Do you struggle with exams? There’s no real mystery to writing great exam essay- it’s really just like the essay process for an assignment, with only TWO significant differences.
The first major difference is that you do not have much time, so you need to be condensed in your approach to planning your essay. You need to plan your exam essays: as to an examiner it is immediately obvious come exam time which students took even just a couple of minutes to sketch a quick plan, and which students wrote blindly to no plan, and often wandered off topic as a result. Write a plan for an exam essay and you will produce a more structured and focused essay.
In an exam you have much less time: make every paragraph and example count.
The second major difference about an essay for an exam is that you want to advance as quickly as possible into writing the body of the essay. Consequently, practise writing 2-sentence introductions. To do this, write a neutral sentence opening the topic in a general sense, and then immediately write a sentence explicitly saying what the argument is in your essay, and the viewpoint you are proposing.
Then, begin to answer that in the very next paragraph. For exams, you want to rapidly begin notching up marks, and you win the most marks by what you compose in the body paragraphs. Long introductions do not win examination marks. Thoughtful, well-evidenced, interesting body paragraphs win marks.
Study is not simply sitting down reading a book on your topic. That is passive, and unless you are swotting for a reading exam, you will not be showing up on exam day to read. You will have to show up on exam day and write an essay-—or three.
The best exam practice is to rehearse what it is that you actually have to do in the exam. If you have to write an essay for your exam, practise writing essays on the topic in your course.
Study groups are also useful. Form a small group of three or four friends who are preparing for an examination and discuss how you would approach particular essay questions. Share your ideas and thoughts. Then, go away and write your practice essays. When your study group reconvenes, try reading your practice essays out loud to one another. It is a great way to sharpen your writing skills, and to discover new approaches to examination questions. Everyone in the group improves.
As you write out your practice essays you will stumble on areas that you need to know more about—this is useful as it immediately identifies your weak areas. Stop, go find the information you need, then write it up in your essay. This way, essay writing is an active study tool as you plug the holes in your learning.
Writing essays to rehearse for exam day will increase your writing speed and stamina. This is a good thing. Some students just don’t write enough in their exams. If you practise, your writing speed will increase and you also increase the likelihood of scoring a top mark.
Here’s something that I have found helpful over the years: I call it my ‘3 Big Ideas’ essay plan. Often you are given an essay topic, and you end up sitting there wondering what on earth you are going to write about: either you have too many possible ideas (and you are stuck wondering which ones to put in the essay and which ones to leave out); or you might be sitting there thinking: ‘I don’t know the first thing to say in this essay—I’ll never complete it!’
Let me give you this useful little tip to get you over the essay hump. When you get your essay question, sit down and think of 3 THINGS you can say about this question. Just 3 ideas. No more. Each of these points becomes a paragraph in your essay. Find some evidence to back up each of your 3 points and away you go.
Go for depth in your essay writing rather than breadth: you will score more highly as a result.
If you have to write a longer essay, don’t think up more points to argue. Instead, think of alternative ways to support the 3 KEY POINTS you are making. Present your ideas from a different perspective. Discuss the same idea using a different event, or an alternative character.
In short, you are going to write deeper rather than broader. But all the time, you write your essay concentrating on conveying 3 IDEAS well, rather than, say, 15 different ideas in less depth.
Why do you do this? Because essays that go for depth always score more highly than essays that write broadly (and more shallowly) about a topic. Have a go.
If you have written your essay, and feel it is ready to hand in, do one final inspection using this handy checklist.
Tick the following
- I have written a plan.
- In my introduction I have clearly stated my argument.
- I have got ONE main point per paragraph.
- The point of each paragraph is clear.
- I have used detailed examples to support each point.
- My paragraphs are the correct length—neither too short nor too long.
- My sentences are, on average, 20 words or less.
- I have used a variety of evidence in my essay paragraphs.
- I have only used quotes of 10 words or less.
- I have varied the styles of sentences in my essay.
- I have used good words to express myself.
- My conclusion states my main points and gives some thoughtful comments.
- I have proofread for spelling mistakes.
- I have read my essay with ‘fresh eyes’—waiting 24 hours to check my writing.
- I have given my essay a title and written my name on it.
Try using these tips and hints and we’re sure that you’ll be able to write great exam essays.