Study Strategies Essay
Essay Test Strategies
Essay test questions can be very intimidating, but they can also be very rewarding. Unlike other types of exams (i.e., multiple choice, true or false, etc.) essay tests allow you develop an answer based on your understanding or knowledge. If you've studied all semester, understand the course concepts, and have reviewed prior to the test, the following strategies can help you improve your performance on essay tests and exams.
- Read the directions.
Reading the directions seems so obviously. Unfortunately, it's still one of the biggest test taking mistakes students make. Before answering an essay question, thoroughly read the instructions. Do not jump to the answer without being sure of what exactly the question is asking. In many cases, the teacher is looking for specific types of responses. Never assume you know what is being asked, or what is required, until you've read the entire question.
- Ask for clarification.
Read essay questions in their entirety before preparing an answer. If the instructions are unclear, or you simply don't understand a question, ask the teacher for clarification. Chances are if you're confused so is someone else. Never be scared to ask for clarification from your teacher or instructor.
- Provide detail.
Provide as many details and specific examples when answering an essay question as you can. Teachers are usually looking for very specific responses to see whether or not you've learned the material. The more relevant detail you provide, the higher grade is likely to be. However, only include correct, accurate and relevant information. Including irrelevant "filler" that doesn't support your answer will likely lower your grade.
- Budget your time.
Manage your time wisely when answering essay questions so you are able answer all the questions, not just the easy or hard ones. If you finish your test before time is up, go back and review your answers and provide additional details. We recommend answering those essay questions you're most familiar with first and then tackling more challenging questions after. It's also not uncommon on essay tests for some questions to worth more than others. When budgeting your time, make sure to allocate more time to those questions that are worth the most.
- Follow the instructions.
When a question is only requiring facts, be sure to avoid sharing opinions. Only provide the information the instructions request. It's important to provide an answer that matches the type of essay question being asked. You'll find a list of common types of essay questions at the bottom of this page.
- Be concise.
In your answers, get to the point and be very clear. It is generally best to be as concise as possible. If you provide numerous facts or details, be sure they're related to the question. A typical essay answer should be between 200 and 800 words (2-8 paragraphs) but more isn't necessarily better. Focus on substance over quantity.
- Write clearly and legibly.
Be sure your essays are legible and easy to understand. If a teacher has a difficult time reading or understanding what you've written, you could receive a lower score.
- Get organized.
Organize your thoughts before answering your essay question. We even recommend developing a short outline before preparing your answer. This strategy will help you save time and keep your essay organized. Organizing your thoughts and preparing a short outline will allow you write more clearly and concisely.
- Get to the point. Focus on substance.
Only spend time answering the question and keep your essays focused. An overly long introduction and conclusion can be unnecessary. If your essay does not thoroughly answer the question and provide substance, a well developed introduction or conclusion will do you no good.
- Use paragraphs to separate ideas.
When developing your essay, keep main ideas and other important details separated with paragraphs. An essay response should have three parts: the introduction; the body; and the conclusion. The introduction is typically one paragraph, as is the conclusion. The body of the essay usually consists of 2 to 6 paragraphs depending on the type of essay and the information being presented.
- Go back and review.
If time permits, review your answers and make changes if necessary. Make sure you employed correct grammar and that your essays are well written. It's not uncommon to make silly mistakes your first time through your essay. Reviewing your work is always a good idea.
When you are unsure of specific dates, just approximate dates. For example, if you know an event occurred sometime during the 1820's, than just write, "in the early 1800's."
Common Question Types on Essay ExamsBeing able to identify and becoming familiar with the most common types of essay test questions is key to improving performance on essay exams. The following are 5 of the most common question types you'll find on essay exams.
Identify essay questions ask for short, concise answers and typically do not require a fully developed essay.
- Ask yourself: "What is the idea or concept in question?", "What are the main characteristics?", "What does this mean?"
- Key words to look for: Summarize, List, Describe, Define, Enumerate, State
- Example question: "Define what is meant by 'separation of church and state.'"
Explain essay questions require a full-length essay with a fully developed response that provides ample supporting detail.
- Ask yourself: "What are the main points?", "Why is this the case?"
- Key words to look for: Discuss, Explain, Analyze, Illustrate
- Example question: "Discuss the differences between the political views of democrats and republicans. Use specific examples from each party's 2017 presidential campaign to argue which views are more in line with U.S. national interests."
Compare essay questions require an analysis in essay form which focuses on similarities, differences, and connections between specific ideas or concepts.
- Ask yourself: "What is the main concepts or ideas?", "What are the similarities?", "What are the differences?"
- Key words to look for: Compare, Contrast, Relate
- Example question: "Compare the value of attending a community college to the value of attending a 4-year university. Which would you rather attend?"
Argue essay questions require you to form an opinion or take a position on an issue and defend your position against alternative positions using arguments backed by analysis and information.
- Ask yourself: "What is this position correct?", "Why is this issue true?"
- Key words to look for: Prove, Justify
- Example question: "Argue whether robotics will replace blue collar manufacturing jobs in the next ten years."
Assess essay questions involve assessing an issue, idea or question by describing acceptable criteria and defending a position/judgment on the issue.
- Ask yourself: "What is the main idea/issue and what does it mean?", "Why is the issue important?", "What are it's strengths?", "What are the weaknesses?"
- Key words to look for: Evaluate, Criticize, Evaluate, Interpret
- Example question: "With respect to U.S. national security, evaluate the benefit of constructing a wall along the southern border of the United States of America."
Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.
Learn the material with the exam format in mind
- Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
- Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
- Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
- Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
- Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.
Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions
- Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
- Anticipate questions by:
- Looking for patterns of questions in any tests you have already written in the course;
- Looking at the course outline for major themes;
- Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
- Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
- Brainstorming questions with a study group.
- Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
- Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
- Memorize your outlines or key points.
- A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.
If the Professor distributes questions in advance
- Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
- Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.
Right before the exam
- Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.
- Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
- Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
- See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.
Manage your time
- At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
- If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
- If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
- Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
- Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.
Things to include and/or exclude in your answers
- Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
- Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
- Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
- Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.
Follow a writing process
- Plan the essay first
- Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
- Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
- Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
- To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
- Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
- Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
- Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
- Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.: although, however) between paragraphs.
- A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
- If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
- As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
- Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement. If not, change the thesis.
For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.
Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site