Advice on Taking an Essay Exam
An essay exam, if a true essay exam, provides you a platform for deploying your knowledge
rather than searching for you to reproduce a specific knowledge. As a result, the focus is not on
having the right or wrong answer, but on your ability to deploy material from the course in a
cogent answer to a question. (Sometimes an objective exam is hijacked into an essay form.
"What happened in the year 1968?" The expectation is that you will produce a specific list of
things that are right and wrong. That is not a true essay exam.)
Studying for the Exam
- Work toward synthesis. Material comes to you day by day. An essay exam privileges
answers which relate material at different places in the course. Most essay questions ask you
do this type of synthetic work.
- Embellish your notes. Memorizing everything in your notes will probably not get you an "A"
exam. Certainly you want to know the material in your notes, but you must work beyond the
notes. Use them to reconstruct the discussion surrounding the note material. Use them to
comment on things beyond the classroom. Your notes should be the starting point for your
studying, not the end point.
- Write your own questions and answer them. It is not important that you guess right, but
that you focus on how to ask questions and therefore how to answer them.
Preparing to answer
- Read the instructions. "Goes without saying" you say, but you would be surprised how
many people try to save some time by not reading the questions. I have even had people try to
answer every question when I give them a choice.
- Read the questions. Also goes without saying, huh? Well, again you would be surprised. It
is a good idea to underline key words that indicate to you what it is you need to answer.
- Formulate a thesis for your answer. Those who simply dump their knowledge onto the page
are looking for a "C" on the exam. Essay questions require that you make claims and support
those claims. So after you read the questions, develop a thesis that focuses your answer.
- Outline your answer. Although not a requirement, some people find it useful to take a
limited amount of time to outline their answer. Don't spend too much time doing this, but
about 1/3 figuring out your answer and 2/3 writing the answer is about right.
Answering the question
- Make your claim clear. A good thesis will do this.
- Support your claim. Good answers will (1) support claims with material from the course, (2)
will illustrate the claim with clear, concise examples or applications, and (3) will go beyond the
material of the course to show your ability to synthesize your experience into the course.
- Read back through your answer. Make certain that you have not ignored important ideas
Grading the exam
- Most important is that you show that you can wield the concepts you are asked to
- Although you must show that you know the material you are being tested about, in an
essay exam, that material is only valuable as it supports your thesis.
- Simply "dumping your brain" on the paper will not result in an "A" exam.
- True essay exams, in other words, are graded along something like the following scale:
- A "D" answer shows some familiarity with the concepts of the course.
- A "C" answer shows that you are thoroughly familiar with the material of the course.
- A "B" answer shows an extraordinary command of the material of the course with some
ability to use that material usefully.
- An "A" answer shows an extraordinary command of the material of the course and an
advanced ability to use the material usefully to understand the implications beyond the