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How to write essay exams intelligently and do well

Updated on January 30, 2014

Essay exams are frightening

There is nothing that can provoke more fear and anxiety for some students than the prospect of writing essay exams. For some courses in college and university (especially Liberal Arts and English), they carry a heavy weighting and can mean the difference between passing and failing the course. Essay exams are comprehensive, and they require that you use more than one skill set including writing, critical thinking, remembering content, and understanding and organizing information. No wonder they are so anxiety provoking! But, if you apply a little effort and focus, and if you know what to expect, you can prepare for this exam properly and became a smart test taker.

Try to antipate the exam questions

From my experience working in a college English and Liberal Studies department, I can tell you that the nature of an essay exam question should not come as a shock to you. Your essay exam is going to integrate everything you've learned all term and ask you to demonstrate your knowledge. To prepare, look at the learning objectives in the course outline. These paint the big picture in the course or outline the themes or skills that you course has focused on. In a theme-based course, you will be asked a question about the theme. In a skill-based course, you will asked to demonstrate knowledge or demonstrate a comprehensive ability in the course. Listen to your professor towards the end of term, especially when he or she says..."this is important..." . Some professors or teaching assistants may even give review material. Some may even say, now the exam will focus on these ...things...Find previous years' exams or ask other students who have taken the course. Understand, though, that the questions will change from term to term.

Budget your time

This is standard essay exam advice. Possibly you are writing one of those exams of three hours (three questions). You won`t have any time to fool around or beat around the bush. Preview the exam paper carefully (on most essay exams there is usually a choice of questions). Then select the questions you feel the most confident in. Do the one you know best first.This will build momentum and increase your confidence for the others. Be sure you that you don`t spend too much time on one question or get stuck in perfecting the intro of your first question (which will leave you with less time for the remaining ones and therefore cause you more anxiety). For many questions, you will be supporting a statement by "giving reasons why". One good tactic ( I tell my students this) is to leave the first half of the page blank. Then write the three or four reasons you will be using (one per paragraph). Then write the intro. Then write the conclusion.

Know how to use essay structure and prewrite

Be sure that you are clear on essay structure. Just to review, an essay has a beginning a middle and an end. Your essay will have an Intro with a brief lead-in, a thesis statement and the organizational pattern previewed, the the body paragraphs (one for each point) and finally, the conclusion.

I can tell you, from having marked many an essay exam, that some folks ramble on too much in a scattered fashion. You may know lots of things about the course material, but if you can't organize your thoughts, you'll lose marks. The more you understand essay structure, the more agile you will be on your exam in selectively discussing your course material in a focused way.

Study your course readings

Your essay exam will want you to demonstrate a certain mastery over the texts that you studied. So focus on that material first when you are studying. It is important to be familiar with the content of your readings because your professors like to see that that you can intelligently discuss the material on the exam. If you did not do much of the reading but have a fund of excellent knowledge, well that might help you scrape through, but trust me, your professor wants to see that you've used the readings, maybe even that you have done additional readings!

As you are studying, consider creating various reading summaries that include the author's main points and support points. See if you can water these down. Then review and drill yourself on them.

Do an information dump at the exam

If you have studied zealously and especially intensely in the time leading up to the exam, you will have a lot of information in short term memory. It can evaporate from your head quickly. So once you get to the exam, dump it out quickly on scrap paper or the back side of the exam paper to have it handy for later.

Be familiar with different organizational patterns

Sometimes, depending on your subject matter, answering your exam question will lend itself to one of several organizational patterns. Being clear on these can help you quickly outline your response. Of course, if you have taken some English courses these will be familiar, but I find it is useful for students to have these at their finger tips to quickly structure their work and prevent frustration during the exam.

Definition- In one course I took, we had to `define adult education`. First, I had to create the definition. Then I divided the essay paragraphs into discussions of different parts of the definition and what they meant (based of course on the readings). This was NOT an easy task.

Argument persuasion - This is a very common pattern you will find in many courses. You state your opinion, and your reasons, then each paragraph discusses each reason in more detail.

Cause and effect - This pattern can be used as part of an argument-persuasion pattern, focusing on the causes of something or it`s consequences.

Classification-Division. You are writing about different types of X, or different parts of X. Each paragraph discusses the different parts.

Chronological - Let's say you get a question that involves the history of a problem and you are required to give a lot of factual information as part of your answer, then use chronological format as part of your discussion detailing the first sign of trouble to the present.

Geography - Perhaps your topic may have a geographic context. Then arranging your discussion by region might work.

Compare-Contrast - This is very common on essay exams. Example: Compare how two authors develop the theme of... or how two protagonists resolve their inner conflicts, or different methods of...Another variation on this theme is the "Advantages/Disadvantages" question, or the "Pros/cons" question.

Least important to most important - Sometimes this works in an argument persuasion essay. You build your case working from the weakest to the strongest argument.

Problem/solution You would give a discussion of the problem, (it's contextual causes) followed by recommendations.

Example - You could get a question the asks `give examples of ....X`You arrange your essay according to each example.

Edit your work on your essay exams

This goes without saying. If you have read any of my previous articles, you will know I say that for all writing tasks. Sweat it out. Use your dictionary. In an English course, diction will be scrutinized. In a Liberal arts course, it will still matter, and poor diction will definitely affect your grade. Just because you know the material, doesn't give you any excuse to write sloppily. In my graduate studies, all the aspects of writing made up 70% of the evaluation (lucky me, I teach essay writing, and grade papers). The ability to communicate clearly and intelligently is not only a marker of course mastery, but also of effective critical thinking.


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