Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.
Learn the material with the exam format in mind
- Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
- Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
- Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
- Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
- Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.
Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions
- Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
- Anticipate questions by:
- Looking for patterns of questions in any tests you have already written in the course;
- Looking at the course outline for major themes;
- Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
- Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
- Brainstorming questions with a study group.
- Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
- Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
- Memorize your outlines or key points.
- A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.
If the Professor distributes questions in advance
- Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
- Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.
Right before the exam
- Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.
- Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
- Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
- See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.
Manage your time
- At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
- If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
- If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
- Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
- Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.
Things to include and/or exclude in your answers
- Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
- Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
- Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
- Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.
Follow a writing process
- Plan the essay first
- Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
- Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
- Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
- To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
- Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
- Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
- Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
- Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.: although, however) between paragraphs.
- A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
- If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
- As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
- Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement. If not, change the thesis.
For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.
Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site
Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: In-class Essay Exams
Below are some tips for taking in-class essay exams. See also tips for taking standardized essay exams.
Study Your Teacher
Different teachers stress different points. For example, one teacher of American History may stress social history, another economic history or the history of foreign policy. Most teachers are fair; they will test on what they stress in class. Check your notes.
Have faith in your own intelligence. Ask yourself what kind of questions you would ask over the given material. Chances are that at least some of your questions will appear on the test. If you can anticipate a test question, the test will appear familiar to you.
Do Not Panic
Anyone who has done nothing more than to sit in class and listen knows at least some of the material. Of course, you have also studied diligently. You are prepared. Remember that taking an essay exam well depends upon the wise budgeting of time.
Budget Your Time
Read the entire test before you begin to write. The last question may be weighed heavily and thus require more time. Ask yourself how much time you can afford to spend on each question. If you do not finish all the minor questions in the allotted time, go on to the major question. Come back to the smaller questions later.
Read Individual Questions Carefully
Has your teacher asked you to choose two of five questions? If you answer all the questions when you have a choice, you lose time and points. When you are faced with a choice, decide quickly and do not change your mind. Doing so takes time, and lost time means lost points.
Watch For Key Words
Does your instructor ask you to "discuss," "compare," "contrast," "summarize," "explain," or "relate"? Note that some key words give you more freedom than do others. The words "contrast" and "summarize," for instance, are very precise. You must obey these words by doing exactly what they say. However, the word "discuss" gives you some freedom. You might discuss a topic by summarizing, relating, explaining, or some combination thereof.
Answer the Major Question
An essay question is just what the name implies--an essay. You know that an essay should have a thesis or purpose statement; the answer you write for the essay question should also have a thesis to help you organize your thoughts and keep you from straying from your main point. A clear thesis will also make your answer easy for your instructor to follow.
Organize before you write. 1/10 to 1/5 of the time spent on a question should be spent in organization. If other students are writing furiously, they are probably writing without a purpose. Make a rough outline to keep you on track.
After outlining, write the essay, filling in the details. Be as specific as possible. Do not be satisfied with general statements such as, "Spallanzani advanced the science of microbe hunting." How so? -- by exposing superstitions. What superstitions? -- he proved the Vegetative Force to be a myth by cleverly demonstrating that microbes must have parents. Generalities by themselves are boring. Details alone are just a grocery list. Use your details to support a general context, and then draw relevant conclusions.
Use a General Organizing Principle
When instructors ask you to discuss, they want you to show more than a knowledge of the facts. They want you to demonstrate a grasp of the relationships among the facts. They want to know if you see similarities, differences, or cause-effect relationships. For example, even though you write a wealth of facts, you might fail a history question involving the Crusades and the discovery of America if you miss the cause-effect relationship. Show that you know how the Crusades led to the discovery of America. Often, essay exams ask you to be able to discuss relevant details within a general framework. Know the big picture, and be able to discuss how details are interrelated within that big picture.
If you finish early, proofread the test to check facts, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you have left something out, put in a legible footnote that can easily be found.