How To Study For An Exam Essays

Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
Tools for TAs and Instructors


Tips for Writing Essay Exams

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Before 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)
In the exam

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.
Things to Avoid

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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The Essay Exam

Organization and neatness have merit

Before writing out the exam:
  • Write down their key words, listings, etc, as they are fresh in your mind.
    Otherwise these ideas may be blocked (or be unavailable) when the time comes to write the later questions. This will reduce "clutching" or panic (anxiety, actually fear which disrupts thoughts).

Set up a time schedule
to answer each question and to review/edit all questions

  • If six questions are to be answered in sixty minutes,
    allow yourself only seven minutes for each
  • If questions are "weighted",
    prioritize that into your time allocation for each question
  • When the time is up for one question, stop writing,
    leave space, and begin the next question. The incomplete answers can be completed during the review time
  • Six incomplete answers will usually receive more credit than three, complete ones

Read through the questions once and note if you have any choice in answering questions

  • Pay attention to how the question is phrased,
    or to the "directives", or words such as "compare", "contrast", "criticize", etc. See their definitions in "Essay terms"
  • Answers will come to mind immediately for some questions

Before attempting to answer a question, put it in your own words

  • Now compare your version with the original.
    Do they mean the same thing? If they don't, you've misread the question. You'll be surprised how often they don't agree.

Think before you write:
Make a brief outline for each question
Number the items in the order you will discuss them

  • Get right to the point
    State your main point in the first sentence
    Use your first paragraph to provide an overview of your essay.
    Use the rest of your essay to discuss these points in more detail.
    Back up your points with specific information, examples, or quotations from your readings and notes
  • Teachers are influenced by compactness,
    completeness and clarity of an organized answer
  • Writing in the hope
    that the right answer will somehow turn up is time-consuming and usually futile
  • To know a little and to present that little well is,
    by and large, superior to knowing much and presenting it poorly--when judged by the grade received.

Writing & answering:

Begin with a strong first sentence
that states the main idea of your essay.
Continue this first paragraph by presenting key points

Develop your argument

  • Begin each paragraph
    with a key point from the introduction
  • Develop each point
    in a complete paragraph
  • Use transitions,
    or enumerate, to connect your points
  • Hold to your time
    allocation and organization
  • Avoid very definite statements
    when possible; a qualified statement connotes a philosophic attitude, the mark of an educated person
  • Qualify answers when in doubt.
    It is better to say "toward the end of the 19th century" than to say "in 1894" when you can't remember, whether it's 1884 or 1894. In many cases, the approximate time is all that is wanted; unfortunately 1894, though approximate, may be incorrect, and will usually be marked accordingly.

Summarize in your last paragraph
Restate your central idea and indicate why it is important.

Review:

Complete questions left incomplete,
but allow time to review all questions

Review, edit, correct
misspellings, incomplete words and sentences, miswritten dates and numbers.

Not enough time?

See also: Essay terms and directives
For teachers: Writing essay exams


Testing with success series

Test preparation series |
Ten tips for terrific test taking | Taking online tests | True/false tests |
Multiple choice tests | Short answer tests | Open book exams | Oral exams |
Essay Exams | Essay terms and directives | Math Exams

Writing assignments

Writing for the "Web" | The five-paragraph essay | Essays for a literature class |
Expository essays | Persuasive essays | Position papers | Open book exams |
Essay Exams | White papers | Lab reports/scientific papers | Research proposals

Testing with success series

Test preparation series | Test taking series

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