Writing English Essays Exams

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Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.

Exam preparation

Learn the material with the exam format in mind

  • Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
  • Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
    • Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
    • Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
      • Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.

Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions

  • Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
  • Anticipate questions by:
    • Looking  for patterns of questions in any tests you  have already written in the course;
    • Looking at the course outline for major themes;
    • Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
    • Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
    • Brainstorming questions with a study group.
  • Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
    • Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
    • Memorize your outlines or key points.
  • A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.

If the Professor distributes questions in advance

  • Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
  • Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.

Right before the exam

  • Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.

Exam writing

Read carefully

  • Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
  • Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
  • See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.

Manage your time

  • At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
  • If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
  • If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
  • Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
  • Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.

Things to include and/or exclude in your answers

  • Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
  • Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
  • Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
  • Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.

Follow a writing process

  • Plan the essay first
    • Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
    • Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
    • Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
    • To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
    • Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
  • Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
  • Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
    • A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
      • Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
    • Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.:  although, however) between paragraphs.
    • A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
    • If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
  • Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
    • As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
  • Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement.  If not, change the thesis.

For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.

Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site

Writing an essay often seems to be a dreaded task among students. Whether the essay is for a scholarship, a class, or maybe even a contest, many students often find the task overwhelming. While an essay is a large project, there are many steps a student can take that will help break down the task into manageable parts. Following this process is the easiest way to draft a successful essay, whatever its purpose might be.

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:

1. Pick a topic.

You may have your topic assigned, or you may be given free reign to write on the subject of your choice. If you are given the topic, you should think about the type of paper that you want to produce. Should it be a general overview of the subject or a specific analysis? Narrow your focus if necessary.

If you have not been assigned a topic, you have a little more work to do. However, this opportunity also gives you the advantage to choose a subject that is interesting or relevant to you. First, define your purpose. Is your essay to inform or persuade?

Once you have determined the purpose, you will need to do some research on topics that you find intriguing. Think about your life. What is it that interests you? Jot these subjects down.

Finally, evaluate your options. If your goal is to educate, choose a subject that you have already studied. If your goal is to persuade, choose a subject that you are passionate about. Whatever the mission of the essay, make sure that you are interested in your topic.

2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas.

In order to write a successful essay, you must organize your thoughts. By taking what’s already in your head and putting it to paper, you are able to see connections and links between ideas more clearly. This structure serves as a foundation for your paper. Use either an outline or a diagram to jot down your ideas and organize them.

To create a diagram, write your topic in the middle of your page. Draw three to five lines branching off from this topic and write down your main ideas at the ends of these lines. Draw more lines off these main ideas and include any thoughts you may have on these ideas.

If you prefer to create an outline, write your topic at the top of the page. From there, begin to list your main ideas, leaving space under each one. In this space, make sure to list other smaller ideas that relate to each main idea. Doing this will allow you to see connections and will help you to write a more organized essay.

3. Write your thesis statement.

Now that you have chosen a topic and sorted your ideas into relevant categories, you must create a thesis statement. Your thesis statement tells the reader the point of your essay. Look at your outline or diagram. What are the main ideas?

Your thesis statement will have two parts. The first part states the topic, and the second part states the point of the essay. For instance, if you were writing about Bill Clinton and his impact on the United States, an appropriate thesis statement would be, “Bill Clinton has impacted the future of our country through his two consecutive terms as United States President.”

Another example of a thesis statement is this one for the “Winning Characteristics” Scholarship essay: “During my high school career, I have exhibited several of the “Winning Characteristics,” including Communication Skills, Leadership Skills and Organization Skills, through my involvement in Student Government, National Honor Society, and a part-time job at Macy’s Department Store.”

4. Write the body.

The body of your essay argues, explains or describes your topic. Each main idea that you wrote in your diagram or outline will become a separate section within the body of your essay.

Each body paragraph will have the same basic structure. Begin by writing one of your main ideas as the introductory sentence. Next, write each of your supporting ideas in sentence format, but leave three or four lines in between each point to come back and give detailed examples to back up your position. Fill in these spaces with relative information that will help link smaller ideas together.

5. Write the introduction.

Now that you have developed your thesis and the overall body of your essay, you must write an introduction. The introduction should attract the reader’s attention and show the focus of your essay.

Begin with an attention grabber. You can use shocking information, dialogue, a story, a quote, or a simple summary of your topic. Whichever angle you choose, make sure that it ties in with your thesis statement, which will be included as the last sentence of your introduction.

6. Write the conclusion.

The conclusion brings closure of the topic and sums up your overall ideas while providing a final perspective on your topic. Your conclusion should consist of three to five strong sentences. Simply review your main points and provide reinforcement of your thesis.

7. Add the finishing touches.

After writing your conclusion, you might think that you have completed your essay. Wrong. Before you consider this a finished work, you must pay attention to all the small details.

Check the order of your paragraphs. Your strongest points should be the first and last paragraphs within the body, with the others falling in the middle. Also, make sure that your paragraph order makes sense. If your essay is describing a process, such as how to make a great chocolate cake, make sure that your paragraphs fall in the correct order.

Review the instructions for your essay, if applicable. Many teachers and scholarship forms follow different formats, and you must double check instructions to ensure that your essay is in the desired format.

Finally, review what you have written. Reread your paper and check to see if it makes sense. Make sure that sentence flow is smooth and add phrases to help connect thoughts or ideas. Check your essay for grammar and spelling mistakes.

Congratulations! You have just written a great essay.

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