Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.
Learn the material with the exam format in mind
- Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
- Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
- Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
- Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
- Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.
Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions
- Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
- Anticipate questions by:
- Looking for patterns of questions in any tests you have already written in the course;
- Looking at the course outline for major themes;
- Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
- Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
- Brainstorming questions with a study group.
- Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
- Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
- Memorize your outlines or key points.
- A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.
If the Professor distributes questions in advance
- Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
- Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.
Right before the exam
- Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.
- Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
- Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
- See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.
Manage your time
- At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
- If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
- If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
- Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
- Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.
Things to include and/or exclude in your answers
- Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
- Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
- Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
- Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.
Follow a writing process
- Plan the essay first
- Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
- Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
- Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
- To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
- Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
- Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
- Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
- Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.: although, however) between paragraphs.
- A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
- If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
- As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
- Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement. If not, change the thesis.
For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.
Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site
The Pre-Game: Good Study Habits
1. Keep up with your work. If you attend class regularly, keep up with readings, and take notes conscientiously, studying can be a relatively pain-free process. Make sure to review and expand upon class notes regularly throughout the semester. Consider developing a glossary or collection of note cards for vocabulary review in each class. Many students find that preparing for an individual class for 60-90 minutes per day, five or six days per week, will leave them well-prepared at exam time. To assist students with organization at finals time, we have compiled a couple of time management tools that are included with this page.
2. Don’t cram at the last second. Building off our previous entry, try studying for 60-90 minutes per day for a week leading up to an exam. All-nighters simply don't work for most people, and students experience declining returns on their efforts when they attempt to study for four and five hours straight.
3. Complete a mock test. So many social science, natural science, and foreign language text books contain hundreds of questions at the end of chapters that never get answered. Why not set aside an hour, and try to answer these questions on paper without using your notes? If you complete a mock test 3-4 days before an exam, you’ll then know where to focus your studying. You may also combat pre-test jitters by demonstrating to yourself what you know. For the humanities, try answering a couple of potential essay questions on a timed, closed book basis and see how you do. Another simple way to conduct a mock test is to ask a friend or classmate to give you an oral quiz based on concepts in the textbook or in either of your notes.
4. Do not multi-task while studying. Set aside time to study in advance and then follow through. For most people, that means leaving your dorm room and turning off visual/auditory distractions, including iPods, Facebook, and music with lyrics.
5. If you have outstanding questions, go see your professor or tutor at least three days before the exam. If you’ve given yourself a mock test in advance, you’ll be able to go to office hours with an agenda.
6. Think about what written questions might be on the exam; Outline each potential essay as a form of pretesting and practice.
7. Find a group of dedicated students with whom to study. A group study session is an ideal time to review and compare notes, ask each other questions, explain ideas to one another, discuss the upcoming exam and difficult concepts, and, when appropriate, delegate study tasks. Do set an agenda and a specific time frame for your group study session, so that your work together doesn't veer off-topic.
8. Keep your ears open in class. Your professor will sometimes come right out and tell you about the exam or present study strategies. You need to be in class every day to receive such help. This is particularly true as tests and final exams approach. Use review sheets thoroughly.
9. Review your class notes every day. Add keywords, summaries, idea maps, graphs, charts, discussion points, and questions where applicable. Take the time to organize lecture notes after class, adding key examples from labs and course readings.
10. Take notes on the course readings. You should also review these notes on a regular basis. Again, create visual enhancements when possible (e.g., compare/contrast charts, timelines, etc.). Use both your course notebook and the text's margins to record valuable information. Please see our entries on reading for further information on this topic.
11. Make sure to get plenty of sleep. Sleeping hours are often the time when we completely synthesize information, especially topics we’ve covered in the couple of hours before bedtime. You want to be as fresh as possible and able to fully engage your working memory when you take the exam. Also, don’t stop exercising or taking time for yourself, even at final exam time.
12. Find ways to apply materials from class. Think about how course topics relate to your personal interests, societal problems and controversies, issues raised in other classes, or different experiences in your life.
Game-Day: Performing Well on the Exam
1. Develop a good ‘morning-of’ routine. Eat a healthy breakfast. If music gets you going, go ahead and play something upbeat. Get a bit of physical exercise, even if it’s a brief stretch or brisk walk. If you’re feeling nervous, record your fears on paper or use mental imagery to envision doing something that you enjoy and then apply those feelings towards the exam. Think of preparing like an athlete before a contest or a musician before a performance.
2. When you first receive the exam, glance over the entire test before you start. Create a plan of attack. Write down any key terms or formulas that you’ll need before starting. Think about how you’ll use the time allotted.
3. Read the directions carefully. If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask the professor. Remember that many questions at the college level have multiple queries or prompts.
4. Write out a brief outline before beginning essay questions.
5. Use the process of elimination on multiple-choice and matching questions. Also, for multiple choice questions, you may wish to cover the options first and try to answer the question on your own. That way, you’ll find the answer options less confusing. As you prepare for multiple choice exams, make sure to be aware of context, relationships and positionality among concepts, and multiple definitions of terms. A deep understanding of vocabulary is a key to success on multiple-choice exams.
6. Leave the most time-consuming problems for the end, especially those with low point values.
7. Focus on the question at hand. If you complete the test one step at a time, you are much less likely to find it to be overwhelming.
8. If you are stuck on a question, bypass it. Mark the question off, so you can return to it at the end of the exam.
9. Show as much work as possible. This is particularly important for math exams. Make sure that you're answering each part of the question.
10. If you have time at the end of the exam, go back and proofread your work and look over multiple-choice questions again. Check to see that you have answered every question before you turn in the exam. But remember, your first answer is usually your best answer. Be extremely cautious about changing answers later on.
11. Some people benefit from conducting a memory dump when they first receive a test. That is, they jot down a comprehensive list of concepts, formulas, vocabulary, and details at the beginning and revisit these ideas as they're progressing through the test.
12. See if there is a way to draw a picture or otherwise create a visual description of the question you are trying to answer.
13. Strive to include course terms and concepts in written responses (correctly, of course).
Post-Game: Reviewing Your Performance
1. If there was a part of the exam on which you struggled, go see your professor. This is likely not the last time you’ll see the concept covered.
2. Hold onto your notebooks. You never know when the information you’ve learned will be useful in another situation. The same rule goes for many of your books.
3. Take a moment to review your test preparation strategies. Take account of what worked and what needs improvement. In particular, take a moment to gauge whether your study group was helpful. If you feel like your test-preparation strategies need work, go see your professor or the Academic Advising Office.
4. Reward yourself. If you’ve studied conscientiously for a week or more, you should take a bit of time to relax before getting started with your studies again.
Written by Matt McCluskey, Coordinator of Academic Support