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Writing Essays for Exams
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While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.
What is a well written answer to an essay question?
Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.
Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.
Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.
People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab
How do you write an effective essay exam?
- Read through all the questions carefully.
- Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
- Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
- Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
- Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
- Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
- Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
- Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.
Specific organizational patterns and "key words"
Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.
- "Define X."
- "What is an X?"
- "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."
Q: "What is a fanzine?"
A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.
Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."
- State the term to be defined.
- State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
- Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.
Tools you can use
- Details which describe the term
- Examples and incidents
- Comparisons to familiar terms
- Negation to state what the term is not
- Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
- Examination of origins or causes
- Examination of results, effects, or uses
Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.
- "Analyze X."
- "What are the components of X?"
- "What are the five different kinds of X?"
- "Discuss the different types of X."
Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."
A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.
Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:
- Vocational education
- Continuing education
- Personal development
Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:
- first, second, third, etc.
- in addition
Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.
Cause and Effect
Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).
- "What are the causes of X?"
- "What led to X?"
- "Why did X occur?"
- "Why does X happen?"
- "What would be the effects of X?"
Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."
A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .
The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- as a result
- "How does X differ from Y?"
- "Compare X and Y."
- "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"
Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"
A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .
Two patterns of development:
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
Useful transition words
- on the other hand
- unlike A, B ...
- in the same way
- while both A and B are ..., only B ..
- on the contrary
- while A is ..., B is ...
- "Describe how X is accomplished."
- "List the steps involved in X."
- "Explain what happened in X."
- "What is the procedure involved in X?"
Process (sometimes called process analysis)
This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.
Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"
A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .
The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.
- following this
- after, afterwards, after this
- simultaneously, concurrently
Thesis and Support
- "Discuss X."
- "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
- "Defend or refute X."
- "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."
Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.
Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."
A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .
The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.
- it follows that
A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?
Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.
a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.
b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.
From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose , 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.
B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?
1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?
2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?
3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."
4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.
5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?
6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?
For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.
Back to Helpful Handouts o Writing Center Home Page
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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Tips for Essay Exam
Essay exams are designed to test your ability to synthesise information and to organise your thoughts on paper. The following points are designed to help you prepare for essay style examinations.
Be familiar with the terminology used
Make sure you understand the question and are clear about what you are being asked to do. Terms like compare , trace , illustrate and evaluate all have different meanings and require a different style of answer.
Take time to read the exam paper thoroughly
Not reading questions properly is a common mistake made in essay exams. Therefore, make sure you read each question carefully and ensure you understand exactly what the question is asking.
If the question is ambiguous, unclear or too broad, clearly write your interpretation of the question before answering.
Plan before you write
Don't write your essay off the top of your head—the results will be disorganised and incoherent. Before you start writing, jot down your ideas and organise them into an essay plan.
- You can write a plan on the exam paper itself or on any spare paper you have with you.
- Begin by thinking about how you will answer the question.
- Note the main information in point form. Doing this will also help you think about your answer.
Number your answers
If you have to write more than one essay, always indicate the number of the essay so it is clear which question you are answering.
Time yourself on each question
- Allocate a set time to complete each question, for example, two essays in two hours = 1 hour per question.
- Start with the easiest question and leave the hardest until last. This approach reduces anxiety and helps you think more clearly.
Answer in the first sentence and use the language of the question
Always answer the question in the introduction. To clearly signal your answer, use the language of the question.
Question: "How do the goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ?"
You could begin your essay with:
"The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways . . ."
This approach ensures you answer the question and makes the exam easier to mark.
Make sure you structure your essay
It should follow basic essay structure and include an introduction, body and conclusion.
An introduction should explicitly state your answer and the organisation of the essay. For example:
"The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways. The first is that . . . The second is . . . and the third main area of difference lies in the . . . This essay will argue that although these differences exist in approaches, the practices of liberal and socialist feminism have become very similar".
The body of your essay should include:
- supporting material
- appropriate details for your answer.
Make sure you structure the body of the essay as you indicated in your introduction. Use transitions to tie your ideas together. This will make your essay flow. If you feel you are losing the plot, go back and reread the question and your introduction.
In your conclusion, re-answer the question and refer briefly to the main points in the body. Show HOW you have answered the question. For example:
"In conclusion, it is clear that although liberal and socialist feminism originally held differing views on how to attain their goals, a realistic assessment now shows that their practice has become very similar. This is most clearly illustrated by . . . (give your best example and end the essay).
If you run out of time, answer in point form
Markers will often give you some marks for this.
Write as legibly as possible
- Print your answers instead of using cursive writing.
- Be aware of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
- If you are using exam booklets, write on every second line.
- If you have time at the end of the exam, proofread your essay for grammatical and spelling errors.
- Leave space in between answers in case you have time to add any information you didn't include in your essays.
Exam Preparation Study Tips
- Studying for exams
- Multiple-choice exams
- Essay exams
- Open-book and take-home exams
- Surviving exams
- Past exam papers
- ^ More support
Study Hacks Workshops | All the hacks you need! 13 Feb – 13 Apr 2023
What this handout is about.
At some time in your undergraduate career, you’re going to have to write an essay exam. This thought can inspire a fair amount of fear: we struggle enough with essays when they aren’t timed events based on unknown questions. The goal of this handout is to give you some easy and effective strategies that will help you take control of the situation and do your best.
Why do instructors give essay exams?
Essay exams are a useful tool for finding out if you can sort through a large body of information, figure out what is important, and explain why it is important. Essay exams challenge you to come up with key course ideas and put them in your own words and to use the interpretive or analytical skills you’ve practiced in the course. Instructors want to see whether:
- You understand concepts that provide the basis for the course
- You can use those concepts to interpret specific materials
- You can make connections, see relationships, draw comparisons and contrasts
- You can synthesize diverse information in support of an original assertion
- You can justify your own evaluations based on appropriate criteria
- You can argue your own opinions with convincing evidence
- You can think critically and analytically about a subject
What essay questions require
Exam questions can reach pretty far into the course materials, so you cannot hope to do well on them if you do not keep up with the readings and assignments from the beginning of the course. The most successful essay exam takers are prepared for anything reasonable, and they probably have some intelligent guesses about the content of the exam before they take it. How can you be a prepared exam taker? Try some of the following suggestions during the semester:
- Do the reading as the syllabus dictates; keeping up with the reading while the related concepts are being discussed in class saves you double the effort later.
- Go to lectures (and put away your phone, the newspaper, and that crossword puzzle!).
- Take careful notes that you’ll understand months later. If this is not your strong suit or the conventions for a particular discipline are different from what you are used to, ask your TA or the Learning Center for advice.
- Participate in your discussion sections; this will help you absorb the material better so you don’t have to study as hard.
- Organize small study groups with classmates to explore and review course materials throughout the semester. Others will catch things you might miss even when paying attention. This is not cheating. As long as what you write on the essay is your own work, formulating ideas and sharing notes is okay. In fact, it is a big part of the learning process.
- As an exam approaches, find out what you can about the form it will take. This will help you forecast the questions that will be on the exam, and prepare for them.
These suggestions will save you lots of time and misery later. Remember that you can’t cram weeks of information into a single day or night of study. So why put yourself in that position?
Now let’s focus on studying for the exam. You’ll notice the following suggestions are all based on organizing your study materials into manageable chunks of related material. If you have a plan of attack, you’ll feel more confident and your answers will be more clear. Here are some tips:
- Don’t just memorize aimlessly; clarify the important issues of the course and use these issues to focus your understanding of specific facts and particular readings.
- Try to organize and prioritize the information into a thematic pattern. Look at what you’ve studied and find a way to put things into related groups. Find the fundamental ideas that have been emphasized throughout the course and organize your notes into broad categories. Think about how different categories relate to each other.
- Find out what you don’t know, but need to know, by making up test questions and trying to answer them. Studying in groups helps as well.
Taking the exam
Read the exam carefully.
- If you are given the entire exam at once and can determine your approach on your own, read the entire exam before you get started.
- Look at how many points each part earns you, and find hints for how long your answers should be.
- Figure out how much time you have and how best to use it. Write down the actual clock time that you expect to take in each section, and stick to it. This will help you avoid spending all your time on only one section. One strategy is to divide the available time according to percentage worth of the question. You don’t want to spend half of your time on something that is only worth one tenth of the total points.
- As you read, make tentative choices of the questions you will answer (if you have a choice). Don’t just answer the first essay question you encounter. Instead, read through all of the options. Jot down really brief ideas for each question before deciding.
- Remember that the easiest-looking question is not always as easy as it looks. Focus your attention on questions for which you can explain your answer most thoroughly, rather than settle on questions where you know the answer but can’t say why.
Analyze the questions
- Decide what you are being asked to do. If you skim the question to find the main “topic” and then rush to grasp any related ideas you can recall, you may become flustered, lose concentration, and even go blank. Try looking closely at what the question is directing you to do, and try to understand the sort of writing that will be required.
- Focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don’t.
- Look at the active verbs in the assignment—they tell you what you should be doing. We’ve included some of these below, with some suggestions on what they might mean. (For help with this sort of detective work, see the Writing Center handout titled Reading Assignments.)
Information words, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject. Information words may include:
- define—give the subject’s meaning (according to someone or something). Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject’s meaning.
- explain why/how—give reasons why or examples of how something happened.
- illustrate—give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject.
- summarize—briefly cover the important ideas you learned about the subject.
- trace—outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form.
- research—gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you’ve found.
Relation words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected. Relation words may include:
- compare—show how two or more things are similar (and, sometimes, different).
- contrast—show how two or more things are dissimilar.
- apply—use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation.
- cause—show how one event or series of events made something else happen.
- relate—show or describe the connections between things.
Interpretation words ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Don’t see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation. Interpretation words may include:
- prove, justify—give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth.
- evaluate, respond, assess—state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons (you may want to compare your subject to something else).
- support—give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe).
- synthesize—put two or more things together that haven’t been put together before; don’t just summarize one and then the other, and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together (as opposed to compare and contrast—see above).
- analyze—look closely at the components of something to figure out how it works, what it might mean, or why it is important.
- argue—take a side and defend it (with proof) against the other side.
Plan your answers
Think about your time again. How much planning time you should take depends on how much time you have for each question and how many points each question is worth. Here are some general guidelines:
- For short-answer definitions and identifications, just take a few seconds. Skip over any you don’t recognize fairly quickly, and come back to them when another question jogs your memory.
- For answers that require a paragraph or two, jot down several important ideas or specific examples that help to focus your thoughts.
- For longer answers, you will need to develop a much more definite strategy of organization. You only have time for one draft, so allow a reasonable amount of time—as much as a quarter of the time you’ve allotted for the question—for making notes, determining a thesis, and developing an outline.
- For questions with several parts (different requests or directions, a sequence of questions), make a list of the parts so that you do not miss or minimize one part. One way to be sure you answer them all is to number them in the question and in your outline.
- You may have to try two or three outlines or clusters before you hit on a workable plan. But be realistic—you want a plan you can develop within the limited time allotted for your answer. Your outline will have to be selective—not everything you know, but what you know that you can state clearly and keep to the point in the time available.
Again, focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don’t.
Writing your answers
As with planning, your strategy for writing depends on the length of your answer:
- For short identifications and definitions, it is usually best to start with a general identifying statement and then move on to describe specific applications or explanations. Two sentences will almost always suffice, but make sure they are complete sentences. Find out whether the instructor wants definition alone, or definition and significance. Why is the identification term or object important?
- For longer answers, begin by stating your forecasting statement or thesis clearly and explicitly. Strive for focus, simplicity, and clarity. In stating your point and developing your answers, you may want to use important course vocabulary words from the question. For example, if the question is, “How does wisteria function as a representation of memory in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom?” you may want to use the words wisteria, representation, memory, and Faulkner) in your thesis statement and answer. Use these important words or concepts throughout the answer.
- If you have devised a promising outline for your answer, then you will be able to forecast your overall plan and its subpoints in your opening sentence. Forecasting impresses readers and has the very practical advantage of making your answer easier to read. Also, if you don’t finish writing, it tells your reader what you would have said if you had finished (and may get you partial points).
- You might want to use briefer paragraphs than you ordinarily do and signal clear relations between paragraphs with transition phrases or sentences.
- As you move ahead with the writing, you may think of new subpoints or ideas to include in the essay. Stop briefly to make a note of these on your original outline. If they are most appropriately inserted in a section you’ve already written, write them neatly in the margin, at the top of the page, or on the last page, with arrows or marks to alert the reader to where they fit in your answer. Be as neat and clear as possible.
- Don’t pad your answer with irrelevancies and repetitions just to fill up space. Within the time available, write a comprehensive, specific answer.
- Watch the clock carefully to ensure that you do not spend too much time on one answer. You must be realistic about the time constraints of an essay exam. If you write one dazzling answer on an exam with three equally-weighted required questions, you earn only 33 points—not enough to pass at most colleges. This may seem unfair, but keep in mind that instructors plan exams to be reasonably comprehensive. They want you to write about the course materials in two or three or more ways, not just one way. Hint: if you finish a half-hour essay in 10 minutes, you may need to develop some of your ideas more fully.
- If you run out of time when you are writing an answer, jot down the remaining main ideas from your outline, just to show that you know the material and with more time could have continued your exposition.
- Double-space to leave room for additions, and strike through errors or changes with one straight line (avoid erasing or scribbling over). Keep things as clean as possible. You never know what will earn you partial credit.
- Write legibly and proofread. Remember that your instructor will likely be reading a large pile of exams. The more difficult they are to read, the more exasperated the instructor might become. Your instructor also cannot give you credit for what they cannot understand. A few minutes of careful proofreading can improve your grade.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in writing essay exams is that you have a limited amount of time and space in which to get across the knowledge you have acquired and your ability to use it. Essay exams are not the place to be subtle or vague. It’s okay to have an obvious structure, even the five-paragraph essay format you may have been taught in high school. Introduce your main idea, have several paragraphs of support—each with a single point defended by specific examples, and conclude with a restatement of your main point and its significance.
Some physiological tips
Just think—we expect athletes to practice constantly and use everything in their abilities and situations in order to achieve success. Yet, somehow many students are convinced that one day’s worth of studying, no sleep, and some well-placed compliments (“Gee, Dr. So-and-so, I really enjoyed your last lecture”) are good preparation for a test. Essay exams are like any other testing situation in life: you’ll do best if you are prepared for what is expected of you, have practiced doing it before, and have arrived in the best shape to do it. You may not want to believe this, but it’s true: a good night’s sleep and a relaxed mind and body can do as much or more for you as any last-minute cram session. Colleges abound with tales of woe about students who slept through exams because they stayed up all night, wrote an essay on the wrong topic, forgot everything they studied, or freaked out in the exam and hyperventilated. If you are rested, breathing normally, and have brought along some healthy, energy-boosting snacks that you can eat or drink quietly, you are in a much better position to do a good job on the test. You aren’t going to write a good essay on something you figured out at 4 a.m. that morning. If you prepare yourself well throughout the semester, you don’t risk your whole grade on an overloaded, undernourished brain.
If for some reason you get yourself into this situation, take a minute every once in a while during the test to breathe deeply, stretch, and clear your brain. You need to be especially aware of the likelihood of errors, so check your essays thoroughly before you hand them in to make sure they answer the right questions and don’t have big oversights or mistakes (like saying “Hitler” when you really mean “Churchill”).
If you tend to go blank during exams, try studying in the same classroom in which the test will be given. Some research suggests that people attach ideas to their surroundings, so it might jog your memory to see the same things you were looking at while you studied.
Try good luck charms. Bring in something you associate with success or the support of your loved ones, and use it as a psychological boost.
Take all of the time you’ve been allotted. Reread, rework, and rethink your answers if you have extra time at the end, rather than giving up and handing the exam in the minute you’ve written your last sentence. Use every advantage you are given.
Remember that instructors do not want to see you trip up—they want to see you do well. With this in mind, try to relax and just do the best you can. The more you panic, the more mistakes you are liable to make. Put the test in perspective: will you die from a poor performance? Will you lose all of your friends? Will your entire future be destroyed? Remember: it’s just a test.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Axelrod, Rise B., and Charles R. Cooper. 2016. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing , 11th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.
Fowler, Ramsay H., and Jane E. Aaron. 2016. The Little, Brown Handbook , 13th ed. Boston: Pearson.
Gefvert, Constance J. 1988. The Confident Writer: A Norton Handbook , 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Kirszner, Laurie G. 1988. Writing: A College Rhetoric , 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Lunsford, Andrea A. 2015. The St. Martin’s Handbook , 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.
Woodman, Leonara, and Thomas P. Adler. 1988. The Writer’s Choices , 2nd ed. Northbrook, Illinois: Scott Foresman.
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9 tips for writing essays in exams
Essay writing is enough of a struggle when there isn’t any time pressure. Add in a 40 minute limit and that’s pretty much breaking point for a lot of us 🙃 . Well don't stress too much because we're going to help out here with some tricks and tips for writing exam essays* that will actually show the HSC marker all of our killer ideas and skills. This might end up being a pretty hefty post so let’s get cracking straightaway.
* This basically works for things like speeches and long responses as well...
1. Pinpoint the instructions in the question
Before you even start writing, you need to be reading each word of that essay question super carefully. Make sure you’re following instructions and paying attention to the little things that are actually... big things. Do they want you to write a speech or an essay? Do they specify that you need ONE, at least ONE or TWO or more related texts? No excuses for skipping this step because you can just do it during reading time.
2. Draft a quick plan of the structure
Always, always, always plan your essays in an exam. Like… always. The kick of pure fear adrenaline when you start an exam can make it pretty tempting to get writing asap but save yourself a world of pain and take a few minutes to plan. You want to basically write down your thesis (probably one you’ve prepared earlier but tailor it to the specific question) and the structure of your body paragraphs. We go into a bit more detail on planning over here if you’re keen 👍 .
3. Manage your time in writing the essay and the whole exam
Two tips here (lucky you) but basically you need to manage your time in writing the essay and manage your whole exam time. So firstly, you have to leave yourself enough of the exam time to do your essay. If the exam is something like English Paper 1, you know that a third of the (two hour long) exam is an essay so you should be starting that essay with at least 40mins to go.
Hot tip: a lot of top students try to move through the first two sections of that exam fairly quickly so they have more time for a banging essay 💯.
When it comes to writing the essay, the structure you planned out will let you know if you’re on track or not. 40 minutes to write an essay and you have an intro, conclusion and four body paragraphs? Sweet. Well then it’s pretty clear that you should get your intro and the first two paragraphs done in 20 minutes. If you kind of messed up the timing of the whole exam and you don’t have your full 40 minutes then pick up the pace and if you can’t do that, time to make some quick decisions about what to cut.
4. Write out your evidence first so you don’t forget it
This isn’t a must but can be seriously helpful. Every essay needs evidence. It might be quotes, it might be dates, it might be stats. Even though you’ve definitely memorised these perfectly by the HSC (lol), it’s worth having a strategy for making sure you put all your evidence in. My personal tactic was, before starting to write the essay, to scribble that evidence (or just a keyword to jog my memory) down at the top of my planning paper or scribble it under the plan I wrote. That way, if I had a total mind blank when I got to writing a certain paragraph, I didn’t have to leave the evidence out or waste time trying to remember it.
5. Keep it structured
This one is pretty closely related to the point about planning but hey, can’t push it enough. The pressure of writing essays in exams makes it sooooo easy to start rambling and just chucking idea after idea after idea onto the page. Make a structure during your planning and be really strict about sticking to it to keep your essay as clear and strong as possible. Keep your paragraphs to a regular structure like PEEL/PEAL (point, example, explanation/analysis, link) so you have a clear idea of when you’ve written enough in each paragraph and when it’s time to just move on.
6. Have some potential theses and essay structures prepared
Memorising essays gets a little controversial but I think we all agree that you need to, at least, have a few ideas and potential essay structures going into that exam room. Some of us will try to remember whole essays word-for-word which isn’t officially recommended but as long as you are prepared to ( and know how to ) adapt it to the question then it shouldn’t be too bad. It’s really about finding out what approach works best for you but having some possible essays structures and flexible thesis ideas up your sleeve will make sure that you can write an impressive essay in just 40 minutes.
7. If you get stuck, your best bet is to pause for a second
Having a mind blank during an exam is not a good feeling because the clock is literally ticking and there isn’t a way you can magically force yourself to remember a quote or come up with an idea. It will feel pretty stressful but your best bet here is actually to pause and think instead of continuing to waffle on.
Waffling affects the clarity of your essay and the marking criteria about the ‘composing’ of your response. It also might affect how well the marker thinks you understand your argument so it’s always better to pause, give yourself a few seconds to try and reach a solution. If you can’t, either move on and try to come back later or just cut your losses, conclude that point and move on.
8. Don’t forget to anchor your essay with the keyword and source material
Not every essay will give you source material (a picture or quote that you have to refer to) but you will always have a verb or keyword in the question that tells you how to position your argument. When it comes to unexpected source material, here are some tricks and tips and when it comes to the keyword, let’s start by having a look at three questions pulled from the 2016 Advanced English Paper 2 .
- Discuss means you need to pinpoint the issues raised by that statement and provide examples and analysis for and/or against each of those issue.
- How means you need to be providing really solid examples of contrast in Yeats poetry and explaining what that contrast says about personal concerns, political concerns and the relationship between the two.
- To what extent means you need to making a judgement call about how much the themes and ideas in your texts support (or do not support) that statement. This doesn't have to be black and white, you can always say that the texts support that statement in some ways and challenge it in other ways as long as you provide good evidence and analysis to back it up.
All those instructing verbs and keywords came from just one paper so brush on up exactly what they mean and how to use them to anchor your essay . Addressing the keyword and source material really well will show your marker than you are actually answering the exam question, not just chucking out a pre-prepared response.
9. Remind yourself of what the markers are looking for
The overall best tip for writing essays in exams is to remind yourself what your markers are looking for. And no, that doesn't mean you just try to tell your mysterious, probably middle-aged NESA marker what you think they want to hear.
Instead, think about your essay sensibly. Your marker wants to see how well you understand the texts and how the authors communicated those ideas. They want to see how well you understand the concept of Discovery and all its nuances (hint: they’re written out here ). And they want to see how well you can bring all these ideas together and communicate them in a logical, cohesive manner. Don’t get too caught up in fancy language or insanely obscure techniques - you’ve got this.
Writing essays in exams really comes down to being as prepared as possible and having a good strategy for the exam itself. Make sure you’re managing your time and keeping calm enough to write the killer essay you’d be able to come up with outside of the exam room. Happy essay writing… 😬
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Writing Tutorial Services
Taking an essay exam.
You may often be asked in college to take essay exams. In certain ways, the same principles for writing good out-of-class essays apply to writing good in-class essays as well. For example, both kinds of essays are more successful when you take into consideration your purpose, audience and information; when you develop a thesis with support; when you prove your assertions with evidence; when you guide your readers with transitions, etc.
However, there are some differences to keep in mind as you prepare to write. The most important one is the purpose for writing. Usually you write a research paper, for example, to learn more about your selected topic; however, you write essay exams to demonstrate your knowledge. You are not only conveying information, but also proving to your audience--the examiner--that you have mastered the information and can work with it. In other words, your purpose is both informative and persuasive. Keeping this purpose in mind will help you both prepare for and write the essay.
PREPARING FOR THE EXAM
Study connections between ideas. Your instructor is not looking for a collection of unrelated pieces of information. Rather, he or she wants to see that you understand the whole picture, i.e., how the generalizations or concepts create the framework for the specific facts, and how the examples or details fill in the gaps. So, when you're studying, try to think about how the information fits together.
Prepare practice questions. Try to prepare for questions that are likely to be asked. If your instructor has given you the questions themselves or a study sheet in advance, practice answering those questions. Otherwise, try to anticipate questions your instructor is likely to ask and practice those. At the very least, outline how you would answer the test questions; however, it's better to actually write out the answers. That way, you will know where you need to study more.
TAKING THE EXAM
Again, while you're taking the exam, remember that it's not simply what you say or how much you say, but HOW you say it that's important. You want to show your instructor that you have mastered the material.
Plan your time. Although you will be working under pressure, take a few minutes to plan your time. Determine how many minutes you can devote to each answer. You will want to devote most of your time to the questions that are worth the most points, perhaps answering those questions first. On the other hand, you might want to answer first the questions that you are best prepared for.
Read the questions thoroughly. Take a few minutes before writing your essay to read the question carefully in order to determine exactly what you are being asked to do. Most essay exam questions, or "prompts," are carefully worded and contain specific instructions about WHAT you are to write about as well as HOW you should organize your answer. The prompt may use one or more of the following terms. If you see one of these terms, try to organize your essay to respond to the question or questions indicated.
classify: Into what general category/categories does this idea belong? compare: What are the similarities among these ideas? What are the differences? contrast: What are the differences between these ideas? critique: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this idea? define: What does this word or phrase mean? describe: What are the important characteristics or features of this idea? evaluate: What are the arguments for and against this idea? Which arguments are stronger? explain: Why is this the case? identify: What is this idea? What is its name? interpret: What does this idea mean? Why is it important? justify: Why is this correct? Why is this true? outline: What are the main points and essential details? summarize: Briefly, what are the important ideas? trace: What is the sequence of ideas or order of events?
Plan your answer. Jot down the main points you intend to make as you think through your answer. Then, you can use your list to help you stick to the topic. In an exam situation, it's easy to forget points if you don't write them down.
Write out your essay, using good writing techniques. As was said earlier, essay exams are like other essays, so use the same good writing strategies you use for other kinds of writing. Keep in mind that your purpose is to persuade your reader—the examiner—that you know the material.
First, create a thesis for your essay that you can defend. Often, you can turn the questions stated or implied on the exam into an answer and use it as your thesis. This sentence also functions as an introduction.
For example, suppose you are given the following prompt in your psychology class:
Define "procedural knowledge" and describe its relationship to the results of studies of amnesic patients.
The implied question is:
What is "procedural knowledge" and how is it related to the results of studies of amnesic patients?
Note how you can turn the answer to that implied question into the thesis of your exam essay. This paragraph might serve as your introduction.
"Procedural knowledge" is knowing how to perform a task, such as tying a shoe or driving a car, and studies of amnesia have shown that this type of knowledge or memory is often retained by amnesic patients. Even in anmesic patients who have lost most of their declarative memory capacity, the ability to form new procedural memories is often intact...
Then, proceed immediately to explain, develop, and support your thesis, drawing upon materials from text(s), lectures, and class discussions. Be sure to support any and all generalizations with concrete evidence, relevant facts, and specific details that will convince your reader that your thesis is valid. Make your main points stand out by writing distinct paragraphs, and indicate the relationship between them with transitions.
For example, in response to this prompt from a social work class,
Identify and give an example of four alternative solutions available in cases of family conflict.
a student wrote the following paragraph. Note the transition phrase and the generalization supported by specific evidence.
. . . The fourth alternative open in cases of family conflict is violence, and this is not an uncommon response. 25% of all homicides in the U.S. involve one family member killing another; half of these are spouse homicides. Violence usually takes one of two forms: explosive or coercive. Explosive violence is not premeditated. When the son takes and crashes the family car, for instance, the father may explode and beat him. Coercive violence, on the other hand, is pointed and intentional; it has the goal of producing compliance or obedience. Thus, a blow delivered with a threat not to repeat certain behaviors would be coercive. . . .
Finally, sum up your argument with a brief conclusion that lends your essay a clear sense of closure.
Finishing the Exam
Proofread your answer. Reserve a few minutes after completing your essay to proofread it carefully. First, make sure you stick to the question. Always answer exactly the question asked without digressing. If you find you have digressed, neatly cross out the words or paragraphs. It's better to cross out a paragraph that is irrelevant (and to replace it with a relevant one if you have time) than to allow it to stand. In this context at least, quality is always preferable to quantity. Also check sentence structure, spelling and punctuation.
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Tips on Writing the Essay-type Examination
The well-organized, neat-appearing individual will usually get the nod over another equally capable person who is disorganized and careless in appearance. Although other factors are involved, the analogy to examination writing is a skill. This skill can be improved by instruction. The student would be advised to follow certain steps in writing an essay exam.
1. SET UP A TIME SCHEDULE.
If six questions are to be answered in forty-five minutes, allow yourself only five minutes for each. When the time is up for one question, stop writing and begin the next one. There will be 15 minutes remaining when the last question is completed. The incomplete answers can be completed during the time. Six incomplete answers, by the way, will usually receive more credit than three completed ones. Of course, if one question is worth more points than the others you allow more time to write it.
2. READ THROUGH THE QUESTIONS ONCE.
Answers will come to mind immediately for some questions Write down key words, listings, etc. now when they're fresh in mind. Otherwise these ideas may be blocked (or be unavailable) when the time comes to write the later questions. This will reduce "clutching" or panic (Anxiety, actually fear which disrupts thoughts).
3. BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO ANSWER A QUESTION, LOOK AT THE DIRECTIVE WORDS.
Your instructor may give you specific directions how to write your answer. If he/she wants you to evaluate a philosophical theory, you won't get full credit if you describe just the theory. Make sure you know what you are being asked to do.
4. OUTLINE THE ANSWER BEFORE WRITING.
Whether the teacher realizes it or not, he/she is greatly influenced by the compactness and clarity of an organized answer. To begin writing in the hope that the right answer will somehow turn up is time consuming and usually futile. To know a little and to present that little well is, by and large, superior to knowing much and presenting it poorly--when judged by the grade it receives. Be sure to follow the directive words, and check your outline to see that it is logical.
5. TAKE TIME TO WRITE AN INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY.
The introduction will consist of the main point to be made; the summary is simply a paraphrasing of the introduction. A neat bundle with a beginning and ending is very satisfying to the reader. Be sure that your answer is direct and really answers the question.
6. TAKE TIME AT THE END TO REREAD THE PAPER.
When writing in haste we tend to:
- Misspell words
- Omit words or parts
- Omit parts of questions
- Misstate dates and figures (1353 written as 1953; $.60 as $60)
7. QUALIFY ANSWERS WHEN IN DOUBT.
It is better to say "Toward the end of the 19th century" then to say "in 1894" when you can't remember whether it's 1884 or 1894, though approximate, may be incorrect, and will usually be marked accordingly. When possible, avoid very definite statements. A qualified statement connotes a philosophic attitude, the mark of an educated man.
FOR *ESSAY* QUESTIONS
The following words are commonly found in essay test questions. Understanding them is essential to success on these kinds of questions. Study this sheet thoroughly. Know these words backwards and forwards.
- ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
- COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences. (See Contrast.)
- CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.
- CRITICIZE: Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis.
- DEFINE: Give the meaning; usually a meaning specific to the course of subject. Determine the precise limits of the term to be defined. Explain the exact meaning. Definitions are usually short.
- DESCRIBE: Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities and parts.
- DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
- ENUMERATE: List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.
- EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
- ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
- INTERPRET: Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe, then evaluate.
- OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events. (Does not necessarily mean *write a Roman numeral/letter outline*.)
- PROVE: Support with facts (especially facts presented in class or in the test).
- STATE: Explain precisely.
- SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.
- TRACE: Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.
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