Tips for Writing an Exam Essay in 80 minutes

English expository writing

how to study for an essay exam

We've all been there.  The teacher is at the front of the classroom with a pile a blue books.  She begins handing them out.  You scrawl the name and date on the front, and wait for her to start the timer.  As you open the first page, an overwhelming white page stares back at you.  And you panic.

Luckily, there are ways to prepare for essay exams that make this moment easier. Believe it or not, is a matter of remembering steps -- simply master the approach and practice it, and you will do better.  Promise.

So what are the steps?

1. Read the prompt.

You should start with the prompt, identifying the component parts as quickly as you can. What are you being asked?  What are the different parts of the story that you should be looking at carefully while you read? Feel free to practice your active reading by circling any key components of the question being asked of you, especially if there are multiple parts. (2 minutes)

2. Read the story.

Now it is time to read the story carefully with an eye towards the prompt. Underline and take notes to be sure you have something to revert back to for the next step. (10 minutes)

3. Identify key ideas.

Look over your underlining and notes. What are the major patterns in your observations?  Jot down the key ideas that emerged from your reading and what evidence from the story might be used to support these ideas.  Consider what it is you want to tell the reader.  (2 minutes) 

4. Outline the essay.

Make sure you write down what each paragraph will be about (the topic sentence) and what the essay as whole will be about (the thesis statement).  Make a plan for your essay.  You should include an even amount of time per paragraph as well as 10 minutes at the end for copy editing and proofreading.  (5 – 10 minutes)

5. Now, you write.

Remember that the topic sentence must come first in any paragraph. The paragraph functions to support the topic sentence.  (10 – 15 minutes per paragraph, a 5 paragraph essay should take 40 minutes without a conclusion, but you can obviously extend this time if you have it)

6. Conclude your findings.

Spend a little time on your conclusion, so that it effectively summarizes what you’ve written. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.  In an essay, repetition can be very clarifying. (5 – 10 minutes)

7. Edit and proofread. 

Once you have drafted the essay, go back and refine the introduction/thesis statement as well as each topic sentence. These are the most important elements of the essay.  Proofread the essay.  (10 minutes)

Easy, right?  Well, not so fast.  The steps won't work unless you practice.  Ask your teacher or professor how best to prepare for the essay exams (hint: oftentimes the homework will mirror what to expect).  Using the homework and course readings, try practicing the steps under timed conditions, making sure each step sticks to the time allotted.  The more you practice, the easier it will become.

No more blue book blues!

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