Essay Tests

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Most college exams contain essay sections. Science and humanities majors are required to take numerous essay tests. Essay questions are used to assess how effectively students recall, analyze, and organize information. Essay questions are typically subjective since questions can be answered multiple ways. However, most professors only give full credit to essay questions if certain topics are addressed. Professors often award students points if answers are supported well, even when key points are missing.

Utilize these tips in the following order to score well on an essay test:

Preparing Before The Test

Practice writing essays under timed conditions prior to the exam. Find questions in a work or textbook or create questions. Ask a classmate to create an essay question to practice. Refrain from using textbooks and notes when practicing.

Determine whether your professor, a teacher’s aide, or another person will be grading essay questions, and then determine that individual’s grading criteria. Some professors prefer answers to be supported with facts, while others evaluate the cohesion of students’ arguments. If the teacher’s assistant will grade essays, provide multiple facts to support claims and refrain from making unorthodox arguments.

Read All Directions Carefully Before Answering

Students often miss points on essays because they neglect to follow instructions. Look for the following instructions when reading essay questions:

  • Are answers to be provided on notebook paper, a blue book, or the exam?
  • Do you have options about how many and what questions to answer?
  • Are there a specific amount of topics you must include in answers?
  • Are there specific instructions about how essays are to be written? (i.e. double space responses or write at least a page)
  • Are dates required within answers?
  • Are names of people and places required to be included within responses?
  • What types of examples are appropriate for responses?

If you currently don’t understand the following words and phrases, familiarize yourself with them before taking an exam with essay questions:

  • antonym
  • synonym
  • similar to
  • none of
  • all of
  • the same as
  • assume that
  • the opposite of
  • only one correct choice
  • if
  • all but one

Allocated Your Time Appropriately

Manage time wisely when responding to essay questions. Devote more time to questions with higher point values, but devote the same amount of time to each question when assigned multiple questions of equal point values. Be sure you have enough time before finishing to review answers. Plan to spend some time preparing an outline for each essay question.

Make Sure You Thoroughly Read and Understand Questions Before Answering

Thoroughly read essay instructions before writing responses, especially when there are multiple questions to choose from.

Essay directions provide instructions about whether you’re required to compare and contrast two viewpoints, summarize a series of events, make and support an argument, etc. Divide difficult questions into manageable sections to ensure every part of the question is adequately answered. Write margin notes to remain on task while writing responses. Clarify confusing questions with the professor.

Carefully Examine Instructions for Directional Words

Essay question instructions provide specific directions about how questions are to be answered. Students need to understand what different words and phrases within essay questions mean to adequately respond. The following words and phrases frequently appear in essay instructions:

  • Compare and Contrast – Demonstrate the similarities and differences between two topics
  • Analyze – Provide in-depth analysis about a topic
  • Support or Defend – Take a specific stance and support it with facts or logical arguments
  • Critique – Evaluate a topic from multiple perspectives
  • Describe – Provide multiple facts about a specific topic, event, person, etc.
  • Evaluate – Support an opinion with facts, empirical evidence, logical anecdotes, etc.
  • Illustrate – Provide examples to support a position or answer a question
  • Demonstrate – Provide specific details to show why a particular event occurred
  • List or Name – Provide specific facts to answer the question
  • Prove – Develop a supported argument to defend a position
  • Justify – Similar to prove, provide facts to support an argument
  • Trace – Provide step-by-step analysis to illustrate factors contributing to an event
  • Summarize – Provide a comprehensive summary of a topic

Pick a Title

Develop a title for every essay response. Titles are useful for staying on topic and avoiding redundancies. Titles should list the topic and your perspective.

Organize and Outline the Answer

Students who excel at writing essays typically spend a portion of the essay developing an outline. Develop an outline to organize an essay response and ensure all questions are adequately answered. Students who’ve sufficiently prepared for the test typically do not have to spend a lot of time developing outlines. As a result, they can spend more time writing and refining essay responses.

Before developing the outline, list general points. These points are typically the separate section questions. Underneath or next to each general point, list specific points that will be used to support an argument or answer a question. Attempt to recreate the outline you developed while practicing for the test.

Once you’ve developed the outline, determine the order you’ll address each point in the essay. Essay structure is typically affected by the subject and type of question. Use the following tips to organize your response:

  • Generalized information is funneled to specific details: Students make generalized arguments that are supported with specific details
  • Chronological list: Events or steps are presented in chronological order
  • Compare and contrast: Evaluate a position from multiple perspectives, including the similarities and differences or positive and negative aspects of each position

In addition to outlines, there are various other ways to organize content. Students often use bubble maps, flow charts, tables, or herringbone maps to organize essays.

Get Active

Put a lot of effort into and get excited about the essay. Relate personally to the topic and take time to consider movies or books you enjoy that relate to the topic, even though you will not refer to popular books and movies in your essay.

Employ Methodical Writing

Organize your response as you would a 5 paragraph essay. Every response should include a brief introduction, thesis statement, and three body paragraphs (each with topic sentences that effectively identify supporting arguments), and a conclusion.

  • The thesis statement should identify your argument and supporting points
  • Subsequent paragraphs should contain effective topic sentences that identify the main point of the paragraph. The remainder of the paragraph should support the topic sentence.
  • In the conclusion, re-summarize your main arguments, but do not add new information.

Thoroughly support points with facts and logical arguments. Utilize transitional words and phrases, such as in addition, moreover, although, unlike, etc., to transition to new ideas.

Use multiple examples to support each argument. Avoid 1-2 sentence paragraphs, but do not be too wordy. Write clearly and directly.

Don’t Waste Space

Closely follow writing instructions, but if none exist, do not fill up space by using large handwriting. Skip a line between paragraphs, unless instructed otherwise, and if you’re required to write at least a page, be sure to meet minimum space requirements. Some professors might consider a student’s efforts to fill space as proof he or she does not understand the material.

Check and Re-check Your Work

Give yourself enough time to review essay question responses. Be sure you thoroughly answered the question, presented coherent arguments, and effectively organized the essay. Also check for legibility, proper punctuation and grammar usage, and spelling errors.

What If You Prepared for Different Questions?

Students frequently prepare for certain questions, but different questions often show up on the test. If given options, select questions you’re able to thoroughly answer. Identify ambiguities in difficult questions and present logical arguments.

What To Do If You Run Out of Time

If you have more questions to answer, and time is an issue, create short outlines with main points that you would use to answer the questions. Write a brief note indicating that time had expired since some professors will award partial credit.


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