Center for Writers - Resources

TAKING ESSAY EXAMS


The Essay Exam

When you are called on to write an essay in response to an exam question, you will no doubt need to adjust the process you usually employ. You will have to make decisions about your writing quickly.Your primary purpose should be to make clear that you understand the most important points about the material and that you support your assertions in a logical and coherent way. You can write successful exams if you plan and prepare ahead of time.
 

A.        Resist the urge to read the question quickly and begin writing quickly. Taking a few minutes to plan will
            save you time in the long run. Your fisrt step should be to read the question carefully. One useful strategy
            is to underline the verbs. Look for words such as compare, contrast, explain, analyze, define, and categorize,
            among others. You should also look for words like cause and effect. Unless you are sure that you understand
            what the question is asking, you cannot write an acceptable answer.

B.        Consider the point value of the question and figure out how much time you should spend responding to it.
            For example, a 20 point question would not require as thorough an answer as a 50 point one, and you would
            not want  to spend more than twenty percent of your time on it. If you haven't written as much as you would
            like at the end of that time, leave space to return to the question if you have time later. But you should answer
            other questions first.

C.        Quickly write down the main points you want to make and the order in which you want to make them. Then
            check to make sure they respond to what the question asks. Having even a basic plan will help you to avoid
            leaving out essential information.

D.        State your thesis in the opening paragraph. Not all essays must follow this convention, but this is not the place
            to be creative with organization. If your thesis provides a basic answer to the question and outlines your main
            points, you will establish the credibility of your answer from the very beginning.

E.        Stay focused on the main points. Tangential material is of no use in a timed essay; it simply limits the time you
            have to say something substantial about the subject of the question.

F.        State your ideas, even complicated ones, as directly as possible:
                    Make a clear assertion about a main point.
                    Support that assertion with examples, explanations, definitions, analyses, comparisons, whatever evidence
                        from the assigned material will show that the assertion is a valid one.
                    Comment about how the assertion and evidence relate to the thesis.

G.        If you have time, read your essay, looking for major problems with consistency and coherence. Don't try to edit
            for minor sentence-level mechanical problems. Your do not have time to address minor points of grammar and
            mechanics. Major ones might distract from your answers, but this is not the place to try to address those.