Exam Essays: Some Helpful Tips and Strategies

Before the Exam: Preparing

  • If you have the essay questions before the exam, try practicing them. If you have time, write a practice draft. If you have less time to study, you can outline. Remember, any thinking you do beforehand is less thinking you will have to do during the exam.
  • If you do NOT have the questions ahead of time, try studying the major concepts of the course. The better you know the information the exam will cover, the easier it will be to use that information to answer whatever essay questions come up. It can be helpful to try to anticipate what questions the professor will ask if you know the professor quite well, but it can also be jarring to see an unexpected question on the exam.
  • Talk out difficult concepts with others. Never underestimate the power of talking out your ideas, even in casual conversation. It can be very helpful not only for understanding what you are actually trying to say, but also for figuring out how to say it clearly. Classmates, professors, or friends at lunch can be good sounding boards if you are trying to figure out something confusing from class.

During the Exam: Planning and Writing

  • In general, plan your ideas and structure before you begin writing. Do not be afraid to spend the first few minutes of your time outlining. Unlike with take-home essays, you may not have much opportunity (or energy) to go back and revise, so it can be useful to set out a clear blueprint for yourself from the start.
  • Try to focus on the ideas, and do not get bogged down worrying about your sentences. You probably will not have time to make every sentence perfect. Your professor knows this. As long as your language is clear enough to get your point across, it is usually better to leave sentence-level editing until after you have settled the big picture issues (ideas, argument, structure, evidence, etc.).

A Few Final Tips:

  • If you have multiple essays, budget your time carefully.
  • Read the question carefully. What is it actually asking you? Answer it directly.
  • DON’T PANIC. You studied, and you are capable of using words to answer questions.

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