Exam essays

Exams don’t bite…

Throughout a student’s school career, many tasks are expected of them. In lower grades, a student is required to do homework, listen in class without horseplay and retain material for testing purposes. Normally, this test is multiple choices, short answer or matching or a combination of these styles. When a student moves up to high school and then on to university level, a higher level of work is expected of them. Not only must they perform all tasks learned from years before, but also show better understanding of the material by writing reflective essays during exams. There are a few steps to this process. If followed step by step, writing essays during exams might not frighten you as much as before.

1. Check the instructions

(psst… this is the no.1 place students go wrong!)

Although a simple concept, this step is often overlooked. Reading the exam paper instructions may provide a bit of insight into what the exam board is really looking for in a response. Common headings that one might find in the instructions area include, “Discuss the similarities or differences” or “Define and explain”. The instructions give you a lead into the organization of your topic. For instance, if the topic is to discuss similarities and differences then you know how to format your ideas.

Aside from clues as to what’s expected of you, you may find you don’t have to answer all of the questions.  This is the number 1 place students go wrong – common mistakes are trying to answer everything then running out of time, or answering the wrong combination from different sections of the paper.  Don’t lose marks – spend a few minutes checking and double checking what’s being asked of you.

2. Write a good introduction

A good introduction is the key to expressing your ideas clearly and effectively. In the introduction paragraph, you are going to tell the reader about your essay. You will include a thesis statement i.e. a statement that clarifies the main idea of the rest of the essay. Along with the thesis statement, you must include a couple of supporting sentences that just touch on your essay. Avoid too much detail in the introduction. Keep it brief.

You’ll be surprised how many marks this introduction paragraph can be worth.  It shows you understand the question and sets the scene for where your answer is heading.

3. Make an essay plan

(it’ll save time, honest!)

A plan will also help you organize your thoughts. You can do this by jotting keywords as you brainstorm your topic or you can try a more regulated approach, an outline. An outline is a great tool when writing. Your outline main topics correspond with your paragraphs.  Just keep an eye on your time though as outlines can take a little longer than a simple bulleted list.

After completing your planning, you can simply turn your paragraph ideas into sentences. Again, do not spend too much time on this because it could cause you to rush your actual essay.

4. Present the 3 steps of an argument

Learn how to make your point

  • The first step of this process is to establish clearly what your issue or argument is before putting it into words. The introduction alerts the reader of the general subject matter but you must hone in on your specific issue or argument. You must be clear if you want your essay to be clear.
  • After completing Step 1, you should have a clear argument. Now it is time to explain this argument and state your supporting details to back your stance. Be sure to thoroughly explain your point.
  • The third step is to look at your thesis statement and argument critically. This is an opportunity to use your critical thinking to make conclusions and insights about your topic that have not been previously made. This is also called the analysis and is the most tedious step.  However, it’s also the step that picks up the most marks! Extensive critical analysis is what earns the higher grades.

5. Reach a conclusion

Don’t forget to spell out your exact position on the issue in hand

The conclusion has basically the same purpose as an introduction in an essay. The introduction tells the reader what you are going to write and the conclusion summarizes for the reader what was just read. It needs to sum up your argument and supporting information into a clear, concise paragraph. You should also include why your argument is strong or weak or why you can or cannot justify it.

6. Write lots

But don’t waffle…

Write as much as necessary to get your ideas across but avoid fluff – unnecessary information used to fill up paper. Try to use a large vocabulary and the clearest words available to express every idea. Make sure to adequately cover all your points because if not, you may not score as well.

If you’re not sure whether to include an idea or area, and you have the time, include it anyway.

7. Make sure you’ve answered the question

Hopefully you read your question and then read your completed essay and you are smiling. This is because your question was answered concisely and completely. You are now finished and expecting a good grade. If your essay does not answer the question asked, you better fix your essay or your grade may suffer.

The most important point here is, you MUST answer the exact question being asked, specifically.  Examples:

  • If the question is “Does the….”, you must spell out “Yes it does because…” or “No it doesn’t because…” or “It is impossible to say whether it does or doesn’t because…”
  • If the question is “To what extent does…”, you must spell out the extent to which something is true, and when it becomes false.

…and so on.  Don’t assume your answer is obvious from what you have written earlier.  Imagine someone came to you at the end of the exam and asked, “I think I have your point of view on this question, but just to be sure, can you spell it out for me in a sentence or two?”.