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
Strategies For Writing The Essay Examination
- 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:
Asking these questions can help you target your studying
and avoid reviewing the wrong material.
- What does the examination cover?
- What is the best way to prepare?
- 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.
- 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 instructors recommendation.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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
- 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.
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.
- Come to the examination prepared to write. Bring two pens,
paper, and, unless prohibited, bring a dictionary and handbook.
- 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.
- Budget your time. Determine how much time you should devote
to each question. Give yourself enough time for planning
and editing each question.
- 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.
- 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.
- Study the verbs or command words that direct your response.
Most essay questions contain clues to the kind of response
the instructor expects:
|List reasons for the rise of labor unions in the
||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
|Discuss the effects of global warming on the environment.
||Allows student to organize a response using cause
and effect, process, description, or division.
- 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:
|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
- 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
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,
- 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. . .
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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