How to Handle an Essay Exam

To excel at a college or university you must work hard and follow systems.  For example, let’s examine a technique I adopted for writing essay exams.  Interestingly, I later discovered that a very similar system was adopted by other top students who authored study tip books.  It’s testimony that maximum academic performance is like a game you can win with the right systems and effort.

With that said, let’s dive into how to write an essay exam.  Don’t be the student who writes essay exams without direction.  Instead, be the student who mastered the following system:

Prior to the Essay Exam:

Before the essay exam, read the course syllabus and course outline thoroughly.  There may be clues as to what the essay exam will cover.

Also access past syllabi if possible.  They may indicate what the exam covers.

Sign out textbooks from the library that are very similar to the ones you were assigned by your professor.  There is a chance that their problem sets will indicate a potential essay exam question.

Also, read all course assigned readings, ensuring you highlight facts and relevant or noteworthy points.  Memorize these points.  Take it a step further and draft short summaries of all of your readings and lectures.

Identify and memorize all the points that the professor stressed during lectures.  That means learning anything he or she repeated, slowed down to articulate, spoke loudly about, or otherwise signaled as necessary.

Make several mock outlines for possible topics that might appear in the essay exam.  Ensure you have material from the readings or homework to pad each topic.

Study your memorized point right up to the moment you go into the exam.  The common belief is to stop studying on the day of the exam.  However, from my experience, studying right up to the exam time produced the best grades.

During the Essay Exam

As soon as the exam beings, rapidly dump as much as you can remember onto scrap paper.  Remember that each point you make may equal an extra mark.  For instance, if your essay is worth 30 marks, you’ll need at least thirty ideas relevant to the essay topic.

Read all instructions at least three times.

Circle relevant keywords, such as “argumentative essay” or “persuasive essay.” You should know what exact essay type you are to write.  Ask the professor for clarity if you are not clear on what is expected.

Divide each section of the exam questions into total allotted minutes, with 1/10th of the outline generation time and 1/10th for final edits.  So, for example, if your essay is worth 40 marks and your multiple choice is worth 10 marks, then spend 4 times longer on your paper than on the multiple choice exam.

If you have multiple choice questions or other non-essay questions, do those first, as they often offer clues as to what may be expected in the essay.

Take the scrap paper you dumped all the points onto at the start of the exam.  Sort related items on scrap paper according to headings that apply to the essay topic.  Do this by writing down beside each point a capital roman number (I, II, III) with a short one or two-word heading (ie., II Risk-Taking).  These headings should relate to your essay topic.  Or they should help you form a relevant essay thesis statement.

If you haven’t done so already, find a way to tie the headings into a single thesis statement.

Make a separate outline, starting with roman numerals for each heading (i.e., I Aversions, II Risk-taking, III Safety seeking).  You will mark up both the outline and the points on the scrap paper with these roman numerals.

If your heading is II: Risk-taking, order the subpoints logically (for example, II Risk-taking A: Why it’s favorable, II Risk-taking B: Who takes risks, II Risk-taking C: who it harms, …).  You don’t rewrite your points on scrap paper.  You just assign the relevant roman number and alphabetical letter beside each point to structure it.  You can do the third subdivision of issues using the standard numbers (1, 2, 3) if you wish.

Write the essay starting with a great intro, clear title, and thesis statement.  Each body paragraph should contain a central idea supported by your readings and lecture materials.  In addition, each body paragraph should have an introduction, supporting evidence, and a conclusion.

Don’t just dump points on the paper; try to weave them together into a single overarching theme.  Try to also make connections between points so they tie together nicely.

Leave a blank line in between each line of your essay.  This way, you can add material if necessary, especially if you remember something valuable after writing the draft.

Use transitional words from one idea to the next.  These words are “however,” “therefore,” “on the one hand,” “nevertheless,” and so forth.

Watch the clock like a hawk.  As soon as you get close to the maximum time allotted for each section, speed up so that you can complete your exam with time remaining for final edits.

If time is running out, insert final essay points as bullet points.

Don’t use first person, emotional responses, or ideas unrelated to the reading materials.  Only do so if instructed or if such an insertion justifies an extra mark and is defensible.  If this is the case, then defend the emotional response with ideas from the readings and lectures.

Don’t just hand in your essay.  Also, hand in all the notes on scrap paper you’ve made.  They could earn you extra marks.

On a final note, yes, essay writing is a system.  Getting top grades is all about hard work and methods.  So, now you’ve learned a new approach to help you boost your essay exam performance.  Try it out in mock, timed essay exams you create at home until you feel comfortable performing them in a real essay exam scenario.  After all, you were born to rise to the top!

 [I’m always happy when I get submissions that relate directly to some part of the AU experience, and essay exams is something any AU student has to deal with sooner or later.  So I was just as happy when this article from late August, issue 3033, was recommended for the Best of edition.]