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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Standardized Test Essay Exams

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

Study the Test

If you are taking a standardized test like the MCAT or LSAT, be sure to look over the format; know what kinds of questions to expect. Practice writing similar essays in the allotted time. You should have a feeling for how much you can cover during the test period.

If possible, right before the exam period, you might also sit down and freewrite for about 5 minutes to get your hand and brain warmed up.

Read the Assignment

Identify both the stated and implied analysis strategies in the assignment. Make sure you understand the subject matter indicted, and break down the words, meanings, and connections if necessary. Underlining and circling during this period can help keep you on track as you glance back at the question later.

Plan and Organize

Make sure you take adequate time to plan out the structure and connections of the essay before you begin writing. It's usually a good idea to actually write out an outline sketch. That way you will have a better chance of staying on track and also of remembering what you meant to write about.

For the pressured exam situation, a traditional two, three, or four part structure is often easiest and most time efficient. For a compare/contrast structure, remember that a zigzag pattern is in many cases much more time consuming and often requires considerably more transitions and "traffic directing."

As much as is possible, try to use logic in the ordering of subtopics. This makes for easy transitions and simple, logical thesis statements. Plan between 5 and 7 minutes for reading and organization for a 30 minute essay. It is best to try to stick to a schedule.

If you’re honestly stuck, plan as much of the essay as possible. Start writing with the 1st body paragraph, leaving space for an introductory paragraph to be added later. Once you've finished the essay, then go back and add the intro. This way you won’t end up with an intro that doesn’t match the essay.

Draft

Always have a beginning, middle, and end. Time your way through the essay, allotting as much time for each planned paragraph. Stick to it or you might find yourself with an exquisite intro and no essay!

As you move from one paragraph to the next, it's a good idea to read through the preceding paragraph so you have a sense of the context in which the new paragraph will appear to a reader.

Don't put pressure on yourself to invent a gorgeous and unique introductory sentence when you’re under pressure. It's too much. So, if one miraculously occurs to you, grab it and use it thankfully. Otherwise, start with a simple and businesslike statement of the issue--a very sensible, respectable, and pragmatic intro in any essay. Make sure you quickly summarize your main points and conclusion in a final paragraph.

Work on making your writing as concrete and specific as possible; concreteness and connections are the first things to go, in most people's writing when they are nervous. This is not only good writing, but it will make your essay look especially good in contrast.

Finally, make sure you leave room for corrections and additions -- leave wide margins and skip lines if possible.

Revise

Read through for spelling, grammatical, and handwriting problems. Avoid illegible corrections. Make sure your thesis statement matches your essay. If they don’t match, change the thesis. You don't have time to change the essay.

Don’t be afraid to move sentences or paragraphs around; just give some thought to drawing clear and unambiguous arrows to indicate the move. Make sure you have at least 3-4 minutes to read over your essay and revise. Never rewrite your essay—it’s not expected and it drastically cuts down on the time you have to produce an effective essay.