Shelley Reid .

Hints for Writing
Essay Examinations

What's hardest for you about writing essay exams?

  • Time pressures?
  • Surprise questions?
  • Finding the words?

It's not just you -- and it has nothing to do with your intelligence!

Essay exams create STRESS : You can feel as if you were standing next to a jet plane taking off, with all the noise discombobulating your thoughts.

Stress creates a Fight or Flight reaction, which uses very low-level, primitive brain functions. Stress sets up a conflict between what you want to do and what you need to do:

The urge: To act without thinking (faster! faster! why aren't you writing yet?! hurry!)

The need: To write thoughtfully & clearly using your higher-brain cognitive skills

The solution: Use preparation, discipline & strategy as "ear plugs" to block out the jet engines and connect with your higher brain functions.

Relax, and be The One In Control!

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Remember what you already know about writing well:

Write About What You Know About
(and/or about what you find interesting)
(find out what you don't know)

Show, Don't Just Tell
(an example is worth 1000 claims)
("little red ball" is not as specific as "one-inch diameter ball colored fluorescent red like a clown's nose")

Write for a Specific Audience and a Specific Purpose

(writing is communication, trying to convince someone to think/act)

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Prepare well for the exam:

Prepare to write about what you know about -- that is,...

Know the concepts: go beyond "just the facts, ma'am"

* any specific definitions, terminology?
* connections between topics? causes and effects?
* limitations or applications of ideas?
* anticipate difficulties, alternatives, gray areas -- good spots for questions!

Prepare to show, not just tell -- that is,...

Gather a selection of specifics

* look for details that could be used to "show" several things: numbers, people, one-time-only events, results, case studies, quotations
* begin to group events to match your concepts and definitions
("If she asks about ___ , I'll talk about ___ and ___ .")
* consider hypothetical examples as a way to show you understand the concept: "If...then..."

Prepare to write for a specific audience & purpose -- for instance,...

Purpose: Get a good grade? Then convince a professor you know your stuff:
* demonstrate concept/fact knowledge; be able to link facts to theories or conclusions
* show you can translate ideas into actions and examples
* demonstrate communication skills: practice ahead of time by creating sample sentences, time-lines, and/or memorable lists of "top threes" for ready access

Audience : Anticipate your professor
* Review your lecture notes (and a friend's?): what does your professor emphasize?
* Review any homework questions: what kinds of questions does s/he ask?
* Try to recall: what kinds of questions did the professor ask in class? what topics were emphasized? Prepare answers to similar questions.

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At the Exam, Relax and Take Control: Put your BathROBE on!

  • Breathe
  • Read the Gosh Darn Question
  • Organize your thoughts with a short Outline
  • Be Blunt by getting right to your answer
  • Explain; support with specific Examples

When the essay exam starts, ignore your lower brain: DON'T START WRITING YET! Instead...

As the exam questions arrive in front of you, take a deep breath to calm your nerves and activate your Higher Brain.

Read the gosh darn question!
No, really read it! This is your only clue to audience/purpose. ("What does she want?") So use your hand and pencil to help you slow down and use your higher brain.

1. circle the verbs and the action words

2. underline the tasks, the key words or phrases

This seems elementary, but you'd be surprised how many essay exam-takers write answers that go off topic or forget to address one of the issues or tasks the question asks for. Don't be one of them!


Organize your thoughts: write down a short outline or list of what you want to say

Know where you're going, and control your destiny where possible.

Where do the questions intersect with what you already know from your preparation?
Take Control -- focus there, at least to start (write about what you know about)

Complete all tasks and move in a straight line from start to finish. (Write for a purpose : communicate clearly)

SO, make a two or three point outline for each question.
* where you want to start
* 1-2 specific examples (Show what you mean!)
* the conclusions you'll make

Note: These first three steps are tremendously difficult to do with your brain desperately trying to Fight or Flee: they require spending time thinking before you start writing. However, the three steps combined should take fewer than 3-5 minutes of your time (you can make them happen more quickly if it's a short essay). You'll gain back that time and more as you move through the exam with less stress and more control. And if you do get pressed for time, you have a plan laid out for how to finish in a hurry.

Be Blunt
As you start writing, begin by directly answering the question you read earlier, in so many words.

Unless your professor tells you otherwise (ask her!), long, flowing, gracious introduction paragraphs are not required in essay exams, and you get fewer points for style than for correct information.

Writing several general introductory sentences will not only take up your valuable time, but your stressed-out lower brain may get distracted and wander away from the main topic of the essay.

Instead, make the very first sentence you write a direct response to the question you read. (You can skip some space if you think you'll come back later and add in some introductory material.) If the question asks, "Which of Sigmund Freud's theories are most directly contradicted by behavioral psychology?" you may begin bluntly: "Two of Freud's theories that are most directly contradicted by behavioral psychology are...."

Use straightforward sentences; stay focused on connecting the information you prepared to the question you read.


Give Very Specific Examples

Remember: giving examples takes longer than speaking in generalities. Take control: make your brain slow down and be specific in its ideas and analyses.

* Remember your prepared lists of examples

* Even an example that shows the negative side of an issue can help clarify your arguments

* Beware vagueness: some, many, in a way, lots...Define terms as you use them.

* Use specific events, accomplishments, descriptions, numbers, quotations:
Let the phrase "FOR EXAMPLE..." become part of your automatic vocabulary: If you start a sentence that way, your brain is likely to finish up with an actual example.

* Make "example sandwiches": analyze as well as theorizing:
Concept: "Newton thought ___ ."
Example: "For example, he once ___ ."
Connect: "This willingness to ___ shows that he really ___ ."

* Use multiple examples per concept or argument. "We also see this when he ___ ."

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Other strategies:

If you get stuck, move along:
* to the next example
* to the next question

If you run out of time, be extra blunt. Get the information down as quickly as possible, no frills.

If you have extra time, don't leave! Use the time to re-read, use an asterisk * to add another example, make your conclusion(s) even more clear.

Keep telling yourself that you're the one making choices: what to say, how to say it, where to say it. Focus on showing what you do know rather than panicking about what you don't know. Stay in control!

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Last updated August 2005.Email Shelley Reid