No matter what major or discipline you have selected to pursue in college, there is one common monster that strikes fear into the hearts of almost all students – the dreaded Essay Exam.
Essay exams, in all their five-paragraph-format and restricted-time-limit glory, can appear in classes outside of English, including engineering, psychology, art, history and even higher sciences and maths, like physics. In fact, most standardized college admission tests, like the SAT/ACT and the GRE require you to write an essay in response to a prompt.
Regardless of whether you come across an essay exam while applying to colleges or taking classes as you work towards your degree, there are six basic steps you can follow to compose a solid, effective essay in the time allotted.
Read All The Directions Well
First, read the directions completely and pay close attention to what you’re being asked to do. Some exams may ask you to answer a series of questions; some may ask for 2 out of 3; some may ask you to choose only one.
You don’t want to do more work than necessary or not complete the assignment.
Take A Quick Few Seconds To Double Check The Question
Second, make sure you understand what the question is asking you.
Look for key words or phrases to help you know what information you’ll need in the essay. For example, a question that asks you to discuss, criticize or justify a point will require different information and examples than one that asks you to list or enumerate a set of causes/effects.
Outline Down And Dirty
Third, quickly jot down a few ideas/points you know you want to include and decide how you’re going to budget your time.
Don’t waste a lot of time setting up a complex outline. If you have to write more than one essay, work so that you spend the bulk of your time and effort on the longest essay (or the one worth the most points).
Get To The Point Fast
Fourth, don’t worry about long, varied introductory and conclusive paragraphs. In essay exams, time is precious, and usually you just want to get right into the main discussion. One way to be sure you’re addressing and introducing the topic you’re going to talk about is to rewrite the question you’re answering as your first or thesis sentence.
For example, if the question is, “What role does nature play in Early American literature?” your first/thesis sentence could be, “Nature played several different roles in Early American literature, but it was especially used as…” You not only have set up the basic topic/introduction in one sentence, but you’ve immediately launched yourself into the essay.
When you reach the end, you can restate your first few sentences to reinforce and cap the essay so it doesn’t just seem to stop. If you have time when you finish to go back and add more to the intro or conclusion, then you may choose to do so, but if you don’t have time, your essay will still be complete.
Finish All Parts Of The Exam
Fifth, don’t leave anything unfinished. If you are running out of time and realize you will not be able to properly finish the exam, don’t just leave it incomplete. At the very least, sketch out what you would have done had you had enough time. Give a brief outline or use the remaining time to write a short paragraph saying what points you would like to give more time to.
Some professors/readers will at least give partial credit for attempts to finish exams, but even if you are docked points for being incomplete, you will have a better chance at passing the exam as a whole because you didn’t just quit or leave bits unanswered.
Leave Yourself Time At The End
Finally, if at all possible, leave yourself at least five to ten minutes at the end of the exam period to read back through your essay looking for grammatical mistakes, format errors and/or places where you left out information you wanted to include.
If you’re doing the essay by hand instead of typing on a computer, you may insert the information in the margins of the page and use carefully drawn arrows to show where it should be included. While most professors/readers understand that timed exams will have their fair share of errors due to the very nature of the exam, they are impressed by students who at least attempt to have a clean, edited piece at the end.
As you go throughout the essay, remember to relax, breathe and not panic. Oftentimes, students will shoot themselves in the foot with text anxiety. They’ll get so bogged down in the very idea of taking an essay exam that they don’t even have time or a chance to worry about the material the exam is actually asking about.
Since you know you’ll have to encounter essay exams at various points (like the ACT/SAT or GRE), it might make sense to go to those websites and take the various practice exams these organizations offer. This will not only help prepare you for these exams, but you can also count it as practice for when you start working in your classes.
The author, Ms. Laura Holder, currently teaches at a medium-sized state university, where she is a candidate for a PhD in English.