Taking Essay Exams

Writing a good essay exam involves three simple tasks: stating a thesis that answers the question, developing a logical and organized argument using historical evidence that proves the thesis, and drafting a conclusion.  Assuming that students have been diligent in taking notes during lectures and have been thorough in reading the assignments, preparation that covers all three aspects of an essay question will not be difficult, and the result will be a successful essay.

Some professors provide an essay question in advance of the exam, thus affording students the luxury of focusing their efforts on a specific topic while studying for the exam.  In such cases, students should write a complete essay in advance.  Those who assume that because they know the question they need not study or can study just a bit will not perform well.  Frequently, students discover the essay question only when they begin taking the exam.  When that occurs, students need to anticipate potential essay questions, based on the lectures and readings, and to write complete essays that answer those questions.  The more questions they develop, the more likely they are to cover all the material in the course and to be better prepared for the exam.  Obviously, they will benefit the most from this exercise if they guess the exact question the professor will ask, but even if they do not, during the exam they likely will find that they will have some use for the information they have studied or that they may incorporate major sections of the essays they have prepared into their exam essay.

Whether the professor provides an essay question or students work with question they assume the professor might ask, the first task is to analyze the question.  Be sure to understand the question; consider what it is asking the student to do.  Some questions have two or more parts, and students must address all portions of the question to have a complete answer.  Do not include material that does not pertain directly to the question or write about something that is totally different from the question.

Address the question in a concise sentence or two that will serve as the thesis statement.  If the thesis statement does not answer the question or does not do so fully, reconsider the thesis statement.  Furthermore, revise the thesis statement as the essay develops.  Place the thesis statement in the first paragraph of the essay, which also should include a minimal amount of background information.

The body of the essay should prove the thesis statement, and any material that does not relate directly to the thesis should not find its way into the essay.  Structure the body of the essay in a logical manner to reflect the various aspects of the thesis statement.  Sometimes, it is wise to begin with a chronological narrative and then present the analysis.  Other times, a topical approach is warranted although the writer must continue to maintain chronological discipline.  In the revision process, always question whether the organization can be improved.

Write a conclusion that summarizes the way the facts and analysis in the body of the essay prove the thesis.  Do not introduce new evidence or analysis in the conclusion, and do not restate the thesis.

For recommendations from Geoffrey Pullum, who teaches linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, see http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2015/01/20/the-rules-for-essay-exams/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en.

If the essay does not meet the required word count, look for ways to extend it.  Short essays usually do not answer the question fully, do not consider all of the factors that support the thesis, or are lacking in evidence and analysis in the discussion of each pertinent factor.  Similarly, do not write an essay that is substantially longer than the required length.

Once a practice essay is complete, revise it to improve the thesis statement, organization, evidence, analysis, as well as style and grammar.  Consider drafting the essay using a pen and paper instead of a computer because revising and rewriting the essay by hand will help an individual not only remember the organizational structure of the essay but also memorize well–worded phrases, sentences, and even entire paragraphs.  Typing the completed essay into the computer provides yet another chance to revise and commit the essay to memory.  It also gives the student a permanent electronic copy of the piece for future reference, perhaps during preparation for a final exam.

When the exam begins, students who have prepared well should be confident and relatively relaxed.  This is especially true if they knew the question ahead of time, but even students without such an advantage should have no difficulties, assuming they have written some good trial essay questions.  In the event the essay question is a surprise or even if it is close to one of the mock essays, analyze it and write a tentative thesis statement on a piece of scrap paper.  Adjust the thesis statement while working on the outline.  On that same scrap paper, create an outline for the supporting paragraphs with just enough details to serve as reminders about important information when writing the essay.  Do not work too long on the outline in order to reserve enough time for the essay.  After the outlining is complete, begin writing the essay with a concise introductory paragraph that contains the thesis statement.  While writing the body of the essay, leave margins on the paper to accommodate any additions, whose placement in the essay can be noted with asterisks or lines, and comments from the professor.  After completing the body of the essay, outline and draft the conclusion.  Should there be time remaining, read the essay in order to make revisions and additions.  Keep the scrap paper until the end of the course, in the even that the professor questions the authorship of the essay, which after reading the suggestions in this article, should be stellar.

Success in writing an essay exam involves careful planning.  Students should complete all of the reading assignments well before beginning their preparations for the exam.  Start studying a week or two in advance, not a day or two before the exam.  Talk to classmates about how to approach essay questions, and brainstorm with them about possible essay questions if the professor does not reveal the question in advance.  Critique each other’s draft essays, but be careful not to plagiarize each other’s work.

Rev. 5.III.2015