Tips for taking essay tests

Keep the following statement in mind next time you take an essay test:
The well-organized individual will usually get the nod over another equally capable person who is disorganized.

Aside from taking notes in class, the type of writing you will be asked to do most often for courses in nearly all disciplines will probably be answering timed essay questions. These essays are really not so different from the ones you write as assignments, except for two significant points: you can't get feedback from a peer or the instructor, and only rarely are you given the chance to do serious revision.

The good news is that, for the most part, understanding and communicating are rewarded more than are mere memorization or repetition of details. To write a successful essay exam, you need, therefore, to be able to recall relevant information and to organize it in a clear way, generating a thesis and building to a conclusion.

Instructors give essay tests to determine whether students can make connections among various ideas, apply course information to new situations, and (most important) demonstrate that they have made the information their own.

12 Tips you should know before taking your next essay test:
Tip 01:
Read the directions carefully. Pay close attention to whether you are supposed to answer all the essays or only a specified amount (i.e. "Answer 2 out of the 3 questions).
Tip 02:
Make sure that you understand what the question is asking you. If you're not, ask your instructor.
Tip 03:
Make sure that you write down everything that is asked of you and more. The more details and facts that you write down, the higher your grade is going to be.
Tip 04:
Budget your time, don't spend the entire test time on one essay.
Tip 05:
If the question is asking for facts, don't give your personal opinion on the topic.
Tip 06:
When writing your essay, try to be as neat as possible, neater papers usually receive higher marks.
Tip 07:
Make an outline before writing your essay. This way your essay will be more organized and fluid. If you happen to run out of time, most instructors will give you partial credit for the ideas that you have outlined.
Tip 08:
Don't write long introductions and conclusions, the bulk of your time should be spent on answering the question(s) asked.
Tip 09:
Focus on one main idea per a paragraph.
Tip 10:
If you have time left at the end, proofread your work and correct any errors.
Tip 11:
Budget your time. If you have an hour to write 3 essays, spend no more than 20 minutes on each essay, then if you have time left over at the end go back and finish any incomplete essays.
Tip 12:
If you aren't sure about an exact date or number, use approximations i.e. "Approximately 5000" or "In the late 17th century."

Want More?
Preparing for an essay test (before the test):
Tip 13:
Begin your preparation by reading your instructor’s course description and syllabus and then writing down whatever assumptions, biases, and teaching objectives are stated or implied in these materials. Determine how the various course topics relate to one another and note any repeated themes. Think about any potential essay questions you can generate from this information and then write them down.
Tip 14:
Read assignments and listen to lectures and discussions with the purpose of determining how the course content supports the major themes and answers the major questions you have generated from the course description and syllabus. Modify and refine these themes and questions throughout the course as you gain additional information.
Tip 15:
At some point prior to the test - preferably a week or two before - quickly look over your notes and the chapter headings from your readings. From this overview, generate a list of major topics for the course material covered. For each major topic, create a summary sheet of all the relevant factual data that relates to that topic. (See the "Taking Tests - General Tips" for more information about summary sheets).
Tip 16:
In addition to learning the factual material, determine any logical relationships among topics. These relationships are often predictive of essay test questions. For example, if in a history course, you find that two political movements are noticeably similar, then your instructor may very well ask you to compare and contrast the two movements. Generate a list of possible essay questions and consider setting up and answering as many of these questions as time permits.

Taking an essay test (during the test):
Before you write:
Tip 17:
Read all essay questions before you start to write. As ideas and examples come to you, jot them down on scratch paper or on the back of the test so that you won’t clutter your mind trying to remember everything.
Tip 18:
Budget your time according to the point value of each question, allowing time for proof-reading and any unexpected emergencies (such as taking longer than you expected on a question or going blank for a while).
Tip 19:
As you read the questions, underline key words (e.g., compare, explain, justify, define) and make sure you understand what you are being asked.
Tip 20:
Begin with the questions that seem easiest to you. This procedure reduces anxiety and facilitates clear thinking.
Tip 21:
Before actually writing, determine the relationship implied by the question, even if the key word or words do not express a specific relationship. For example, if you were given the following question, "The Progressive Movement was a direct response to the problems of industrialization. Discuss.", you might narrow your response to a more specific cause/effect relationship like the following: "What were the problems of industrialization that caused a response that we label the Progressive Movement?"
Tip 22:
After determining the relationship implied by the question, picture the relationship by creating a chart or matrix of the related elements. Be sure to separate general issues you wish to bring up from supporting details and examples. Once this framework for your ideas has been created, generate as many ideas as you can within the allotted time to fill in the categories you have established.

While you write:
Tip 23:
Be sure your answer has a definite thesis that directly answers the question. State this thesis within the first few sentences of your answer.
Tip 24:
Provide specific as well as general information in your response by including examples, substantiating facts, and relevant details from your pre-writing matrix.
Tip 25:
Use the technical vocabulary of the course.
Tip 26:
Leave space for additions to your answer by writing on every other line and on only one side of each page.
Tip 27:
Write legibly.
Tip 28:
If your mind goes blank or you don’t know much about a question, relax and brainstorm for a few moments about the topic. Recall pages from your texts, particularly lectures, class discussions to trigger your memory about ideas relevant to the questions. Write these ideas down as coherently as you can.
Tip 29:
When you reach the end of your allotted time period for a given question, move on to the next item. Partially answering all questions is better than fully answering some but not others. The instructor can’t give you any credit for a question you haven’t attempted.
Tip 30:
If you find yourself out of time on a question but with more to say, quickly write down in outline form what you would write if you had time.

After you write
Tip 31:
Re-read your answers and make any additions that are necessary for clarity & completeness.
Tip 32:
Check your response for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Analyzing your returned essay test (after you have taken the test):
Tip 33:
Read all comments and suggestions.
Tip 34:
Look for the origins of the questions. Did most of the information your instructor expected on your essay come from the lectures? From the texts? From outside reading?
Tip 35:
Determine the source of your errors. Was there any course content tested for which you failed to prepare or were inadequately prepared? Did you misread or misunderstand any of the questions? Did you do poorly because you ran out of time? Were you too anxious to focus on the questions and your responses? Did the instructor criticize your writing skills--grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, style, or organization--or how you developed or argued your points?
Tip 36:
Check the level of difficulty or the level of detail of the test questions. Were most of the questions asking for precise details or main ideas and principles? Did most of the questions come straight from the material covered, or did the instructor expect you to be able to analyze and/or evaluate the information? Did you have any problems with anxiety or blocking during the test?

The worst thing you can do while taking an essay test is to misinterpret the directions given by your instructor or provided on the test and write a perfectly well written essay on a different topic or in a different way. The following is a list of essay test words you must know before taking your next essay test.
When asked to analyze, separate (a thing, idea, etc.) into its parts to find out their nature, proportion, function, interrelationship, etc.
When asked to comment, you are asked to explore the impact and meaning of something; give a note in explanation, criticism, or illustration of something written or said; remark or make an observation made in criticism or as an expression of opinion.
Examine qualities or characteristics in order to discover resemblance's. The term compare is usually stated as compare with, and it implies that you are to emphasize similarities, although differences may be mentioned.
Tell how two or more topics are different from associated things, qualities, or events, etc.
Criticize, Interpret, and Review:
Express your judgment with respect to the correctness or merits of the factors under consideration. Give the results of your own analysis and discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the plan or work in question.
Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings. Details are not required, but boundaries or limitations of the definition should be cited. Keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.
Diagram and Illustrate:
Present a drawing chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer. You may be expected to label the diagram or add a brief explanation or description.
Examine, analyze carefully, and present detailed considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. Often found in essays.
Present a careful appraisal of the problem, stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.
Explain or Relate:
Clarify and interpret the material you present. State the "how" or "why," reconcile differences in opinion or experimental results, and state causes if possible. In brief, tell how it all happened.
Justify or Prove:
To justify your answer, provide factual evidence or logical reasons. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form. Establish your answer with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.
List or Enumerate:
Present an itemized series or tabulation. Be concise.
Give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.
Give the main points or facts in condensed form. Omit details, illustrations and examples.
Give a description of progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin. Such narratives may call for probing or deductions.

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