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8 Test Taking Tips: The Essay Exam

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Ah, the essay exam: A time to let your writing and learning skills come to light.

Now, it should come as no surprise that the essay exam requires extensive knowledge and preparation prior to the test. In other words, don’t walk into the testing room confident that your cramming session last night will give you enough neuron fuel to push you through the length of the exam.

Organizing and transforming your thoughts on a narrowed topic into an intelligent structure of sinuous words is not something that can be stored in the grey, tofu-like organ that is your brain overnight. It must marinate in your mind over time.

Below are some suggestions that may help you prepare and perform on an essay exam:




Test Preparation

  • An extensive scope of knowledge on the subject matter is a must.
  • Prepare and memorize and informal outline for anticipated questions. This may help you as you form your responses. It may also help to write out practice questions and answers to get a feel for how you will respond at test time.

Test Performance

1. Read through exam and each question carefully—twice over.

Careless mistakes are made when the question is misread. Make sure you read and reread each question before answering. Also, give time to think about the question and how you should answer it before rushing to write it down.

2. Monitor your time.

Be sure to give each question the same amount of time. If you spend twenty minutes answering one question on a ten-question test that you only have an hour to complete, you are in trouble. Calculate how much time you have for each question and continually keep an eye on your watch.

3. Identify Key Words

Key words in the essay questions determine how you should respond. For instance:

“Compare pencils to pens.”

“Compare” indicates the question is asking for similarities between pencils and pens.

“What is the contrast between pencils and pens.”

“Contrast” indicates the question is asking for the differences between pencils and pens.

4. Formulate a brief outline for each question.

Outlines are important as they help organize your thoughts and details you will include in your answer. They also help remind you of details you would otherwise omit as you write.

NOTE: Do not spend too much time on the outline; it should be brief. However, if your answer is several paragraphs to several pages, your outline should take a couple minutes.

5. Put your ideas in “order.”

Start with a “main idea” sentence, which should always be concise. Then, support the main idea sentence with secondary details and ideas that pertain to that main idea.

CAUTION: Too little detail is bad; too much detail is also bad. Both indicate to the professor that you are not at all prepared on the test material. Make sure your points, details, etc., are cohesive, not convoluted or scant, and applicable to the question.

6. Link paragraphs and main ideas with transitional terms or phrasing.

Answers containing multiple paragraphs should flow in a lucid way. The manner in which to “bridge” different ideas within or between paragraphs is to include transitional wording such as, nevertheless, as a result, to begin with, related to, in conclusion.

However, be sure to NOT weigh down your response with too many transitional words.

7. End with a summarizing sentence.

A summarizing sentence should be a clean stitch that brings your response to a close. Like the opening sentence or main idea, it should be succinct.

Summarizing or closing a written essay can be difficult. If you are stumped for an ending, condense and reiterate your main point(s).

8. Proofread

Perhaps the most important step in doing well on an essay exam is proofreading your responses. Grammatical errors scream out circles around any fantastic content you may have included.
Create a proofreading checklist:

  • check spelling
  • check punctuation
  • check sentence structures, i.e., run-ons, fragments, etc.
  • check for incorrect preposition, pronoun, adverb usage, etc.

    Giving your answers a read-through a couple of times over will help you comb through any errors that were made.

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