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Writing Tips: In-class Essay Exams

Below are some tips for taking in-class essay exams. See also tips for taking standardized essay exams.

Study Your Teacher

Different teachers stress different points. For example, one teacher of American History may stress social history, another economic history or the history of foreign policy. Most teachers are fair; they will test on what they stress in class. Check your notes.

Anticipate Questions

Have faith in your own intelligence. Ask yourself what kind of questions you would ask over the given material. Chances are that at least some of your questions will appear on the test. If you can anticipate a test question, the test will appear familiar to you.

Do Not Panic

Anyone who has done nothing more than to sit in class and listen knows at least some of the material. Of course, you have also studied diligently. You are prepared. Remember that taking an essay exam well depends upon the wise budgeting of time.

Budget Your Time

Read the entire test before you begin to write. The last question may be weighed heavily and thus require more time. Ask yourself how much time you can afford to spend on each question. If you do not finish all the minor questions in the allotted time, go on to the major question. Come back to the smaller questions later.

Read Individual Questions Carefully

Has your teacher asked you to choose two of five questions? If you answer all the questions when you have a choice, you lose time and points. When you are faced with a choice, decide quickly and do not change your mind. Doing so takes time, and lost time means lost points.

Watch For Key Words

Does your instructor ask you to "discuss," "compare," "contrast," "summarize," "explain," or "relate"? Note that some key words give you more freedom than do others. The words "contrast" and "summarize," for instance, are very precise. You must obey these words by doing exactly what they say. However, the word "discuss" gives you some freedom. You might discuss a topic by summarizing, relating, explaining, or some combination thereof.

Answer the Major Question

An essay question is just what the name implies--an essay. You know that an essay should have a thesis or purpose statement; the answer you write for the essay question should also have a thesis to help you organize your thoughts and keep you from straying from your main point. A clear thesis will also make your answer easy for your instructor to follow.

Organize before you write. 1/10 to 1/5 of the time spent on a question should be spent in organization. If other students are writing furiously, they are probably writing without a purpose. Make a rough outline to keep you on track.

After outlining, write the essay, filling in the details. Be as specific as possible. Do not be satisfied with general statements such as, "Spallanzani advanced the science of microbe hunting." How so? -- by exposing superstitions. What superstitions? -- he proved the Vegetative Force to be a myth by cleverly demonstrating that microbes must have parents. Generalities by themselves are boring. Details alone are just a grocery list. Use your details to support a general context, and then draw relevant conclusions.

Use a General Organizing Principle

When instructors ask you to discuss, they want you to show more than a knowledge of the facts. They want you to demonstrate a grasp of the relationships among the facts. They want to know if you see similarities, differences, or cause-effect relationships. For example, even though you write a wealth of facts, you might fail a history question involving the Crusades and the discovery of America if you miss the cause-effect relationship. Show that you know how the Crusades led to the discovery of America. Often, essay exams ask you to be able to discuss relevant details within a general framework. Know the big picture, and be able to discuss how details are interrelated within that big picture.


If you finish early, proofread the test to check facts, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you have left something out, put in a legible footnote that can easily be found.