Preparation Process Writing Essay

Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.

Exam preparation

Learn the material with the exam format in mind

  • Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
  • Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
    • Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
    • Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
      • Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.

Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions

  • Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
  • Anticipate questions by:
    • Looking  for patterns of questions in any tests you  have already written in the course;
    • Looking at the course outline for major themes;
    • Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
    • Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
    • Brainstorming questions with a study group.
  • Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
    • Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
    • Memorize your outlines or key points.
  • A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.

If the Professor distributes questions in advance

  • Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
  • Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.

Right before the exam

  • Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.

Exam writing

Read carefully

  • Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
  • Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
  • See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.

Manage your time

  • At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
  • If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
  • If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
  • Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
  • Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.

Things to include and/or exclude in your answers

  • Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
  • Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
  • Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
  • Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.

Follow a writing process

  • Plan the essay first
    • Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
    • Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
    • Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
    • To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
    • Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
  • Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
  • Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
    • A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
      • Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
    • Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.:  although, however) between paragraphs.
    • A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
    • If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
  • Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
    • As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
  • Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement.  If not, change the thesis.

For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.

Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site

4 things to do before you start writing an essay

As tempting as it might be to just launch into the process of writing, there are important steps to take before actually setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). These four steps in essay preparation should give you a solid footing before you start the essay-writing process.

1. Plan out your time

Plotting out a schedule for how you plan to approach writing the essay is a crucial first step. You will want to set aside time for effective brainstorming, as well as time for doing the appropriate research. You should also set aside plenty of time for the actual writing of the essay, making sure to leave a one-day gap between first and second drafts.

For an example schedule, see ‘How to plan time for essay writing’.

2. Understand the essay question

This might sound obvious, but grasping the full implications of the essay question or prompt is an important part of the process. Make sure that you set time aside to explore the meaning of the question and think about what you are being asked to do.

Another helpful way to approach an essay question is to break it down. For instance, a standard essay question might include words like analyze, contrast, and illustrate. Spelling out the meaning of these words may help in properly exploring the essay question; for instance, you might think about ‘breaking down an issue into its main features and looking at them in detail’ instead of just ‘analyzing’.

For more of these common essay words and how to better understand them, see the list on ‘How to understand the essay question’.

3. Plan and execute your research

Your research for an essay topic should be systematic rather than general. In other words, you should not worry about learning everything that has to do with the subject of your essay. You should target the information that is relevant to the essay question.

Deciding how much research is necessary for the essay is a major consideration. How many books or articles will you need to read? What sorts of online resources will you need to explore? Are there audio/visual sources that you will need to locate?

You will also want to consider what sort of primary sources you might need, and whether or not you should set aside time for gathering original data or planning museum/gallery visits.

For a list of specific research tactics, see ‘How to do research for an essay’.

4. Organize your material

At this point, you have finished with your research, and have collected all the material needed to write the essay. However, before you begin you should take a moment to step back and re-evaluate the essay question or topic. Consider your approach to the question, the main themes or ideas that are emerging, the arguments you can pursue, and the kind of evidence that you need.

Another important step is outlining the structure of the paper. You are probably aware that an essay needs an introductory paragraph, a main section, and a conclusion, but that basic format should be expanded upon in your specific essay plan. Think about creating an outline of headings for the main section based on the different themes and points you plan to touch on. You might also consider adding drafting notes under these headings to help you once you begin writing.

For more tips on how to approach outlining your essay, see ‘How to organize material for your essay’.

Next steps

Of course, planning is important, but the actual writing is, too. Visit ‘Writing essay drafts’ and ‘Top tips for writing better essays’ for further help.

  • The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.

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