Essay Exam Tips

How to master the written portion of your exams

Essay exams are favored over multiple choice exams by many college professors because they test whether students truly understand key concepts and can discuss them in their own words. Instructors want to see their students think critically, organize information, make connections between ideas, show relationships and be able to compare and contrast different concepts, theories and ideologies.

You can’t pass an essay test simply by memorizing facts and figures. You have to be comfortable discussing course material. When studying for an essay exam, try to participate in a study group. This will provide you with valuable experience putting course concepts into your own words.

Show Your Essay Who’s Boss

No matter how much you know about the key concepts in your course, it won’t mean anything if you can’t put your ideas onto the page in the form of a cohesive essay. You don’t have to worry about grammar and paragraph structure as much as when you’re writing a take-home essay, but you can’t completely abandon traditional essay structure.

The following tips and strategies can help you organize your knowledge into an A-level essay:

  • Read the question carefully. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
  • Make rough notes. Never jump straight into writing without some kind of outline of what you’re going to say. After you’ve read the question, take time to plot out what your answer will look like. Use standard essay structure (intro, discussion / analysis, conclusion), but keep your intro and conclusion relatively brief. Focus on only one idea in each discussion paragraph.
  • Answer the question that’s in front of you. Don’t try to answer the question with information that isn’t relevant and hope that the instructor will take pity on you and give you partial credit. If the question asks for your opinion, include a liberal dose of it. If it doesn’t ask for opinion, don’t include any.
  • Focus on what you know, not what you don’t know. Include as many relevant details in your answer as you can remember. Gloss over the details that you can’t recall. If you can’t remember an exact date or figure, try to use an approximate value - for example, “around 100 lbs.” or “in the early 1500s.”
  • Write neatly. You can’t get marks for something your instructor can’t read.
  • Budget your time. If there’s more than one question, allocate your time based on how the marks are divided. Spend more time on the questions that are worth more. If you’re going to run out of time at the end of the exam, quickly finish your essay (and any unanswered questions) using dot-jot points. Incomplete answers receive higher grades than questions that are left blank.
  • Leave time to proofread. In a high-pressure exam environment, you’re bound to make some careless mistakes.
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