Writing Essays for Exams
While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.
Contributors: Kate Bouwens, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:30:10
What is a well written answer to an essay question?
Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.
Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.
Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.
People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab
How do you write an effective essay exam?
- Read through all the questions carefully.
- Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
- Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
- Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
- Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
- Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
- Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
- Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.
Specific organizational patterns and "key words"
Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.
- "Define X."
- "What is an X?"
- "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."
Q: "What is a fanzine?"
A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.
Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."
- State the term to be defined.
- State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
- Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.
Tools you can use
- Details which describe the term
- Examples and incidents
- Comparisons to familiar terms
- Negation to state what the term is not
- Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
- Examination of origins or causes
- Examination of results, effects, or uses
Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.
- "Analyze X."
- "What are the components of X?"
- "What are the five different kinds of X?"
- "Discuss the different types of X."
Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."
A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.
Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:
- Vocational education
- Continuing education
- Personal development
Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:
- first, second, third, etc.
- in addition
Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.
Cause and Effect
Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).
- "What are the causes of X?"
- "What led to X?"
- "Why did X occur?"
- "Why does X happen?"
- "What would be the effects of X?"
Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."
A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .
The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- as a result
- "How does X differ from Y?"
- "Compare X and Y."
- "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"
Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"
A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .
Two patterns of development:
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
Useful transition words
- on the other hand
- unlike A, B ...
- in the same way
- while both A and B are ..., only B ..
- on the contrary
- while A is ..., B is ...
- "Describe how X is accomplished."
- "List the steps involved in X."
- "Explain what happened in X."
- "What is the procedure involved in X?"
Process (sometimes called process analysis)
This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.
Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"
A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .
The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.
Useful transition words
- first, second, third, etc.
- following this
- after, afterwards, after this
- simultaneously, concurrently
Thesis and Support
- "Discuss X."
- "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
- "Defend or refute X."
- "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."
Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.
Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."
A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .
The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- it follows that
- as a result
A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?
Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.
a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.
b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.
From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.
B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?
1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?
2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?
3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."
4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.
5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?
6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?
For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.
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.