Preparing For Essay Style Exams

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 

Writing Essays for Exams

Summary:

While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.

Contributors: Kate Bouwens, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:30:10

What is a well written answer to an essay question?

It is...

Well Focused

Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.

Well Organized

Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.

Well Supported

Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.

Well Packaged

People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab

How do you write an effective essay exam?

  1. Read through all the questions carefully.
  2. Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
  3. Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
  4. Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
  5. Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
  6. Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
  7. Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
  8. Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.

Specific organizational patterns and "key words"

Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.

Definition

Typical questions

  • "Define X."
  • "What is an X?"
  • "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."

Example

Q: "What is a fanzine?"

A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.

Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."

Process

  • State the term to be defined.
  • State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
  • Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.

Tools you can use

  • Details which describe the term
  • Examples and incidents
  • Comparisons to familiar terms
  • Negation to state what the term is not
  • Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
  • Examination of origins or causes
  • Examination of results, effects, or uses

Analysis

Typical questions

Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.

  • "Analyze X."
  • "What are the components of X?"
  • "What are the five different kinds of X?"
  • "Discuss the different types of X."

Example:

Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."

A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.

Process

Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:

  • Vocational education
  • Continuing education
  • Personal development

Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:

  • first, second, third, etc.
  • next
  • another
  • in addition
  • moreover

Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).

Typical questions:

  • "What are the causes of X?"
  • "What led to X?"
  • "Why did X occur?"
  • "Why does X happen?"
  • "What would be the effects of X?"

Example

Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."

A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .

The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.

Useful transition words:

  • because
  • consequently
  • therefore
  • for this reason
  • as a result

Comparison-Contrast

Typical questions:

  • "How does X differ from Y?"
  • "Compare X and Y."
  • "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"

Example:

Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"

A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .

Two patterns of development:

Pattern 1

Full-sized car

Compact car

Pattern 2

Advantages

  • Full-sized car
  • Compact car

Disadvantages

  • Full-sized car
  • Compact car

Useful transition words

  • on the other hand
  • similarly
  • yet
  • unlike A, B ...
  • in the same way
  • but
  • while both A and B are ..., only B ..
  • nevertheless
  • on the contrary
  • though
  • despite
  • however
  • conversely
  • while A is ..., B is ...

Process

Typical questions

  • "Describe how X is accomplished."
  • "List the steps involved in X."
  • "Explain what happened in X."
  • "What is the procedure involved in X?"

Process (sometimes called process analysis)

This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.

Example

Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"

A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .

The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.

Useful transition words

  • first, second, third, etc.
  • next
  • then
  • following this
  • finally
  • after, afterwards, after this
  • subsequently
  • simultaneously, concurrently

Thesis and Support

Typical questions:

  • "Discuss X."
  • "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
  • "Defend or refute X."
  • "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."

Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.

Example:

Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."

A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .

The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.

Useful transition words:

  • therefore
  • for this reason
  • it follows that
  • as a result
  • because
  • however
  • consequently

Exercises

A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?

Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.

a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.

b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.

From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.

B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?

1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?

2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?

3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."

4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.

5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?

6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?

For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.

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