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How To Write Exam Essays


Hey there, Writing Center family! It’s Annie again and I’m checking in one last time before we all go on break! I know almost all of us are feeling pretty stressed right now because we have to take final exams, pack up, and say goodbye to our friends all within a few short days. To help resolve some of your stress, I asked Writing Center tutor Rachel Faulk to give you advice on writing exam essays!

Rachel Faulk, WC Tutor and Guest Writer

An exam essay is unique from a typical essay because you’re limited to a few hours or less to write it. If you’re like most students, this task may seem daunting. However, I’ll share some strategies which can help you succeed in writing a timed exam essay.

1. Preparing

Exam essays look different based on the class and the professor. Some professors provide you possible prompts ahead of time. If your professor does this, go ahead and make an outline for the prompts you like the most (I’ll talk more about this in steps 2 and 3). Then practice to make sure you can recall your outlines on test day.

Whether you’re given the prompts or not, it’s important to plan out how you’ll spend your time when you get to the exam. If you haven’t seen the prompts, you’ll need extra time to make an outline, so plan how long you can afford to spend outlining. How much time do you estimate you’ll need to write the draft? Do you need to save time to proofread at the end? And if the exam has multiple parts, make sure you allot enough time for the essay.

And of course, bring a watch to the exam so you can keep track of time

2. Reading the Prompts

Once you get to the exam, the first step is reading the prompt. If there are multiple prompts, don’t waste time choosing. Go with your gut instinct. Which prompt do you feel most confident about?

Read the prompt you’ve picked multiple times to make sure you understand it fully. One helpful strategy is to pick out the verbs in the prompt. These tell you as the writer what your professor expects you to do (e.g., compare, describe, analyze, etc.).

Send time preparing for your exam essay before you begin writing!

3. Outlining

It’s crucial to take time to plan out what to write about before you begin drafting. If it helps you, take some time to freewrite, jotting down all your thoughts in response to the prompt. Then, begin to organize them.

Start by forming your thesis: in a sentence or two, articulate an argument that will unify your ideas and drive your essay. Then build your argument with support. Although the structure of your essay will vary based on the assignment, three body paragraphs is a good rule of thumb. List the main points that support your argument and jot down strong pieces of evidence for each point. It’s also a good idea to save your best or strongest point for last, since this will keep you from running out of steam later.

A note: even if you made an outline ahead of time, go ahead and jot it down as soon as you get to the exam so that you have it as a reference as you write.

4. Drafting

Once you have your outline sketched out, take a deep breath and move on to drafting.

I find that often the hardest part is getting started. Your opening is the first impression your professor gets, so it’s tempting to want to craft the perfect introduction. Don’t allow yourself to waste your time here. Also, avoid starting with a cliché or empty generalization (e.g., “Since the dawn of time, humans have written exam essays…”). Instead, cut to the chase. Briefly address the prompt and then present your thesis and provide direction for your essay (introduce your supporting points in the order in which you’ll cover them).

Use your outline as a guide and write the essay. It’s important not to get stuck anywhere, obsessing over wording or something like that. Again, you simply don’t have time. You can always revisit that section if you have extra time after you finish.

Conclusions can also be challenging. If you have time, add a brief conclusion paragraph which can recap your argument and add a “so what?” factor. If you’re short on time, a sentence or two recapping the argument at the end of your last paragraph will suffice. And if you find that your argument has changed a bit in the course of writing, go back to the introduction and revise it.

Take your time drafting your essay!

5. Proofreading

If you have time at the end, it’s always a good idea to proofread your essay. Skim back over it and check for glaring errors that impair your meaning, such as incomplete sentences and missing or misspelled words. And if there was a particular section of the essay you didn’t feel good about, now is the time to go back and clean it up.

As always, every writer is unique, and you should adapt these strategies to fit your writing style and the needs of your assignment. But with proper planning, time management, and practice, you can learn to conquer an exam essay.

I hope you will keep Rachel’s advice in mind while you complete your final exams! Good luck and, since we will not see each other until next semester, Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas!

Happy Holidays From The Writing Center!