Focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don't.
Look at the active verbs in the assignment—they tell you what you should be doing. For example:
- information words ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why.
- define —give the subject's meaning (according to someone or something). Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject's meaning.
- explain why/how —give reasons why or examples of how something happened.
- illustrate —give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject.
- summarise —briefly cover the important ideas you learned about the subject.
- trace —outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form.
- research —gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you've found.Relation words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.
- compare —show how two or more things are similar (and, sometimes, different).
- contrast —show how two or more things are dissimilar.
- apply - use details that you've been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation.
- cause —show how one event or series of events made something else happen.
- relate —show or describe the connections between things.Interpretation words ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Don't see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation.
- prove, justify —give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth.
- evaluate, respond, assess —state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons (you may want to compare your subject to something else).
- support —give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe).
- synthesize —put two or more things together that haven't been put together before; don't just summarize one and then the other, and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together (as opposed to compare and contrast—see above).
- analyze —look closely at the components of something to figure out how it works, what it might mean, or why it is important.
- argue —take a side and defend it (with proof) against the other side.Plan your answersThink about your time again. How much planning time you should take depends on how much time you have for each question and how many points each question is worth.
For longer answers, you will need to develop a much more definite strategy of organization. You only have time for one draft, so allow a reasonable amount of time—as much as a quarter of the time you've allotted for the question—for making notes, determining a thesis, and developing an outline.
For questions with several parts (different requests or directions, a sequence of questions), make a list of the parts so that you do not miss or minimize one part. One way to be sure you answer them all is to number them in the question and in your outline.
You may have to try two or three outlines or clusters before you hit on a workable plan. But be realistic—you want a plan you can develop within the limited time allotted for your answer. Your outline will have to be selective—not everything you know, but what you know that you can state clearly and keep to the point in the time available.
Again, focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don't. As with planning, your strategy for writing depends on the length of your answer. For short identifications and definitions, it is usually best to start with a general identifying statement and then move on to describe specific applications or explanations. Two sentences will almost always suffice, but make sure they are complete sentences. Find out whether the instructor wants definition alone, or definition and significance.
For longer answers, begin by stating your forecasting statement or thesis clearly and explicitly. Strive for focus, simplicity, and clarity. In stating your point and developing your answers, you may want to use important course vocabulary words from the question.
If you have devised a promising outline for your answer, then you will be able to forecast your overall plan and its subpoints in your opening sentence. Forecasting always impresses readers and has the very practical advantage of making your answer easier to read. Also, if you don't finish writing, it tells your reader what you would have said if you had finished (and may get you partial points).
You might want to use briefer paragraphs than you ordinarily do and signal clear relations between paragraphs with transition phrases or sentences. As you move ahead with the writing, you may think of new subpoints or ideas to include in the essay. Stop briefly to make a note of these on your original outline. If they are most appropriately inserted in a section you've already written, write them neatly in the margin, at the top of the page, or on the last page, with arrows or marks to alert the reader to where they fit in your answer. Be as neat and clear as possible.
Don't pad your answer with irrelevancies and repetitions just to fill up space. Within the time available, write a comprehensive, specific answer.
Watch the clock carefully to ensure that you do not spend too much time on one answer. You must be realistic about the time constraints of an essay exam.
If you run out of time when you are writing an answer, jot down the remaining main ideas from your outline, just to show that you know the material and with more time could have continued your exposition.
Write legibly and proofread. Remember that your instructor will likely be reading a large pile of exams. The more difficult they are to read, the more exasperated the instructor might become. Your instructor also cannot give you credit for what they cannot understand. A few minutes of careful proofreading can improve your grade. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in writing essay exams is that you have a limited amount of time and space in which to get across the knowledge you have acquired and your ability to use it. Essay exams are not the place to be subtle or vague. It's okay to have an obvious structure, even the five-paragraph essay format you may have been taught in high school. Introduce your main idea, have several paragraphs of support—each with a single point defended by specific examples, and conclude with a restatement of your main point and its significance.
Just think—we expect athletes to practice constantly and use everything in their abilities and situations in order to achieve success. Yet, somehow many students are convinced that one day's worth of studying and no sleep are good preparation for a test. Essay exams are like any other testing situation in life: you'll do best if you are prepared for what is expected of you, have practiced doing it before, and have arrived in the best shape to do it.
You may not want to believe this, but it's true: a good night's sleep and a relaxed mind and body can do as much or more for you as any last-minute cram session.
If you tend to go blank during exams, try studying in the same classroom in which the test will be given. Some research suggests that people attach ideas to their surroundings, so it might jog your memory to see the same things you were looking at while you studied.
Take all of the time you've been allotted. Reread, rework, and rethink your answers if you have extra time at the end, rather than giving up and handing the exam in the minute you've written your last sentence. Use every advantage you are given.
Axelrod, Rise B. and Charles R. Cooper. The St. Martin's Guide to Writing. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Gefvert, Constance J. The Confident Writer: A Norton Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988.
Fowler, H. Ramsey. The Little, Brown Handbook. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
Kirszner, Laurie G. Writing: A College Rhetoric. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1988.
Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin's Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2003.
Woodman, Leonora and Thomas P. Adler. The Writer's Choices. Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985.