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InfoTrac College Edition

Essay Exams

Throughout your college career you will probably face essay examinations. Instructors use essay examinations to measure not only how much information students have learned but their ability to demonstrate critical thinking.

Strategies For Studying For Essay Examinations
  1. Determine the scope of the examination. You don't want to spend hours studying only to discover that you have been reviewing the wrong chapters.

    Many instructors are reluctant to answer the direct question, "What's on the test?" But most will respond favorably to two critical questions you should ask:
    • What does the examination cover?
    • What is the best way to prepare?
    Asking these questions can help you target your studying and avoid reviewing the wrong material.
  2. Begin studying at once -- don't attempt to cram the night before. Two hours of studying spread over a week will give you more opportunity to learn and recall information than attempting to absorb the same amount of information in four hours of last minute cramming.
    • If you delay studying until the night before the examination, you run the risk that an unexpected problem will disrupt your plans and leave you unprepared.
    • Studying in advance gives you the opportunity to ask questions before the examination. If you discover that your instructor defines a term differently than the textbook, you can ask which he or she considers accurate.
  3. Talk to other students about the upcoming examination. Discuss possible topics, methods of studying, and lecture notes. In talking to classmates, you may realize that you have forgotten or misunderstood information or failed to recall an instructor’s recommendation.
  4. Consider the nature of the discipline. The kind of response instructors consider acceptable is greatly determined by the discipline. In the humanities, students may be free to advance highly personal interpretations of a work of art or historical event. Creative essays, provided they are well supported, are highly valued. However, in fields such as law, psychology, sociology, and nursing, students are expected to only advance ideas that follow specific standards and practices and can be scientifically proven. Individual interpretations and subjective opinions reflect poorly on a student preparing for a field grounded in strict adherence to facts and objectivity.
  5. Review your syllabus, notes, textbooks, and handouts. Highlight important passages for easy review just before the exam. Note significant facts, statistics, and quotes that may serve as support for your responses.
    • Take notes as you study. Essay exams require that you state ideas in your own words, not simply identify what you have read. If definitions are important, close your book, write a brief version of your own, then compare it to the text. Writing about the material is the best way to prepare to an essay test.
    • If you are taking an open book examination, highlight passages and use labeled bookmarks so you can quickly locate information while writing. Familiarize yourself with the book's index.
  6. Recall the types of questions your instructor has asked in class. The kinds of questions asked to prompt class discussion may provide a clue about the way the instructor may word questions on essay examinations. Did your instructor focus on comparing issues, analyzing problems, debating alternative interpretations or theories? Does he or she concentrate on presenting in-depth analysis of narrow topics or providing a sweeping, inclusive overview of the subject?
  7. Think in term of the modes. Most essay questions ask students to define elements, compare related topics, explain a process, or detail causes or effects. In reviewing your notes and textbook, consider what major items require definition, which subjects are often compared, what ideas are presented as causes or effects?
  8. Prewrite possible responses. Select the key issues or topics you expect to appear on the examination and freewrite, cluster, or brainstorm possible essays. List possible thesis statements. Remember that an essay test requires that you express what you know in writing. Fifteen minutes of prewriting can help you assimilate information, identify facts, generate ideas, and reveal knowledge you have overlooked more quickly than hours of reading and memorizing. Prepare yourself to write.
  9. Get as much rest as possible the night before. Late night cramming may help you identify facts and figures that appear on multiple choice tests, but essay questions demand thinking. If you are not rested, you may find yourself unable to quickly analyze issues, generate ideas, make connections, and present your thoughts in an organized fashion.
Strategies For Writing The Essay Examination

Writing under pressure can frustrate even the most prepared student. If you tend to become rattled or nervous, you may wish to take a walk between classes, call a friend, eat a high energy snack, or listen to your favorite song just before your test to put you in a positive frame of mind.

  1. Come to the examination prepared to write. Bring two pens, paper, and, unless prohibited, bring a dictionary and handbook.
  2. Read the entire exam. Go over all the questions carefully before starting to write.

    Determine how much each question is worth. Some instructors will indicate the point value of each question.
  3. Budget your time. Determine how much time you should devote to each question. Give yourself enough time for planning and editing each question.
  4. Answer the easiest questions first while thinking about the more difficult ones. The easiest questions will take less time to answer and help stimulate ideas that may help you confront more challenging ones. If you run out of time, you will be skipping questions where you would likely only achieve partial credit.
  5. Read each question TWICE. Students often miss points by failing to fully read the question. They respond to a word or phrase out of context and begin writing an energetic essay that does not address the question.
  6. Study the verbs or command words that direct your response. Most essay questions contain clues to the kind of response the instructor expects:

    Question Desired Answer
    List reasons for the rise of labor unions in the 1930s. A series of reasons rather than an in-depth analysis of a single factor.
    Distinguish between Freud's dream theory and Jung's concept of the unconscious. Comparison/contrast, highlighting differences.
    What led to the collapse of the Knights of Labor? A cause and effect essay, perhaps related in a narrative or organized by division or classification.
    Describe three common forms of depression. Three short definitions or descriptions organized by division.
    Discuss the effects of global warming on the environment. Allows student to organize a response using cause and effect, process, description, or division.

  7. Study questions that require more than a single response. Some essay questions contain more than one command and require a two or three part response:

    Question Desired Response
    Provide a definition of chemical dependency and explain why treatment remains problematic. 1) Define term
    2) List causes for problems in treatment.
    Select three key economic proposals made by the President in the State of the Union address and predict how they will affect both the trade deficit and unemployment. 1) Describe or define three points
    2) Discuss each point listing effects on trade deficit and unemployment.

  8. Provide a clear thesis statement. Your response should do more than simply list or discuss ideas. A strong thesis statement will give your response direction and can help organize ideas. This is very important if instructors present you with general questions or topics:

    How has the concept of separation of church and state affected American society?

    Possible Thesis Statements:
    The separation of church and state has allowed American public schools to accommodate students from diverse religious backgrounds with little of the conflict found in other countries.

    Unlike state-supported religious institutions in other nations, American churches are independent and able to take active roles in criticizing government policies regarding discrimination, capital punishment, American foreign policy, and abortion.
  9. Explain or justify your response to broad questions. Sometimes instructors ask sweeping questions that cannot be fully addressed with a brief response:

    What caused the American Civil War?

    If you respond with a detailed explanation of slavery, an instructor may assume you believe it to be the sole cause of the war. On the other hand, if you present a list of a dozen reasons, an instructor may feel your response is superficial and lacks substance. You can achieve a higher grade if you justify your response:

    There were numerous political, social, economic, philosophical, and moral causes of the Civil War. But clearly the most significant and enduring cause for the conflict was the problem of slavery. . . .

    Although most Americans cite slavery as the main reason for the Civil War, it is difficult to isolate a single factor as a cause for the conflict. To understand why the states went to war, one must appreciate the full range of social, economic, commercial, foreign policy, and moral disputes that separated North and South. . . .

  10. Keep an eye on the clock. Pace yourself. Don't "overdo" a response simply because you are knowledgeable about the topic. Provide enough information to address the question then move on.
  11. Keep writing. If you become blocked or stalled on a question and can't think, move onto other questions or review what you have answered. Often rereading the response to one question will spark ideas that aid in another.
  12. Provide space for revisions. Write on every other line of the page or leave wide margins. You will not have time to write a full second draft, but you can make neat corrections and slip in ideas if you give yourself space for changes and additions.

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From The Sundance Reader, Third Edition, Web Site by Mark Connelly.