Essay Exams

Taking essay exams or answering essay questions on tests can be daunting. They demand that the student not only thoroughly knows the material, but is able to effectively communicate that information to the instructor. Essays should be long enough to answer the question, but not too long as to ramble on and on about information irrelevant to the question being asked. Answers to essay questions need to be organized, they need to address every part of the question, and they need to be written in the student’s voice.

Before beginning an essay exam, set up a schedule. Allow yourself a certain amount of time to devote to each question, as well as extra time to reread and revise your answers. For example, if you have thirty minutes to answer three questions, do not spend ten minutes on each. Rather spend seven or eight minutes initially answering the essays, which leaves you six to nine minutes at the end of the time period to proofread and edit your responses. If you run out of time for the first essay question, leave space and move on – you can return to finish your response when you have completed the rest of the essays.

Take time to read each question and make sure you understand it. Try to put it in your own words as a test to whether or not you understand what is being asked. Next, make a quick outline. This will help you organize the essay, and you can keep referring back to the outline to make sure that you are covering all of the important points. Begin your first paragraph by stating the main idea of your response, and then continue by providing key points. Especially in timed exams, instructors will be looking for clarity and completeness in your responses. If you have time, you can go back and add additional details, but begin by focusing on the main ideas that are necessary to thoroughly answer the question.

In the following paragraphs, make sure to describe each of the key points you wrote about in the first paragraph. Develop each of these points to prove to your instructor that you understand the material. Make sure to include transitions between paragraphs. Even though you are working quickly, you still want the final product to be smooth and coherent. If you cannot remember an exact fact, such as a date, qualify your statement. For example, if you cannot remember whether an event happened in 1909 or 1911, you can say that it happened at the beginning of the twentieth century. Wrap up your essay by summarizing your main ideas and key points in the final paragraph.

If you have stuck to the time schedule you organized for yourself at the beginning of the exam, you should have time to go back and review your answers. Finish any answers to questions that are incomplete. Then read over each response to make sure you have answered every part of the question. Many questions will want you to address different points, so make sure that you have thoroughly done so. Wrap it up by editing your responses for spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. You want the instructor to focus on the content of your answers, and he or she will not be able to do that if they are muddled with errors.


Last Updated: June 4, 2019