An Exam Essay Survival Guide

Tuesday, November 12, 2019
by Abby Ollila

Exam essays can be intimidating. Summarizing an entire course in a few pages doesn't seem humanly possible, right?

Well, it's certainly not an easy undertaking — but as a seasoned veteran of exam essays, I can ensure you with confidence that it IS possible. Summarized in four key takeaways, this guide is what I've learned about exam essays and how to survive them.

1. Memorize outlines, not entire essays.

When your instructor shares the essay topic(s) before the exam, it can be tempting to memorize an entire answer in advance. However, if you have a tight schedule during exam season, this strategy may not be the best use of your time! Try memorizing only the basics: the main points that support your argument and the information that proves those points (in other words: an essay outline). 

2. Prioritize the big ideas.

Studying the details is important too, of course — but a heavily detailed essay that lacks analysis of the overarching concepts will not score well grade-wise. Focus on learning the concepts that your instructor emphasizes, and envision the details as proof that you understand those big ideas. 

3. Colour-code your notes.

Even if your exam has both a knowledge componet and an essay component, you don't have to study everything twice! Instead, grab a coloured pen while studying for the knowledge portion and mark or highlight information along the way that could serve as essay material. If you are working from a screen, you can use the highlighting tool or a different font colour. This tactic will save time and simplify the process of creating an outline, since you will only need to scan your notes for highlighted information to collect points.

4. Don't be afraid to improvise.

If you forget a proof for a point on your outline, don’t spend the entire exam trying to recollect it. Instead, improvise! Search your memory bank — what else do you remember that could support this particular point? Adaptability is essential, especially if the essay prompt is slightly different than you expected. If you're struck with a brilliant idea halfway into the exam, follow your instincts. Just make sure to keep an eye on the clock!

I hope you find this survival guide helpful during finals season! For more tips, check out our 'Writing Exam Essays' resource.