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About Essay Exams: Facts And Myths

Essay exams tend to strike more fear into the hearts of university students than any other test or assignment. However, an essay exam is really only a teacher’s list of one or more essay topics that they want you to answer. This article helps demonstrate how you can succeed on your essay exam using the rules of good essay writing.

  • Read your Instructions Carefully. It is important that you understand exactly what the essay exam seeks to test. Also, you may receive valuable information about structural issues like the required word count or the appropriate use of references. Ignoring these details can cost you valuable points!
  • Have a Clear Thesis Topic Sentence. Your thesis should be the main point that you plan to argue for the remainder of your essay and it must directly answer the exam’s question. Once you select your thesis, stay focused and on topic. One common mistake of students taking essay exams is the presentation of a confused stream of consciousness with disconnected paragraphs that demonstrate memorization but little comprehension or analysis.
  • Write a Good Outline. The outline will both help you structure the remainder of your essay and also prevent you from forgetting an important point once you begin to write. If you are working on your essay exam from home, you should allocate time to a formal outline that delineates paragraph topics and significant points. If you are writing the essay exam in class, you may not have a lot of time to construct a formal outline, but even jotting some notes will be helpful. A strong outline will improve your confidence and the flow of your answer, helping you to avoid unnecessary repetition or unrelated points.
  • Carefully Select your References. An essay exam often tests not only your knowledge of the topic but also your research acumen. The number and type of references that you use will partially depend upon the requirements of the essay exam and partly rely on your knowledge of your professor. Some instructors prefer extensive use of quotations to support your arguments while others prefer that the majority of the text is your own analysis with only a small percentage of the text the work of your source material. On some essay exams, you may not be asked to use any references at all.
  • Write the Body of your Essay. It’s a good idea to keep paragraphs simple, with the main topic sentence beginning each paragraph. If you have time, you can go back and restructure your paper to make it more complex or polished, but when writing your essay you should concentrate on getting all of your ideas written out first. If you are taking the essay exam in class, you likely won’t have time to polish your essay but teachers will prefer a well constructed and complete argument over an eloquent but only partially finished answer.
  • Write your Introduction and Conclusion. Most students find it easiest to write the introduction and conclusion last. After all, you’ve already spelled out your main points and by writing out your essay already, you’ve crystallized any unclear ideas in your mind. Your thesis should be found within the first paragraph. For clarity, it’s often best to make your thesis the first sentence. The remainder of the paragraph should explain points that support or prove your thesis that you will be discussing later in the answer. The final conclusion paragraph should restate your thesis and your main support points. It’s also a good idea to reference the essay exam’s question to demonstrate how you have answered it.
  • Reread the Question and Evaluate your Answer. Does it directly answer the question? The worst mistake you can make on an essay exam is providing an answer that does not answer the question. One comment you never want to read from an instructor is “interesting but irrelevant.”
  • Proofread your Essay Exam Answer. Don’t lose points for silly reasons like grammar and spelling mistakes. Check your punctuation and verb agreement. Never rely on just spell check, as programs through your word processor won’t catch everything.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully completed an answer that will ace any essay exam.


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