More and more, professors in the study programs are using essay exams to test student mastery of important theory and relationships. A carefully planned exam will challenge you not only to recall and organize what you know of a subject but also to extend and apply your knowledge. Essay exams will require of you numerous responses that focus strictly on the instructions and selective in choosing the information you discuss. What you say about that information and what relationships you make with it are critical. Completing of successful essay exam usually requires good writing skills. You can adopt the following strategy on your exam.
1. Be prepared
Ideally, you will have to read your textbooks and assigned articles with care as they were assigned during the period prior to the exam. Before the exam, make a review of material you have already thought carefully about. Skim assigned materials and pay close attention to notes you have made in the margins or have recorded in a reading log. Take new notes based on your original notes: highlight important concepts from each assignment. Then reorganize your notes according to key ideas that you think serve as themes or focus points for your course. List each idea separately and beneath each, list any reading that in some way comments on or provides information about that idea. Turn next to your class notes (you may want to do this before reviewing your reading assignments), and add information and comments to your lists of key ideas. Study these lists. Develop statements about each idea that you could, if asked, support with references to specific information. Try to foresee your professor’s questions, think about possible variants of answers.
2. Read the entire exam before beginning to write
Arrange yourself a certain number of minutes to answer each essay question, allowing extra time for more complex questions. When you write down your answers, monitor your use of time.
3. Adopt a discipline-appropriate perspective
Essay exams are designed in part to see how well you understand particular ways of thinking in a discipline. If you are writing a mid-term exam in chemistry, for instance, appreciate that your professor will expect you to discuss material from a chemist’s perspective. That is, you will need to demonstrate not only that you know your information but also that you can do things with it: namely, think and reach conclusions in discipline-appropriate ways.
4. Adapt the writing process according to the time allotted for a question
Assuming that you have thirty minutes to answer an essay question, spend at least five minutes of this allotted time in plotting an answer.
• Identify your specific tasks in writing.
• Given these tasks, list information you can draw on in developing your answer.
• Examine the information you have listed and develop a thesis, a statement that directly answers the question and that demonstrates your understanding and application of some key concept associated with the essay topic.
• Sketch an outline of your answer. In taking an essay exam, you have little or no time for writing to discover. Know before you write what major points you will develop in support of your thesis and in what order.
Spend twenty minutes of your divided time on writing your answer. When you begin writing, be conscious of making clear, logical connections between sentences and paragraphs. Well-chosen transitions not only will help your professor follow your discussion but also will help you to project your ideas forward and to continue writing. Develop each section of your essay by discussing specific information.
Save five minutes to reread your work and ensure that its logic is clear and that you address the exam question from a discipline-appropriate point of view. Given the time constraints of the essay exam format, professor understand that you will not submit a polished draft. Nevertheless, they will expect writing that faces the question and that is coherent, unified, and grammatical. Avoid writing all thoughts down, everything that you know about the subject. It is a mistake. Instead, select information with care and write with a strategy.