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How To Study For Essay Exam

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.

Exam preparation

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.

Exam writing

Read carefully

  • 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.
  • 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

How to Prepare for an Essay Exam

Studying for an essay test requires a special method of preparation distinctly different from a multiple-choice test. Whether "open-book," "open-note," or without any aids at all, most students find essay exams among the hardest they face.
Here are some specific recommendations for preparing effectively for essay exams.

  • Make sure you identify and understand thoroughly everything that your professor particularly emphasized in class; learn the remainder as well as you can. Your professor will develop essay questions on the important topics stressed throughout the course lectures and discussions. These topics are more than likely also discussed in the assigned readings.
  • Begin your exam review (about two weeks before the test) by predicting what essay questions will be included on the exam. There are several sources for these possible essay questions:
     Use the major boldface headings in your textbooks and turn them into questions by using typical key words such as describe, explain, define.
     Check the course outline and study guides distributed by your professor. Frequently, the course outline and chapter study guides focus on the major topics of the course.
     Read over the end-of-chapter discussion questions for possible essay questions.
     Brainstorm possible essay questions with several other students who are also taking the course.
  • Once you have formulated a list of potential essay questions, prepare a "study sheet" for each of the questions. Review your lecture notes, study guides, and textbook notes. Then record on each of the study sheets the relevant and important material from these sources that you would want to use when writing an essay responding to each question.
  • After you have written all the important and relevant material, organize it. Decide on the best way to present this material in written form. This not only helps you plan an effective essay, it also helps you remember everything more effectively. Here is an example of a study sheet for a psychology class:

Predicted Essay Question "Describe the memory process."

Your notes:

  1. Encoding -- preparing information for storage, e.g., taking notes in class (encoding experiences; translate into words)
  2. Storage -- filing, keeping information in memory -- may involve several interrelated systems information in storage; is influenced by
    • other information already in storage
    • new information that is stored -- may result in forgetting
  3. Retrieval -- getting back information from storage; 2 types:
    • recognition - pick out right answer from among choices
    • recall - remember without any clues (essay tests)
  • Link the material in each of your study sheets to key words or phrases that you find easy to recall. These key words will form a mini-outline for the ideas you will want to include in your essay. As you are actually taking the exam, write these key words in the margin or on the back of the exam paper before you begin to write your answer. If you can only remember two or three at first, writing those down will help you remember the rest. The finished list will guide you in your writing.
  • Practice and rehearse writing several (if not all) answers to your predicted essay questions. If you will not be allowed to use them during the exam, do not use your study sheets in this rehearsal. Time yourself so you will be under the same time constraints as for the test.
  • Finally, either check your responses against your study sheets or exchange them with another student and check them for accuracy, completeness, and organization.


Answering an Essay Question in Class

Read and Analyze the Question

Essay questions are carefully and precisely worded. You won't receive credit for answering a question you haven't been asked; you also don't want to waste time writing something you don't need. Most essay questions -- like the one below -- can be analyzed according to the following three main components: 

Example: "Define the term xeriscape in relation to southwestern urban planning."

TOPIC: The subject area the question focuses on (xeriscape )
TASK: The specific job the essay response must perform, usually expressed in a key word (define)
HINTS: Suggestions or stipulations about what information the essay should contain or how it should be organized and developed (relate to southwestern urban planning).

Develop a Time Budget

Break your writing task down into manageable pieces and establish how long you want to spend on each of them. Doing so not only helps you manage your time better and makes it more likely that you will finish your essay, it also allows you to concentrate on one activity at a time rather than trying to do everything all at once. Consider this typical time budget for responding to one question in 50 minutes:

Planning and gathering ideas: 10 min.
Organizing and developing a focus: 5 min.
Writing: 25 min.
Revising and polishing: 10 min.

Think, Make Notes, and Prepare the Material You Want to Use Before You Begin to Write

Spend a few minutes gathering up ideas and thoughts you will need to include in your essay. Then consider the most effective way to present that material to your reader. Remember that essay exam responses are usually read very quickly: the more quickly the reader can move through your writing, the less time he or she will have to consider its deficiencies. Many students find it useful to create a short topic outline or to draw a key diagram at this point, as a way to organize their thoughts.

The focus of your writing depends on the TASK stated in the question. In a question that asks you to explain, for example, your focus should be on presenting information as clearly as possible so that the reader understands the TOPIC. At other times you may be asked to take a position on a TOPIC; in these cases, you need to state that position clearly and then prove to your reader, through the careful use of illustration and examples, the validity of the statement with which you started. But in either case, the reader needs a clear statement of your purpose at the beginning of your essay.

Sometimes it's difficult to know, at first, exactly what the focus of the piece of writing should be. That's why it's especially important to pay attention to any HINTS in the exam question. These tell you the particular perspective that your instructor considers important --- the one from which your response will be graded.

Writer's Block?

Sometimes, even when you have followed these steps, the words just don't seem to flow onto your page. Many writers, faced with this problem, begin in the middle of an essay, leaving the first page blank or using a "dummy" introduction, and add the introduction last, after they have figured out what -- exactly -- their writing is about. The important thing is to start writing, so that you don't run out of time before getting something onto the page.

Write Strategically

Writing that merely responds to the question (no matter how accurately) may garner only an average grade unless it is also successfully presented in other ways. Here are some areas that often make a difference:

  • Unless you have been told for some reason to restate the question in your own words, do not waste valuable time repeating information that your instructor has already written down. Move immediately to answering the question.
  • Order the points of your discussion. Follow some sort of sequence -- logical, chronological, procedural, etc.
  • Add support to assertions. Incorporate examples or facts that support these main statements.
  • Tie your discussion to your focus. Explain, both along the way and in your conclusion, how everything fits together.
  • Be direct when you write. In the interest of making maximum use of your time, keep your sentences short, use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, and avoid parenthetical remarks.
  • Use signals to direct the reader through your points.
For example:
"There are three reasons why..."
"First,....Second,......Finally,....."
"In early Greece....But in Rome..."
  • Be legible. You will probably not be graded on neatness, but you could easily lose credit if your instructor has a hard time reading what you have written. Sloppy handwriting, non-standard abbreviations, multiple cross-outs, and confusing circles and arrows will all make grading difficult. Remember that your instructor has many other papers to read and may easily become impatient with anything that makes grading harder.

Source: Center for Teaching Excellence 

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