Instructors assign essay exams instead of objective tests (multiple choice, matching, true/false) because they want students to go beyond identifying facts and to demonstrate a mastery of the concepts covered in the course.
The best preparation for taking an essay exam is a thorough knowledge of the course's subject matter. If you have attended all the classes, done all the assignments, read all the texts, you should be in good shape for such writing. If you have also kept journals, annotated textbooks, discussed the course material with other students, and posed possible essay exam questions, you should be in even better shape for such writing.
Equally important is your strategic thinking about the course and its syllabus. If the course has been divided into different topics or themes, anticipate a general question on each one covered; if it has been arranged chronologically, expect questions focusing on comparisons or cause and effect relations within a particular period or across periods. Consider, too, the amount of class time spent on each topic or work, and pay proportionately greater attention to emphasized areas. The following suggestions may help in writing essay examinations:
1. Read the whole examination. Before answering a single question, read over the whole exam to assess its scope and focus. Answering three of four questions in fifty minutes requires a different approach than answering, say, five of eight questions in the same amount of time. If you have a choice, answer those questions that provide a good demonstration of your knowledge of the whole course, rather than two or more that might result in repetitious writing. Finally, decide which questions you are best prepared to answer, and respond to those first (budgeting your time to allow you to deal fully with the others later). 2. Attend to direction words. Analyze each one before you begin to write. Focus closely on the particular question before you begin. Read it several times. Underline and understand the direction words that identify the task you are to carry out, and be sure to follow this direction:
Define or identify asks for the distinguishing traits of a term, subject, or event, but does not require an interpretation or judgment. Use appropriate terminology learned in the course. For example, "Define John Locke's concept of tabula rasa" is best answered using some of Locke's terminology along with your own.
Describe may ask for a physical description ("Describe a typical performance in ancient Greek theater") or request an explanation of a process, phenomenon, or event ("Describe the culture and practices of the mound builders"). Such questions generally do not ask for interpretation or judgment, but require abundant details and examples. Summarize asks for an overview or a synthesis of the main points. Keep in mind that "Summarize the impact of the Battle of Gettysburg on the future conduct of the war" asks only that you hit the highlights; avoid getting bogged down in too much detail.
Compare and contrast suggests that you point out both similarities and differences, generally between two subjects but sometimes among three or more. Note that questions using other direction words may also ask for comparison or contrast: "Describe the differences between the works of Monet and Manet."
Analyze asks that you write about a subject in terms of its component parts. The subject may be concrete ("Analyze the typical seating plan of a symphony orchestra") or abstract ("Analyze the ethical ramifications of Kant's categorical imperative"). In general, your response should look at one part at a time.
Interpret asks for a definition or analysis of a subject based on internal evidence and your own particular viewpoint: "Interpret Flannery O'Connor's short story Revelation' in terms of your understanding of her central religious and moral themes."
Explain asks what causes something, or how something operates. Such questions may ask for an interpretation and an evaluation. "Explain the function of color in the work of Picasso," for example, clearly asks for interpretation of the artist's use of color; although it does not explicitly ask for a judgment, some judgment might be appropriate. Evaluate or critique asks for a judgment based on clearly articulated analysis and reasoning. "Evaluate Plato's concept of the ideal state" and "Critique the methodology of this experiment," for example, ask for your opinions on these topics. Be analytical as you lead up to your judgmental verdict, and don't feel that your verdict must be completely one-sided. In many cases, you will want to cite more experienced judgments to back up your own.
Discuss or comment on is a general request, which allows considerable latitude. Your answers to questions such as "Discuss the effects of monetarist economic theories on current third world development" often let you demonstrate what you know especially well. Use terms and ideas as they have been discussed during the course, and add your own insights with care and thoughtfulness.
3. Plan and outline. Take one or two minutes per question to make a quick potential outline of your answer. If asked, for example, to compare and contrast three impressionist painters, decide in advance which three you will write about and in which order. While other ideas will come as you start writing, starting with a plan allows you to write more effectively. If you create a quick outline in the margins of your paper or even just hold it in your head, you will include more information and in a logical order.
4. Lead with a thesis. The surest way to receive full credit when writing an essay examination is to answer the question briefly in your first sentence. In other words, state your answer as a thesis which the rest of your essay will explain, support, and defend.
5. Write with specific detail, examples, and illustrations. Remember, most good writing contains specific information that lets readers see for themselves the evidence for your position. Use as many supportive specifics as you can; memorize names, works, dates, and ideas as you prepare for the exam so they can be recalled accurately as needed. Individual statistics alone may not be worth much, but when embedded as evidence in an essay that also contains strong reasoning, these specifics make the difference between good and mediocre answers.
6. Provide context. In answering a question posed by an instructor who is an expert in the field, it is sometimes tempting to assume your instructor does not need a full explanation and to answer too briefly. However, in a test situation you are being asked to demonstrate how much you understand. Briefly explain any concepts or terms that are central to your answer. Take the time to fit any details into the larger scheme of the subject. View each question as an opportunity to show how much you know about the subject.
7. Use the technical terminology of the discipline. Be careful not to drop in names or terms gratuitously, but if names and terms have been an integral part of the course, use them in your answer. Make sure you define them, use them appropriately, and spell them correctly. Essay exams also test your facility with the language and concepts peculiar to a particular discipline.
8. Stay focused. Answer what the question asks. Attend to all parts of an answer, cover those parts and, once you have done that, do not digress or add extraneous information. While it may be interesting to some instructors to hear your other ideas on the subject at hand, for other instructors, your digressive ideas may actually divert attention away from your more focused answers.
9. Write strategically. The following technical tips will make your exam answers easier to read:
1. Start each new answer at the top of a new page by repeating the number and part of the question. (1. The Civil War was caused by . . .)
2. Paragraph for each new point to make sure your fast-reading instructor sees each distinctive point you make.
3. Memorize and include short, accurate quotes of exceptional power where relevant, and cite each by author, title, or date, as relevant.
4. Outline the answers or the rest of answers if time runs out.
5. Reread and proofread each answer during the last five minutes before handing in the finished exam; even this little distance from your first composing will allow you to spot errors and omissions.
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