HOW TO TAKE ESSAY TESTS
There are basically two types of exams:
Objective - requires answers of a word or short phrase, or the selection of an answer from several available choices that are provided on the test.
Essay - requires answers to be written out at some length. The student functions as the source of information.
An essay exam requires you to see the significance and meaning of what you know. It tests your knowledge and understanding of the subject and your skill in reading and writing. To be successful on an essay exam, you must:
- Prove immediately that you know the material.
- Make your meaning unmistakably clear.
- Employ a reasonable organization and show sufficient thought development.
- Make every word count.
- Be specific.
- Use your own voice and style.
When you are writing an essay as part of an exam, all this must be done within what amounts to a first draft written in a very limited amount of time. As with all writing, if you think of your essay as being produced in three stages, you can tackle the test in an organized fashion. The three stages are pre-writing, writing, and revision. Suggestions for each of these stages follow.
The last section addresses preparation for essay exams.
Your first impulse in a writing exam is probably to read the question and start writing immediately, especially when you see those seconds ticking away on the clock. RESIST THAT IMPULSE! You can't successfully address the subject until you know precisely what you're required to do, you understand and have thought about the subject, and you are organized in how you approach the specific points you wish to make in your answer.
1. Understanding what to do:
- When you get your copy of the exam, read through to make sure you understand what is expected of you. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS EXACTLY!
- Underline or circle key words that direct the approach your answer should take. Some of the most common key words are:
Agree/Disagree: State your position and support it with facts
Comment or Evaluate: State your position and support it with facts, discussing the issue and its merits.
Analyze: Break down into all the parts or divisions looking at the relationships between them.
Compare/Contrast: Show differences and similarities.
Describe/Discuss: Examine in detail.
Explain: Tell why something is as it is.
Illustrate: Give examples and relate them to the statement in question. Prove/Defend: Demonstrate why something is true.
Interpret: Explain the significance or meaning of something.
List/State: Make a list of points or facts.
Summarize: Hit the high points.
2. Understanding the subject
- When you are confident that you understand the instructions, direct your attention to the topic.
- Collect your ideas.
- Formulate a thesis. Make sure it is a strong, concise statement that specifically addresses the question.
- Think of as many specific details and facts as you can that support the thesis.
3. Getting organized
- Jot your ideas down on paper, in very brief format.
- Evaluate your ideas in light of the question. Ask yourself repeatedly: "Does this apply to the question I'm supposed to answer?" Select only those ideas most relevant to your purpose.
- Number your ideas in order of appropriate sequence (first step to last step, most important to least important, etc.)
1. Remember your thesis. Now stick to it, referring back to it periodically throughout your essay. This gives your essay unity and coherence, and helps insure that you are not digressing.
2. Write in an orderly fashion. If you suddenly think of a new point, jot it down in a margin or on scratch paper until you find an appropriate place for it. Don't just put it into the middle of what you were writing.
- Repeating, in other words, what you have already said.
- Digressing into material that does not answer the question.
- Language that is too broad or general. Be specific.
- Bluffing. This far too common practice of using elegant but empty language to conceal ignorance or lack of effort rarely works, and often irritates the reader(s).
- Write as legibly as you can. If you want, write on every other line so you have room to add later. When you want to cross something off, simply draw a straight line through it. This is much better than scribbling out an entire passage.
- If you run out of time, simply write "Ran out of time" at the close of the essay. This is much better than adding a hurriedly tacked on, and possibly incoherent, conclusion.
Essay examinations are difficult because of the time pressures, yet you should always try to leave a few minutes at the end to proofread your essay.
1. Ask yourself, before you hand in the essay:
- Did I provide the information requested? That is, did I "explain" or "define" as the directions asked?
- Is the answer simply, clearly, and logically organized?
- Do I stick to my thesis statement? Is there unnecessary information in here?
- Did I proofread to check content and/or mechanical errors?
- Gives you a chance to catch and correct errors in content.
- Gives you a chance to correct your mechanical errors.
- Allows you to add material that may have occurred to you after writing the essay.
3. You should proofread for:
- Complete sentences (watch for fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons).
- Words omitted, or one word used when you meant another.
- Logical transitions between sentences and paragraphs.
- Unnecessary repetition of words or ideas.
- Spelling errors.
3. Essay type tests depend a great deal on your basic writing skills - organization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. If your answer is not clearly written, your instructor won't be able to find it! Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind as you take an essay test:
- Read the directions carefully! Read every part of the directions!
- Give yourself time to answer each question. Quickly look over the entire exam and budget your time per question accordingly.
- Above all, stay calm. You are being asked to show competence, not perfection.
- If you are not too sure about one question, leave it and go back.
- When given a choice, answer the questions you know best.
- State your points and support ideas clearly - don't make the instructor have to look for them.
- Go back to check and proofread all of your answers.
PREPARING FOR ESSAY EXAMS
WRITING A SUCCESSFUL ESSAY EXAM BEGINS ON DAY ONE
1. Study regularly as you go along.
- Take careful lecture notes.
- Read all material when assigned.
- Become familiar with vocabulary.
- Keep a study list of all main ideas.
2. Final preparation
- Review lecture notes and reading material.
- Find a classmate or friend willing to talk over key ideas and implications.
- Try to anticipate questions. This is very important! Use your lecture notes to zero in on points that the instructor emphasized.
- Think through the material and write up the best possible essay questions you can.
- Then answer those questions.
- Pinpoint key points that you would like to make when answering each question.
- Put your answer into outline form or write it out completely.
- For each potential test question, use mnemonics or other memory techniques to move the information to your long-term memory for the exam.
- Create a list of the clue words for each point you wish to make.
- Create a mnemonic device to memorize those points.
3. Come to the exam confident that you have something specific to say on all possible topics.
KEY WORDS COMMONLY FOUND ON ESSAY EXAMS
Compare: Look for qualities or characteristics that resemble each other. Emphasize similarities among them, but in some cases also mention differences.
Contrast: Stress the dissimilarities, differences, or unlikenesses of things, qualities, events, or problems.
Criticize: Express your judgement about the merit or truth of the factors or views mentioned. Give the results of your analysis of these factors, discussing their limitations and good points.
Define: Give concise, clear, and authoritative meanings. Don't give details, but make sure to give the limits of the definitions. Show how the thing you are defining differs from things in other classes.
Describe: Recount, characterize, sketch, or relate in sequence or story form.
Diagram: Give a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic answer. Usually you should label a diagram. In some cases, add a brief explanation or description.
Discuss: Examine, analyze carefully, and give reasons pro and con. Be complete, and give details.
Enumerate: Write in list or outline form, giving points concisely one by one.
Evaluate: Carefully appraise the problem, citing both advantages and limitations. Emphasize the appraisal of authorities and, to lesser degree, your personal evaluation.
Explain: Clarify, interpret, and spell out the material you present. Give reasons for differences of opinion or of results, and try to analyze causes.
Illustrate: Use a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example to explain or clarify a problem.
Interpret: Translate, give examples of, solve, or comment on, a subject, usually giving your judgment about it.
Justify: Prove or give reasons for decisions or conclusions, taking pains to be convincing.
List: As in "enumerate," write an itemized series of concise statements.
Outline: Organize a description under main points and subordinate points, omitting minor details and stressing the arrangement or classification of things.
Prove: Establish that something is true by citing factual evidence or giving clear logical reasons.
Relate: Show how things are related to, or connected with, each other or how one causes another, or is like another.
Review: Examine a subject critically, analyzing and commenting on the important statements to be made about it.
Sketch: means "break down into its component parts."
State: Present the main points in brief, clear sequence, usually omitting details, illustrations, or examples.
Summarize: Give the main points or facts in condensed form, like the summary of a chapter, omitting details and illustrations.
Trace: In narrative form describe progress, development, or historical events from some point of origin.
Identify or characterize: means "distinguish this term, or this person from all others that are similar." Both are clear injunctions to be as specific as possible.
Illustrate or exemplify: means "giving examples," showing thereby, rather than by definition, that you understand the concept.
TRANSITIONAL WORDS AND PHRASES
To achieve unity and coherence, writers use transitional words and phrases. Transitional expressions clarify the relationships between clauses, sentences, and paragraphs, helping guide the readers along. The following is a partial list of transitional expressions.
To Add or Show Sequence: again, also, and, and then, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, last, moreover, next, second, still, too
To Compare: also, in the same way, likewise, similarly
To Contrast: although, and yet, but, but at the same time, despite, even so, even though, for all that, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, regardless, sill, though, whereas, yet
To Give Examples or Intensify: after all, an illustration of, even, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, it is true, of course, specifically, that is, to illustrate, truly
To Indicate Place: above, adjacent to, below, elsewhere, farther on, here, near, nearby, on the other side, opposite to, there, to the east, to the left
To Indicate Time: after a while, afterward, as long as, as soon as, at last, at length, at that time, before, earlier, formerly, immediately, in the meantime, in the past, lately, later, meanwhile, now, presently, shortly, simultaneously, since, so far, soon, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, until now, when
To Repeat Summarize or Conclude: all in all, altogether, as has been said, in brief, in conclusion in other words, in particular, in short, in simpler terms, in summary, on the whole,that is, therefore, to put it differently, to summarize
To Show Cause or Effect: accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this purpose, hence, otherwise, since, then, therefore, thereupon, this, to this end, with this object.
The well-organized, neat-appearing individual will usually get the nod over another equally capable person who is disorganized and careless in appearance. Although other factors are involved, the analogy to examination writing is a skill. This skill can be improved by instruction. The student would be advised to follow certain steps in writing an essay exam.
1. SET UP A TIME SCHEDULE.
If six questions are to be answered in forty-five minutes, allow yourself only five minutes for each. When the time is up for one question, stop writing and begin the next one. There will be 15 minutes remaining when the last question is completed. The incomplete answers can be completed during the time. Six incomplete answers, by the way, will usually receive more credit than three completed ones. Of course, if one question is worth more points than the others you allow more time to write it.
2. READ THROUGH THE QUESTIONS ONCE.
Answers will come to mind immediately for some questions Write down key words, listings, etc. now when they're fresh in 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).
3. BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO ANSWER A QUESTION, LOOK AT THE DIRECTIVE WORDS.
Your instructor may give you specific directions how to write your answer. If he/she wants you to evaluate a philosophical theory, you won't get full credit if you describe just the theory. Make sure you know what you are being asked to do.
4. OUTLINE THE ANSWER BEFORE WRITING.
Whether the teacher realizes it or not, he/she is greatly influenced by the compactness and clarity of an organized answer. To begin 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 it receives. Be sure to follow the directive words, and check your outline to see that it is logical.
5. TAKE TIME TO WRITE AN INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY.
The introduction will consist of the main point to be made; the summary is simply a paraphrasing of the introduction. A neat bundle with a beginning and ending is very satisfying to the reader. Be sure that your answer is direct and really answers the question.
6. TAKE TIME AT THE END TO REREAD THE PAPER.
When writing in haste we tend to:
- Misspell words
- Omit words or parts
- Omit parts of questions
- Misstate dates and figures (1353 written as 1953; $.60 as $60)
7. QUALIFY ANSWERS WHEN IN DOUBT.
It is better to say "Toward the end of the 19th century" then to say "in 1894" when you can't remember whether it's 1884 or 1894, though approximate, may be incorrect, and will usually be marked accordingly. When possible, avoid very definite statements. A qualified statement connotes a philosophic attitude, the mark of an educated man.
FOR *ESSAY* QUESTIONS
The following words are commonly found in essay test questions. Understanding them is essential to success on these kinds of questions. Study this sheet thoroughly. Know these words backwards and forwards.
- ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
- COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences. (See Contrast.)
- CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.
- CRITICIZE: Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis.
- DEFINE: Give the meaning; usually a meaning specific to the course of subject. Determine the precise limits of the term to be defined. Explain the exact meaning. Definitions are usually short.
- DESCRIBE: Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities and parts.
- DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
- ENUMERATE: List several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc.
- EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
- ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
- INTERPRET: Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe, then evaluate.
- OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events. (Does not necessarily mean *write a Roman numeral/letter outline*.)
- PROVE: Support with facts (especially facts presented in class or in the test).
- STATE: Explain precisely.
- SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.
- TRACE: Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event.