University Essay Exam Tips

Essay exams are designed to test your ability to synthesise information and to organise your thoughts on paper. The following points are designed to help you prepare for essay style examinations.

Be familiar with the terminology used

Make sure you understand the question and are clear about what you are being asked to do. Terms like: compare, trace, illustrate and evaluate all have different meanings and will require a different style of answer.

  See Exam Skills: Clue Words

Take time to read the exam paper thoroughly

Not reading questions properly is a common mistake made in essay exams. Therefore, make sure you read each question carefully and be sure you understand exactly what the question is asking.

If the question is ambiguous, unclear or too broad, clearly write your interpretation of the question before answering.

Plan before you write

Don't write your essay off the top of your head - the results will be disorganised and incoherent. Before you start writing, jot down your ideas and organise them into an essay plan.

    • You can write a plan on the exam paper itself, or on any spare paper you have with you.
    • Begin by thinking about how you will answer the question.
    • Note the main information in point form. Doing this will also help you think about your answer.

Number your answers

If you have to write more than one essay, always indicate the number of the essay so it is clear which question you are answering.

Hint: You don't have to answer questions in the order in which they appear in the exam paper. Start with the easiest one first and do the hardest last. This helps to reduce anxiety and facilitates clear thinking.

Time yourself on each question

    • Allocate a set time to complete each question (for example, two essays in two hours = 1 hour per question)
    • Start with the easiest one and do the hardest last. This approach reduces anxiety and helps you think more clearly.

Answer in the first sentence and use the language of the question

Always answer the question in the introduction. To clearly signal your answer, use the language of the question.

For example:

Question: "How do the goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ?"

 You could begin your essay with:

 "The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways . . ."

This approach makes sure you answer the question, and makes the exam easier to mark. 

Make sure you structure your essay 

It should follow basic essay structure and include:

Introduction

An introduction should explicitly state your answer and the organisation of the essay. For example:

"The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways. The first is that . . . The second is . . . and the third main area of difference lies in the . . . This essay will argue that although these differences exist in approaches, the practices of liberal and socialist feminism have become very similar".

Body

The Body of your essay should include:

    • supporting material
    • appropriate details for your answer.

Make sure you structure the body of the essay as you indicated in your introduction. Use transitions to tie your ideas together. This will make your essay flow. If you feel you are losing the plot, go back and reread the question and your introduction. 

Conclusion 

In your Conclusion, re-answer the question and refer briefly to the main points in the body. Show HOW you have answered the question. For example: 

"In conclusion, it is clear that although liberal and socialist feminism originally held differing views on how to attain their goals, a realistic assessment now shows that their practice has become very similar. This is most clearly illustrated by . . . (give your best example and end the essay).

If you run out of time, answer in point form

Markers will often give you some marks for this.

Write as legibly as possible

    • Print your answers instead of using cursive writing.
    • Be aware of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
    • If you are using exam booklets, write on every second line.
    • If you have time at the end of the exam, proof read your essay for grammatical and spelling errors.
    • Leave space in between answers in case you have time to add any information you didn't include in your essays.

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1. Answer the Question.

This is the first and most important suggestion. Answering the wrong question is a common mistake made by students. Unfortunately, it can be a real disaster for the grade you get in an exam. Make sure you understand what the examiner wants; it is highly advisable to refer back to the question throughout the answer. This point may sound like stating the obvious; but, in my experience, answering the wrong question is the biggest cause of a disappointing exam result.

2. Good Introduction.

In an introduction to an essay you should offer a short, concise summary of the main points to be raised. If appropriate, you could clarify key concepts. Introductions go wrong when students go into too much detail, and then repeat their arguments in the main body of the text. Generally speaking, it is advisable to start off with short sentences, rather than complex sentences. This will help create a clarity of thought and purpose.

3. Essay Plan.

A plan can help to gather your thoughts, and make sure you do not forget to mention key arguments. It is an opportunity to brainstorm what you know about the topic. However, it is important not to get into too much detail – writing keywords and phrases are the best solution. I would suggest spending 5 -10 % of your allotted time on creating an introduction.

4. 3 Steps of an argument.

  • The first step is the basic statement and argument; this part tests your knowledge.
  • The second step is to explain your statement. Don’t forget you need to explain in relation to the question. Also, just because you think the explanation is obvious, doesn’t mean you can avoid putting it down.
  • The third step is to look at the argument with critical distance. This is an opportunity to discuss why the basic premise may be wrong or limited. It is an opportunity to show you can think for yourself, rather than just memorise a list of points. This final step, called analysis or evaluation, is the most difficult part, but is required to get the highest mark.

I write this with Economics in mind, but, I’m sure it is relevant to others subjects as well.

5. Conclusion.

In a conclusion you can weigh up the different arguments and decide which are the strongest and most relevant. A conclusion should try to add something new, and not just repeat previous points. For example, you can say why an argument is particularly strong and give justification.

6. How Much To Write?

I often get asked this question by students. So many students will write 1 side and then stop, almost in mid sentence, because they think this means they have finished. There is no right answer as to how much you should write. The important thing is to write as much as you can in the allotted time, but, only write what is relevant. Although it is true quality is more important than quantity, don’t try to do a minimalist style and write as little as possible. Generally speaking, if you write more you have a better chance of getting more points across.

7. Did you answer the Question?

Hopefully you didn’t leave it to the end of your answer to realise you answered the wrong question.

Tejvan Pettinger studied PPE at Oxford University and now works as an Economics teacher at a 6th form college in Oxford. He also marks A Level economics exam papers for Edexcel. Tejvan updates a blog on Economics at Economics Help. He writes about economic issues and also offers tips on writing essays, including: Tips for writing evaluative Essays. Photo: Radcliffe Camera Library, Oxford by: Tejvan

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