Writing for Essay Exams
The following are suggestions and guidelines for preparing for and taking essay exams in college-level classes.
Writing begins with reading, so read the assignments for the course and internalize the best elements of the writers’ style. Do not try to “get through the course without reading the book” because you will cheat yourself out of an opportunity to learn from the reading, and you will miss an opportunity to improve your writing by exposure to the style of the assigned authors. (If you do succeed in getting through your whole undergraduate education “without ever cracking a book,” at least don’t brag about it, like my sister-in-law’s old boyfriend did.)
Start preparing for the essay exam at the beginning of the unit it covers by keeping up with the reading assignments. About two weeks before the exam, start making notes on the study questions from the readings and lectures. (Most professors that give essay exams provide a set of study questions for the exams beforehand.) If you don’t have time to write practice essays for all of the study questions, at least make a list of the main points that would go into an answer for each question. Cramming the night before for an exam that covers several weeks of lecture material and reading assignments is a recipe for frustration, especially if the material is complex or difficult.
When you take the exam, read the questions carefully, answer the questions directly, and answer all parts of each question. In your answers, include as much accurate and relevant material as you can, but include nothing irrelevant. Take each question as an opportunity to tell the professor everything that you know about the topic that the question raises (again, without including anything irrelevant to the question).
Get right to the point and write as clearly as possible. The reader (who is doing the grading) is looking for certain key elements in your essays, and the easier those key elements are to find, and the more clearly they are expressed, the more likely it is that you will be given credit for them if you have included them.
The most common problem with essay question answers is underdevelopment. Most students can write down a few relevant, accurate sentences in answer to a question, but then they often run out of material. Accurate but underdeveloped answers are a kind of minimum for passing in most classes, so usually students will get enough points for a “C” or a “C-“ on such a short essay. Students will then sometimes complain: “I answered the question and everything I said is right. How come I didn’t get a better grade?’ The answer is that there will be other students who display more than a familiarity with the main points; some students will show a detailed mastery of the ideas and information in a longer, well-developed essay. Those are the students who will get the best exam scores.
Generally speaking, to get an “A” on an in-class essay, you need to display detailed mastery of the material in a well-developed, clearly and competently written essay. To get a “B” on an essay, you need to show some command of the material in a clearly and competently written essay. To get a “C” you need to show at least a basic understanding of the main points of the answer. On the other hand, if your essay reveals a lack of familiarity with the main ideas, or inaccurate statements, or implausible claims, or if it is unclearly or incompetently written, then you will have trouble getting a decent grade.
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