College students are often intimidated by essay exams, a common final exam format for courses in the humanities and social sciences. Because the exam itself provides so little structure for your answers, it can feel impossible to get all of your thoughts on paper in an organized way without running out of time. As someone who has graded a lot of college students’ exams, I’ve realized that students most often lose points because they don’t realize that an exam essay is a specific genre of writing that you can practice in advance, even if you don’t know the exact questions you’ll be answering. By developing a strategy for success in writing exam essays, you’ll be able to make sure that the material you worked hard all semester to learn shows up in your answers on the day of the test.
Before the Exam
1. Brainstorm possible exam questions.
A good way to do this is to make two lists: one of all the lessons or units you’ve covered (for example, all the authors you’ve read for an English class, or all the historical events you’ve covered in a history class), and another of all the major concepts and key terms that you’ve talked about in the class. Then you can mix and match items from these lists to form potential questions. For example, if you were taking a theatre class, you might come up with a question like, “How do Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams use the techniques of psychological realism?”. O’Neill and Williams would come from your list of authors, and psychological realism would come from your list of key terms.
Other good examples of exam questions are discussion questions your instructor asked in class and any prompts you had for papers during the semester. While it’s unlikely your instructor will replicate any of these exact questions on the exam, reviewing what kinds of questions she asks will help you remember what key terms or concepts are particularly important to her. Write down several sample questions and outline the main ideas you would want to include in your answer.
2. Practice your essay-writing strategy using your sample questions.
I recommend practicing the three steps with a timer set for five minutes—these steps are for preparing and organizing an essay (not actually writing it), so you want to practice doing them relatively quickly. They’ll give you a clear structure to fill in.
The first thing to do when you start an essay is to quickly brainstorm a list of everything you can think of in relationship to that question: key terms, details, facts, dates, authors—whatever seems relevant. This should just be a quick task of getting everything in your head on paper.
Then figure out your claim. Answers to essay questions should have an argument that clearly answers the question and that makes a claim that is debatable (as opposed to factual or descriptive). If you’re having trouble, an easy format for writing an argument is “Although ____________, ______________.” For example, your claim could be, “Although both O’Neill and Williams use realism in their plays, Williams is more interested in how psychological realism can be achieved through design elements.” (This format works especially well for compare-contrast questions.)
Finally, outline the essay. The argument will come first, in the introduction, and then map out the main point you want to cover in each body paragraph.
During the Exam
1. Keep track of time.
When the exam starts, write down the end time, and then write down when you should finish each section—for example, if it’s a three-hour exam, and you have five essays to write, you might choose to give yourself 30 minutes per essay, which leaves you 30 minutes at the end to reread your work. Make sure you stick to your schedule—you don’t want to spend a lot of time perfecting one essay and then run out of time for the rest. Many instructors will give partial credit even for an unfinished or messy essay, but they can’t give you any points for an essay you didn’t write at all.
2. Follow the essay-writing strategy you practiced: list, claim, outline, write.
Don’t bother including big general statements like, “Playwrights are always interested in psychology,” in your essays—just get straight to the specific points you want to cover. Sticking to your outline will help keep your essay organized, which will make it easier for you to cover all your main points in the available time. Staying organized will also make it easier for your instructor to follow your train of thought when she’s grading.
Most of what you write in an essay is analysis of how the evidence you’ve chosen supports the argument you’re making. If you get stuck writing, ask yourself, “How does this evidence support my claim?”.
3. Go in confident.
You know you’re well-prepared—don’t let nerves get in your way! Eat a good breakfast, listen to your favorite song on the way to the exam, bring a bottle of water and lots of extra pens and pencils, and show up early. (And if you have a mental health condition or learning disability that can lead to test-taking anxiety, talk to the office of disability services at your school well in advance of the exam. They may be able to provide you with test-taking accommodations like a quiet room or extra time.) An essay exam is a chance for you to show off what you’ve learned this semester—it’s not meant to trick you. (Multiple choice exams are actually the place to worry about trick questions.) Instructors generally want you to do well on the final exam, so try to think of the exam as a great capstone for your hard work in the class. Good luck!