).

This list will help you formulate what you might need to discuss on the essay test. To 'compose' your answers and thoughts, pretend you're talking to a friend and you've been asked what the class is about.

You would answer in sentences, not in one-word statements, right? Essay tests work the same way; you need to explain the topic, address all parts of the question and give complete answers.

Good luck! You can do it!

Marcy Goodfleisch, MA, is an adjunct faculty member at Park University.


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