Tools for TAs and Instructors
Back to Helpful HandoutsoWriting Center Home PageBefore the Exam: Prepare and Practice
Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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How to Answer Essay Questions – The Ultimate Guide
“I hate essays!” This battle cry is famous to most students. That’s because essay questions are either easy or difficult. Either way, there’s no certain formula. Even if you think you know the answer – don’t be overconfident – the critical part is how you make your essay worth reading. So how do you do it? Here are some tips:
Read the question more than once. Some questions can be tricky so make sure you understand it to the letter. A lot of students commit error by simply not reading instructions very well. They read and then write a long essay, only to realize very late that they did not understand the question correctly.
Familiarize yourself with your professor or teacher’s style of organization, if you can. As students, it’s your role to know how your teachers want their essays answered.
Know what is required of you. Usually essays ask you to define, compare, enumerate, describe, illustrate, and discuss. Whatever it is, don’t go beyond what is asked of you.
Don’t be shy to ask your professor if you have some clarifications.
Mentally go through your lecture notes before writing anything on your paper.
Create an outline of thoughts and related topics in connection with the essay question. By doing this you are helping yourself create a more organized answer.
Construct an idea in each paragraph. Go back to your essay outline if you think you are repeating yourself or not making sense at all.
Use the terminology of the course. Be professional in knowing what type of words to use in a particular topic or subject.
Read and go back to your previous paragraphs after you are finished with one paragraph. This will help you determine your flow of thought and if you are really making a point or giving an answer.
Don’t include ideas that are off-topic.
If there are too many ideas in your outline, cut out the least important ones. As much as possible, make your idea concrete and pointed, with arguments or statements that is easy to understand.
The body of your essay should have a summary or statement.
Support your summary or statement with adequate details and specifics. If you do not know how to add details, just expand on your generic idea.
Avoid jumping from one point to another.
Avoid vague descriptions if necessary. Include specifics to get your message across.
Review the question again and again so you will not lose your thread of thinking.
If you have time to make revisions, do so.
Use all the time you have to complete your essay. Review and re-check your answers before submitting your paper.
If you have nothing to write and don’t know what to write, don’t leave your paper blank. Write something at least.
That covers most of the important areas – See also the Writing Center which has a comprehensive list of resources for writing papers – most of these also apply to writing essays.
Here is a great Checklist for answering Essay Questions from Tennessee State University:
Use the following as a guide when writing answers to discussion questions and as a checklist after you have written your answer.
1. Do I understand the question? What am I being asked to do?
2. Do I have a plan? What are my major points and how am I going to present them?
3. Does the reader know, just from reading the first sentence of my essay, both the question and how I will answer it?
4. Are my major points clear and do they stand out?
5. Do I support my argument with facts and examples?
6. Do I make clear and sensible transitions between major points?
7. Is my answer clear to someone who knows nothing about this?
8. Have I answered the question completely? Have I fully covered all of the major points required to completely answer the question?
9. Is there irrelevant material?
10. Do I have a conclusion and summary statement?
11. Have I proofed my essay for common spelling and grammatical errors?
12. Is my handwriting legible? Is there room for comments or additions?
Glossary of Essay Exam Terms
When taking an exam the first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with all instructions. At times this can be confusing especially if you do not understand the terms. Below you will find some common terms used on essay exams. Learning these terms is a key step in successful completion of most essay exams.
- Compare (also Compare with): Discuss the similarities between two or more given subjects.
- Contrast: Discuss the differences in two or more given subjects.
- Criticize: Explain the value of a finding or theory. Include both negative and positive aspects based on implementation. This could be the ease of which it is applied, examples of false findings, etc…
- Define: Describe precisely a term’s meaning as it applies specifically to a given subject.
- Describe: Use exact detail to explain a given term. This may call for the use of examples, definitions, or discussion of the term.
- Diagram: Use a visual representation of relevant information to explain implementation of a term. This usually calls for an explicit chart or graph which is thoroughly labelled. In some cases it may call for a detailed plan as well.
- Discuss: The literal meaning of discuss is talk about. To do this in an exam you must thoroughly explain your subject with words.
- Enumerate: Form a list of relevant points and explain each point. This may result in an outline like answer.
- Evaluate: Discuss the pros and cons of the application of your given subject from a professional point of view. This differs from criticize because personal opinion should be avoided unless instructions specify otherwise.
- Explain: Define the given material and give examples of how and why it is important to the subject.
- Illustrate: Use a visual aid or a clearly defined example to explain a given subject.
- Interpret: Explain the given question, include you personal feelings on the subject as well as a solution.
- Justify: Use factual information to argue you view of the situation presented in a given problem.
- List: Brief but thorough list of information that explains the given topic.
- Outline: much like writing an outline for a paper. Answer the question by creating an outline that highlights the main ideas and key points of those ideas.
- Prove: Discuss the topic in a way that readers are convinced to support or reject the idea discussed. This is done through presentation of facts or the step by step illustration of logical thinking.
- Relate: Discuss the connection between two or more events, people, problems, etc…
- Review: Close examination of a problem accompanied by brief comments that explain the main points.
- State (also Give, Specify, or Present): Explain the major points of a subject in brief for. There is typically no need for further explanation.
- Summarize: Create a brief description that highlights the major points of your subject.
- Trace: Explain the progress of the given subject from conception to current date. Highlight anything that is considered a major topic as well as the reason for any changes.
More Info on Essay Exams
How to Study for an Essay Exam
How to Answer Essay Questions – The Ultimate Guide
How to Answer Different Types of Exam Questions
All about Essay Exams
Written by: Brian Stocker MA, Complete Test Preparation Inc.
Modified: September 26th, 2017
Published: November 30th, 2007