How To Ace an Essay Exam

Whether you're in high school or grad school, an essay exam can be a daunting prospect.  However, with a little planning and thought, you can be on your way to acing your next essay exam.   

  1. Study big ideas, connections, major plot points and themes.  While multiple choice and short answer questions rely on your ability to recall facts, an essay exam requires a synthesis of knowledge.  You shouldn't ignore details like names and dates, but your success on an essay exam depends on your grasp of the larger concepts behind the information.  Your ability to analyze the use of foreshadowing in a novel is more important than remembering what the protagonist said to her husband on page 247. 
  2. Read the instructions carefully.  Does the instructor want two examples from the text to support your position or one example from your readings and one example from your own life?  Is there a length requirement?  You don't want to lose points because you didn't understand everything that was required of you.
  3. Answer the entire question.  Essay exams can include multi-part prompts made up of several questions.  In your response, make sure you address every point in the prompt. 
  4. Take a few minutes to plan.  Jotting down a short outline or a list of main points to cover in your essay can lead to a more coherent and organized essay. 
  5. Create a thesis statement.  Every essay should have a thesis statement, and an essay written for an exam is no different.  A thesis will keep you focused in the limited time you have.     
  6. Support your points.  Your instructor is more interested in why you believe in a theory than in the theory itself.  Always support your assertions with relevant data.   
  7. Pace yourself.  If the exam includes multiple essay questions, you want to allot yourself enough time to complete each of them as thoroughly as possible.  Even if there is only one essay to complete, you don't want to rush through it.
  8. In open book exams, be organized and use your time wisely.  Some instructors allow the use of books and notes on essay exams.  This can be a great help in finding facts and quotations to support your points, but it can also be a huge drain on your time.  Organize your notes before the exam, and mark important passages in your book, so you can turn to them quickly.  Keep an eye on the time, and only search for information when necessary.   
  9. Review your finished essay.  Take a few minutes at the end of the test period to proofread your essay.  While instructors realize the time constraints of an exam don't allow for work of final draft quality, a bit of polish can only serve to impress.  


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