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At some time in your undergraduate career, you’re going to have to write an essay exam. This thought can inspire a fair amount of fear: we struggle enough with essays when they aren’t timed events based on unknown questions. The goal of this handout is to give you some easy and effective strategies that will help you take control of the situation and do your best.
Essay exams are a useful tool for finding out if you can sort through a large body of information, figure out what is important, and explain why it is important. Essay exams challenge you to come up with key course ideas and put them in your own words and to use the interpretive or analytical skills you’ve practiced in the course.
Instructors want to see whether:
Exam questions can reach pretty far into the course materials, so you cannot hope to do well on them if you do not keep up with the readings and assignments from the beginning of the course. The most successful essay exam takers are prepared for anything reasonable, and they probably have some intelligent guesses about the content of the exam before they take it. How can you be a prepared exam taker? Try some of the following suggestions during the semester:
These suggestions will save you lots of time and misery later. Remember that you can’t cram weeks of information into a single day or night of study. So why put yourself in that position?
Now let’s focus on studying for the exam. You’ll notice the following suggestions are all based on organizing your study materials into manageable chunks of related material. If you have a plan of attack, you’ll feel more confident and your answers will be more clear.
Information words, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject. Information words may include:
explain why/how—give reasons why or examples of how something happened.
illustrate—give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject.
summarize—briefly cover the important ideas you learned about the subject.
trace—outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form.
research —gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you’ve found.
Relation words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected. Relation words may include:
contrast—show how two or more things are dissimilar.
apply—use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation.
cause —show how one event or series of events made something else happen.
relate —show or describe the connections between things.
Interpretation words ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Don’t see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation. Interpretation words may include:
evaluate, respond, assess—state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons (you may want to compare your subject to something else).
support —give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe).
synthesize —put two or more things together that haven’t been put together before; don’t just summarize one and then the other, and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together (as opposed to compare and contrast—see above).
analyze —look closely at the components of something to figure out how it works, what it might mean, or why it is important.
argue —take a side and defend it (with proof) against the other side.
Think about your time again. How much planning time you should take depends on how much time you have for each question and how many points each question is worth.
Again, focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don’t.
As with planning, your strategy for writing depends on the length of your answer:
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in writing essay exams is that you have a limited amount of time and space in which to get across the knowledge you have acquired and your ability to use it. Essay exams are not the place to be subtle or vague. It’s okay to have an obvious structure, even the five-paragraph essay format you may have been taught in high school. Introduce your main idea, have several paragraphs of support—each with a single point defended by specific examples, and conclude with a restatement of your main point and its significance.
Just think—we expect athletes to practice constantly and use everything in their abilities and situations in order to achieve success. Yet, somehow many students are convinced that one day’s worth of studying, no sleep, and some well-placed compliments (“Gee, Dr. So-and-so, I really enjoyed your last lecture”) are good preparation for a test. Essay exams are like any other testing situation in life: you’ll do best if you are prepared for what is expected of you, have practiced doing it before, and have arrived in the best shape to do it.
You may not want to believe this, but it’s true: a good night’s sleep and a relaxed mind and body can do as much or more for you as any last-minute cram session. Colleges abound with tales of woe about students who slept through exams because they stayed up all night, wrote an essay on the wrong topic, forgot everything they studied, or freaked out in the exam and hyperventilated. If you are rested, breathing normally, and have brought along some healthy, energy-boosting snacks that you can eat or drink quietly, you are in a much better position to do a good job on the test. You aren’t going to write a good essay on something you figured out at 4 a.m. that morning. If you prepare yourself well throughout the semester, you don’t risk your whole grade on an overloaded, undernourished brain.
If for some reason you get yourself into this situation, take a minute every once in a while during the test to breathe deeply, stretch, and clear your brain. You need to be especially aware of the likelihood of errors, so check your essays thoroughly before you hand them in to make sure they answer the right questions and don’t have big oversights or mistakes (like saying “Hitler” when you really mean “Churchill”).
If you tend to go blank during exams, try studying in the same classroom in which the test will be given. Some research suggests that people attach ideas to their surroundings, so it might jog your memory to see the same things you were looking at while you studied.
Try good luck charms. Bring in something you associate with success or the support of your loved ones, and use it as a psychological boost.
Take all of the time you’ve been allotted. Reread, rework, and rethink your answers if you have extra time at the end, rather than giving up and handing the exam in the minute you’ve written your last sentence. Use every advantage you are given.
Remember that instructors do not want to see you trip up—they want to see you do well. With this in mind, try to relax and just do the best you can. The more you panic, the more mistakes you are liable to make. Put the test in perspective: will you die from a poor performance? Will you lose all of your friends? Will your entire future be destroyed? Remember: it’s just a test.
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.
Axelrod, Rise B. and Charles R. Cooper. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Gefvert, Constance J. The Confident Writer: A Norton Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988.
Fowler, H. Ramsey. The Little, Brown Handbook. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
Kirszner, Laurie G. Writing: A College Rhetoric. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1988.
Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
Woodman, Leonora and Thomas P. Adler. The Writer’s Choices. Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985.
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