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Marquee Series : General Resources : Tips for Studying Smarter : Writing Essay Exams

At some point in your college career, you will be asked to write an in-class essay exam. Essay exams are frequently given in those classes in which synthesizing and formulating a critical opinion on class material is more important to the learning process than solving specific problems or memorizing concrete facts. Essay exams are therefore more common in humanities and social science classes, but they may be used in any discipline.

While essay exams provide you will an opportunity to display your in-depth understanding of the subject and can thus be satisfying to write, they also can create anxiety and writer's block if not properly prepared for. If your class lists an essay exam as one of its requirements, make sure to plan ahead to evolve a strategy for and to practice writing an effective exam. Writing an essay exam involves five steps: 1) analyzing the question; 2) outlining your answer; 3) freewriting or drafting; 4) writing; and 5) proofreading. You will notice from this list that these steps are similar to those involved in any writing assignment; the difference, however, is that in an essay exam you must work in a timed situation. Thus, practicing for an essay exam by timing yourself as you plan and write an answer is an important part of your preparation.

Each of the five steps to writing an essay exam is detailed below.

  1. Analyze the Question. Many essay exams allow you a choice in the essay questions you will answer. When you receive the exam, spend several minutes reading the entire exam sheet. Note carefully how many questions you are to answer, the total amount of time you have, and any general directions such as how to structure your answers or how long your essays should be. If given a choice of questions to answer, read each question carefully. Select those that you believe you can answer most thoroughly and knowledgeably. Divide your time to allow enough to write each answer.

    Once you have made a choice, begin with the easiest question. But don't start writing yet; first, take a few moments to analyze exactly what the question is asking you. Failing to do this, and writing an essay that does not really address the question, may result in the teacher giving you a low score on the essay no matter how detailed your answer. As you read over the question, look for key words that provide clear clues on the type of answers the instructor expects. Circle or underline those words. First, look for the question's verb, which provides important information about your essay's focus and content. Some common essay exam verbs and their meanings are these:

    Argue: Take a stand on an issue and defend your reasoning, making sure to acknowledge the counter positions.
    Compare: Show how items are similar to each other; include specific details and examples.
    Contrast: Show how items are different from one another; include specific details and examples.
    Define: Provide a detailed meaning of the term or concept, giving examples.
    Describe: Tell how something happened or explain its present condition, including details answering how, who, where, when, why.
    Discuss: Consider in detail one or more main issues or points of the topic.
    Enumerate: Create a list of the main issues or items of the topic.
    Evaluate: Discuss the relative merits of all sides of the topic or issue, and make a judgment as to which side deserves the most support.
    Illustrate: Use concrete examples to explain and clarify the topic.
    Justify: Give reasons that support and explain a policy, procedure, action, or event.
    Prove: Provide evidence or reasons for a theory or idea so that the reader accepts it as accurate or valid.
    Speculate: Think creatively yet intelligently about the implications of an issue in an arena (such as the future) where the issue has not yet been played out.
    Summarize: In a brief form, state the most important aspects of the issue or topic.
    Trace: Describe the path or progress of an issue, event, or idea in chronological order.

    Besides noting the key verb, also circle other key words in the test question that will help define the parameters of your answer. For example, if an English class test question states, "Discuss aspects of the controversy surrounding the issue of banning Huckleberry Finn from the high school curriculum," you would circle the key word "discuss" as well as the words and phrases, "controversy," "banning," "Huckleberry Finn," and "high school curriculum." If a sociology class test question stated, "Trace major milestones in the development of theories of prison reform from 1840-1930," you would circle the key word "trace" and the words and phrases, "major milestones," "development of theories," "prison reform," and "1840-1930." By circling these key words and phrases, you can quickly zero in on the specific question your teacher is asking and discover clues to organizing and planning your answer. These key words help you limit and focus your answer only on that material which directly answers the question given.

  2. Outline the Answer. Using a separate piece of paper or the left-hand side of your blue book, sketch an outline of your answer. This is an important step in constructing a focused and thorough answer, so spend at least a minute (for a short question) or as long as five to ten minutes (for an hour-long question) outlining before you write. Your outline does not need to be a formal one, but it should be a word or phrase outline that you can refer to once you begin to write the essay. Write down all the major topics you need to include in the essay, leaving space below each one. Then, fill in as many details, or subpoints, as you can, such as a few words that will remind you of the examples you need to provide to prove the points. Organize your outline in a manner best suited to answer the key verb of the test question. "Trace" calls for chronological order; "compare and contrast" calls for two main paragraphs, one comparing the items and one contrasting them, etc. If you "blank out" as you work on your outline, don't worry; just jot down quickly the points that occur to you and leave the rest blank. As you turn to draft your essay, points you may have forgotten will occur to you and you can move back to the outline to jot them in so as not to forget them later.

    All essays should have an introduction and conclusion, but the length of these areas is determined by the overall length of the essay answer. If you are writing a 15- to 20-minute essay answer (approximately 1-2 bluebook pages), your introduction and conclusion should be complete paragraphs. Above all, make sure that your introduction contains a thesis, a clear, brief answer to the test question. The body of your essay, then, explains that thesis in greater depth, with details and examples.

  3. Freewriting, or Drafting. In some essay exam situations, you will have the time allotted to draft your essay before producing your polished answer. In other situations, you will not have this time and thus you should devote more time to producing a detailed phrase or sentence outline before writing your final essay answer. If you do have the luxury of quickly drafting your answer, by all means do so. On a separate piece of paper or a scrap page of your bluebook, write each paragraph out in full, following your outline. Include all the examples or details that explain or discuss your topic. Freewriting is best accomplished by, for the time being, ignoring the introductory and concluding paragraphs. Just jump into the first body paragraph and write your ideas out quickly, following along on your outline.

  4. Writing the Essay. After writing a detailed outline of your essay and, if given the opportunity, drafting your work, turn to writing your final essay answer. Research has shown repeatedly that well organized and succinctly written answers score more points than loosely organized or overly "talky" answers. Review the key words from the question, and work down your outline and/or pare down your freewrite to answer the question directly, yet with sufficient details and examples to demonstrate your thorough understanding of the subject. Compose your essay on the right-hand pages of your bluebook. Use pen, not pencil, and do not skip lines unless your instructor asks you to. Write in complete, but relatively short paragraphs, including one main idea and its support in each paragraph. Or, list items in numerical or chronological order, if that is what the answer calls for. Begin your work with an introduction and thesis, and conclude it with at least one or more sentences that summarize your main points. Appearance counts: your essay may be graded down if it is sloppily written or otherwise unreadable. If your handwriting is illegible, print (or ask the teacher if you might work on a computer).

  5. Proofread. If you have carefully budgeted your time, you should be able to reserve a few minutes upon the completion of your essay to review it for errors. Read over your essay and compare it to your outline. Have you included all necessary points? If you have forgotten one, write it neatly on the left-hand page of your bluebook and draw an arrow to where it should be inserted. Neatly put a line through any part of your essay that you wish to delete. Correct errors in grammar or punctuation. A few moments spent in such final review goes a long way in helping ensure that a good essay becomes an excellent one.

Finally, budgeting your time is one of the most important aspects of effective essay exam writing. As discussed above, the essay exam situation calls for several steps as you analyze the question, outline your answer, freewrite, write, and proofread. Each of these steps is important to producing an excellent answer. You can prepare for an essay exam at home by practicing these steps in a controlled, timed situation. Anticipate a typical question you might receive in the class. Practice analyzing, outlining, drafting, writing, and proofreading a brief essay answer to the question in a half-hour's time. By practicing this way, you will quickly gain a sense of timing for each of these steps, which will help tremendously once you are in the test situation. Practice is the best way to control test anxiety.

But what if you run out of time in writing an answer? If you find yourself only partly finished with your answer and time is running out, try to jot down in a list form or outline the major ideas that you would add to your essay if you had the time to do so. Include a note telling the instructor that you ran out of time, and your teacher may give you partial credit for these notes. Most importantly, make sure that you've made some attempt to answer each one of the essay questions given; be careful to budget your time so that you don't give too much time to a single answer at the expense of others. Even partial answers to questions will gain you more points than no answers at all.

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