Tackling the essay exam

Essay exams often test you on the big picture concepts of a course. The idea of writing an essay in one sitting, especially without knowing the question in advance, may seem like an impossible task. Preparing for these exams may seem intimidating; however, essay exams can become a bit more bearable with some good preparation.

Along side finding out as much about the exam as possible, review the major learning outcomes set out for the course, often found in the syllabus. What are the main goals for the course? What are the major concepts? Then think about the relationships between those concepts and the ideas that recur throughout the course. The question will most likely be about these major relationships. As you go through the course material think about what you agree or disagree with and why, the patterns you find, and any case studies in the real world that reflect the ideas you learned about.

Although all the typical studying strategies and tips apply here, essay exams often require you to apply your knowledge, rather than recite information. Focus your studying first by anticipating the types of questions that may appear. You can anticipate questions by reviewing the course outline, looking at course notes to see what ideas are emphasized, or looking for patterns in any tests you have already written in class.  

If you don't have the question in advance, the best you can do is thoroughly understand the major concepts in the course and have a critical analysis ready. By understanding the course concepts well, it will be easier to answer any essay question thrown at you. Things become a bit different when the profession distributes questions in advance. If you do have access to the possible questions, make sure you understand each question and have an outline answer for each one – you probably don't know which one is on the exam. Unless the professor tells you to work along, divide the questions up with friends and tackle them together or in pieces.

When you are writing the exam, read the question carefully. By identifying key words like why, how, contrast, apply, discuss etc., you can understand how to answer the question and what the professor is really looking for. Think about your time; all exam essays will have some sort of time limit so don’t spend the entire time coming up with an effective introductory sentence. Look over the entire exam first and look at the weight of each question – if the essay question is half the marks, you should probably spend about half the time on the essay (maybe even more).  One strategy I often use is to look at the exam ahead and if there are multiple choice, true/false or short answer questions, I do them first because they may have helpful information for the essay question. Having an outline of the arguments you are going to make, before you start writing the essay, will help you stay on track and finish on time. Constantly referring to the outline as you write will ensure you keep your focus on the topic/idea at hand. Manage your time effectively so you have time to read over your answer before you hand it in.

Essay exams seem daunting at first, but with good preparation, you can be ready for any question that comes your way. Outlining and planning your essay is the best way to ensure that all your ideas get on the paper. Make sure your writing is legible and you understand what your professor is asking for. Don’t just give a summary if it doesn't say ‘summarize’, your question will most likely ask for a deeper connection or analysis of a major idea.  One last technique I have to share with you is one I use on every essay exam: ask yourself what kind of questions I would ask if you were the professor or what kind of answer you would expect from a student who knows their stuff. There are many ways to go about essay exams, but preparation will mostly appear in every technique.  Good luck!

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