How To Ace Your Next Essay Exam

Writing an essay from your bedroom computer is hard enough. Having to write under time pressure during an exam is a whole other type of hardship.

Ask any student and many will cite essay exams as among the ones they dread most. It’s understandable — you’re expected to gather your thoughts, organize them and compose them in essay form, all while under time pressure. Why can’t all tests just be multiple choice, right?

Unfortunately, essay exams are part of the student experience and you will likely come across them multiple times during the course of every semester, so might as well prepare for them. The following tips offer guidelines to help you manage the essay part of your next exams.

1. Read through all questions thoroughly

Before doing anything else, read through every single question in the exam thoroughly. Do one pass of doing nothing but reading the questions. Then, make a second pass, underlining all key phrases and instructions that will help guide your answer. Make special note of that — almost all essay-type exam questions will incorporate key items within the text that will point you on which elements to focus your answer on.

If it helps, you can also rephrase the question/instruction in your own words, writing that down. This will make it easier to review how well your answer services the question later on.

2. Pay special attention to cues on the rhetorical mode a question requires

Along with looking for key words that indicate the topic you’re writing about, you also need to look for key words that point towards the rhetorical mode you’re being asked to use. That means, whether you need to analyze, evaluate, illustrate, compare, contrast, define, categorize or do anything else with the subject. Not doing so puts you in danger of answering the question the wrong way, which will really be disappointing if you know the topic very well.

3. For multi-part questions, make a list of the different parts

This will ensure you don’t miss or downplay your response to one of the parts. You might even want to number them in your response to ensure whoever’s grading the paper can see the separation.

4. Make an estimate of how long it will take you to answer each question

Write that number right next to the question. You will use this to determine which questions to answer first, effectively organizing your time and effort. If all questions have equal weight on points, then those questions where you estimate a short amount of time should be the ones you answer first. If they vary, then weigh the difference between each question and your estimated times, figuring out which items will get you the most mileage.

5. If an item exceeds your time estimate significantly, it might be a better idea to move on to something else

Remember: this is a test with a time constraint. You don’t want to dwell too much on a single item. As much as possible, you should try to stick to your estimates. Just move past the item that’s getting you stuck and return to it at the end (if you aren’t able to, you may at least get partial points for what you’ve finished).

6. Treat them like real essays

Obviously, you won’t have the time to create full outlines and make complete preparations. However, try to go through the same process mentally or in capsule form, so you can bring some structure and organization to your writing.

Write with an introduction, a body and a conclusion (in abridged form) just like a regular essay, working to keep everything cohesive. This will ensure your point is clearly communicated.

7. Compose your thoughts before writing

Use the margins to write mini-outlines and short notes if you can’t do this step mentally. You will rarely have the luxury of time to review and revise all your answers during a test. As such, attempting to write them as good as you can the first time should be the way to go.

8. Answer the question immediately within the first two sentences

Always begin your mini-essays with one or two sentences that answer the question directly the same way you start a real essay with a thesis statement. This allows whoever’s grading the paper to immediately get a summary of your answer, effectively setting the scene for the rest of your essay response.

8. Don’t pad your answers

Unless there’s a word count requirement, keep it as short as possible. Anything that makes your answer longer should be to elaborate on your response, rather than to state tangentially related items and make needless repetitions. Make your answers comprehensive but concise.

When you’re asked to identify or define, start with a general identifying statement as your introduction, then follow-up with an explanation for your answer or a description of specific applications. Two or three sentences will usually suffice for most situations, especially if the question doesn’t require explaining the significance of the subject.

9. Avoid answering in generalizations

Keep every sentence in your response specific, detailed and concrete. If a sentence dwells in generalities, scrap it. This will help you avoid giving responses that keel off towards ambiguous and unclear answers.

10. Aim for focus and clarity

For longer answers, you want your essay response to be clear and focused, avoiding going off in tangents that could make the essay unnecessarily longer. One way to ensure this is to attempt to use one or more of the keywords you underlined earlier in each sentence, since it forces you to keep the discussion for that specific subject.

You should also use shorter sentences than you normally write. Use transitions to link ideas together, rather than relying on combining long clauses that may end up difficult to read.

11. If it’s allowed, use a pencil to write your answers

This makes it easier to revise the essays later when you recognize mistakes or confusing points. It’s also going to end up neater compared to using a pen, eliminating huge patches of blotted out answers when you need to change some items.

Word of warning: if you use a pencil, make sure it’s easily legible. Professors read a lot of essays when grading a test, so making their job harder won’t help your cause in any way.