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ASC - Secondary Pages: Writing Essay Exams

Resources on Writing: Essay Exams


  1. Preparing for an essay exam should be ongoing. As soon as class is over, review your notes, compare your notes with classmates, rewrite your notes, and/or prepare study cards or a study list.
  2. Based on your experience with the professor, brainstorm potential essay questions. Even if this is the first test of the semester, try to anticipate what might be asked. Ask the professor for sample questions. Collaborate with other students in the class for more potential questions.
  3. Reword the questions so that they call for different types of information, using verbs like these:
    • compare and contrast
    • analyze
    • discuss
    • cite causes
    • characterize
    • explain
  4. Copy each question at the top of a separate sheet of paper. Then go through your notes and textbooks, making lists of specific information that could be used to support answers. Write shorter versions of each of these under the questions on the separate sheets of paper.
  5. Make a list of key terms, titles, names, dates, etc.
  6. Memorize 4 and 5 above, so that a stimulus word will cause you to recall a whole list. Use writing to help you rehearse this.
  7. Before the test itself, preferably that same day, take the time to rehearse. This means giving yourself the stimulus words and actually writing down the lists of data. In your imagination picture yourself in the test room writing. Come to the test already psyched up and full of the content.
  8. During the test, dive right in. Concentrate on clear organization. Begin with a sentence which sets you up for parts of an answer and use transitions that tie to the first sentence: “The first reason is . . . .  Another cause is . . . .  In addition to the factors. . . . “
  9. Plan your time. The first question you will answer will probably take the longest, but generally allow equal time for each. Remember that you can start with the easiest question rather than the “first” question, in order to make sure you do well on the ones you have the best chance on.
  10. Think of the whole activity as “showing off;” in the process, you may just find your flow of words and your concentration are actually causing you to see new relationships. This most rare of all academic phenomena is called “ESSAY TEST HIGH!”

Source:  Judith Bechtel, Improving Writing and Learning, 118-119.


  1. Read the entire test.
  2. Budget your time—decide how much time to spend on each question. Leave time to proofread.
  3. Start with the easiest question.
  4. Read the whole question.
  5. Divide the question into its component parts.
  6. Underline key words in the question.
  7. Decide what it is that you are being asked to do. What is the purpose and who is the audience?
  8. Write a statement which expresses the main idea of your answer (topic sentence/thesis statement)
  9. Write a scratch outline of your answer.
  10. Answer the question following your outline—watch the time.
  11. If the time for that question runs out, leave space in which to finish the answer and go on to the next question.
  12. Proofread—check to see that you have answered all of the questions and all of the parts of each question. Check organization and mechanics.


  1. Have I included a thesis statement?
  2. Have I presented ideas in a logical fashion that supports my thesis?
  3. Have I added specific details, facts, or analyses that are asked for in the question?
  4. Have I shown my own independent thoughts and insights, if appropriate, in this answer?
  5. Have I concluded with a brief statement that summarizes the main thoughts in my essay?

If you have more questions about taking essay exams, be in touch with the Academic Support Center for advice. We'll even help you practice your timed writing!