Essay exams require more than just knowledge recall and application. They also require students to demonstrate their analytical skills, that is their ability to use good reasoning in analysing a situation or solving a problem. There is an expectation that students will not only explain key concepts, but also that they will use key concepts to interpret, make connections, see relationships, draw comparisons and synthesize information in support of their argument or assertion.
Before the Exam
- Revise key concepts and ideas
Go over concepts that were emphasised in tutorials and lectures, as these are, most often, the key concepts that course organisers want you to understand and critique. Course profiles are another useful source in determining key concepts.
Study sessions should include practice exams. Begin your study by anticipating what essay questions will be included. There are several sources for possible essay questions, including major headings in textbooks, course profiles, study guides, end of chapter questions from textbooks, as well as tutorial questions.
- Prepare study sheets
Review lecture, study guide and textbook notes. Record the relevant and important material from these sources on your study sheet. Use these to plan out how to answer your practice questions
Organise all your material. Decide on the best way to present your ideas in a written form. This not only helps you plan an effective essay, it will also help you to remember key ideas.
Sitting the Exam
- Allocate time
Take note of the way marks are allocated and allocate time accordingly.
- Read questions thoroughly
Identify what the question is asking you to do. This can be done by circling any verbs or doing words, underlining the key terms, and identifying any limiting phrases.
- Read questions more than once
It may be beneficial to read the question 3 times to ensure that not only do you know what is expected, but you can also identify whether you have choices. For instance, do you have to answer all questions, or do you have a choice?
- Give yourself space
Leave every second line blank in your answer booklet. This gives you room to fix up mistakes and add any extra ideas.
- Plan before you write
Spend a few minutes gathering your thoughts before writing. This will allow you the time to consider the most effective way to present material and will ensure that you cover all the necessary components.
- Aim for clarity
Your introduction should give your reader clear direction. Ensure that you have a clear argument or thesis in your introduction, that you link all paragraphs to that argument, and that you reinforce the main points in your conclusion. Remember that one sentence should equal one idea.
Tools for TAs and Instructors
Back to Helpful HandoutsoWriting Center Home PageBefore the Exam: Prepare and Practice
Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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