Preparing for Essay Style Exams

Preparing for Essay Style Exams

In this section:

Doing well on Essay Exams

It's all in the way the question is worded

Essay Style Practice Questions

In-test Strategies

For Open Book, Take Home, and Other Exams

Next section... Reducing Exam Anxiety

Doing well on Essay Exams

For students who are comfortable with their essay writing skills, the onset of final exams featuring essay questions or short answers usually brings a sense of consolidation to a year's work and offers an opportunity to display the knowledge and thinking skills developed over the course of the year. Some students, however, are not quite so comfortable with the thought of doing essay exams; if you are one of these students, you will want to consider some ways to prepare which can foster this feeling of comfort. Doing well on essay style exams, as is the case for any exams at university, demands that you be well and thoroughly prepared with the concepts, ideas, and theories, and arguments of the course. It is vital that you understand the relationships between elements of the course as there is often an emphasis on the content of the discipline, the theoretical perspectives used to understand the course, and on the way knowledge is defined in the course. You need to be able to think analytically and critically and articulate your thoughts in written form.

Typically essay style exams have fewer question than we see on multiple choice exams, and often the few questions that are offered are related to each other quite closely, but worded and focussed slightly differently. Sometimes the test calls for the student to answer all questions, but often you are required to make selections, say a or b or choose three of seven. Questions typically emphasize some analytical and critical process around themes of the course with reference to particular theories, ideas, concepts, readings, or lectures through special direction words such as compare, contrast, discuss etc. In this section we'll look at a variety of these direction words and consider related preparation strategies. Next, we will look at a series of example questions and demonstrate how to interpret them to provide exactly what is requested. As well, we'll look at a series of in-test strategies to assist you with the actual writing of these exams. Some general suggestions for studying for essay style exams follow.

Perform elaborative rehearsal of key concepts, ideas, theories with a view to becoming fluent in the concepts of the course. The key focus here is on understanding the key issues, themes, and concepts of the course on a "big picture" level. This kind of understanding suggests an emphasis placed on the student understanding and demonstrating the ability to discuss the connections among the themes and issues of a course. As well, many courses offer students critical tools in the form of theoretical models which students are expected to be able to discuss and apply to course related situations. Thus, preparation needs to focus less on detail than on the broad themes, their interconnections, and on the application of critical tools to course content.

Effective writers of essay style exams also tend to emphasize the importance of gathering and constructing possible questions that would test the knowledge and skills learned in the course. You may want to look to course assignments for the kinds of questions to look for and for feedback on how to improve your answers. Past exams - used as possible models - and questions given on assignments or introduced in class as "something for you to think about" offer a good basis. A keen student may also construct some questions on the basis of her understanding of course themes and issues and critical tools. Answering these questions as self-tests (perhaps by forming an outline of ideas rather than by writing out the answer long-hand) may help you to "pull the course together". Study groups may also be very helpful in this regard because different members of the group often have a different way of thinking about concepts and come up with different questions to test the same course content.

It's all in the way the question is worded.

As you begin to study -- and especially as you begin to write -- PAY ATTENTION TO ACTION WORDS (discussed below from Walter Pauk's How to Study in College, 5th Ed., 1993) and be sure to read the directions carefully. Many students lose marks simply because their answers do not respond to the language of the questions. They may write about the subject matter mentioned in the question, but not in the precise manner that the question requires. Be sure that your response matches the requirements of the question. The following list organizes some key words that are found in examination questions. When you preview a test, circle or highlight them as reminders of what your answer should include and how it should be focused and structured. Do not try to memorize this list; simply note the subtle differences in meaning among these examination "action words."


The first group comprises question words which elicit direct answers and may tend not to elicit developed answers. Consequently, they may be rarely seen on essay exams. Nonetheless, they appear, and when they do, they often imply that the student should explain or elaborate.

·         LIST - Write an itemized series of concise statements

·         ENUMERATE - Write in a list or outline form, making points concisely one by one

·         DESCRIBE - Recount, characterize, sketch, relate in a sequence or story form.

·         DEFINE-Give clear, concise, authoritative meanings.

·         STATE - Present main points in brief, clear sequence, usually omitting minor details and examples.

·         SUMMARIZE - Give the main points or facts in condensed form, like the summary of a chapter in a text, omitting details and illustrations.

·         DIAGRAM - Give a graphic answer, a drawing, a chart, a plan, a schematic representation.


As a group, these words tend to suggest fully thought out and demonstrated answers. These terms tend to be a little slippery and it is often advisable to clarify the meaning of these words within the context of your course.

·         DISCUSS - Consider various points of view, analyze carefully, and give reasons pro and con.

·         ANALYZE -Summarize fully with detail in accordance with a selected focus, consider component parts of ideas and their inter-relationships

·         EXPLAIN - Clarify, interpret, give reasons for differences of opinion or of results, analyze causes.

·         ILLUSTRATE - Use a word picture, diagram, or concrete example to clarify a point.

·         OUTLINE - Organize a description based on main points and subordinate points, stressing the arrangement and classification of the subject matter.

·         TRACE - In narrative form, describe the evolution, development, or progress of the subject.


These action words are premised on an analysis which works to integrate ideas under focus; emphasizing similarities, differences, and connections between these ideas deepens our understanding of the ideas and may help you contextualize ideas more effectively.

·         COMPARE- Look for qualities or characteristics that resemble each other. Emphasize similarities, but also note differences.

·         CONTRAST - Stress differences, dissimilarities of ideas, concepts, events, problems, etc., but also note similarities.

·         RELATE - Show how ideas or concepts are connected to each other.

·         Related words: DISTINGUISH.


The words in this group direct the student to take a position on an issue and defend his or her argument against reasonable alternatives.

·         PROVE - Establish the truth of a statement by giving factual evidence and logical reasoning.

·         JUSTIFY - Show strong reasons for decisions or conclusions; use convincing arguments based on evidence

·         Related words: AGREE, DISAGREE, DEBATE, DEFEND


Writing an essay question with these action words involves invoking acceptable criteria and defending a judgment on the issue, idea, or question involved. Underlying questions here include "to what extent?" and "how well?".

·         CRITICIZE - Express your judgment about the merit or truth or usefulness of the views or factors mentioned in the question.

·         EVALUATE - Appraise, give your viewpoint, cite limitations and advantages, include the opinion of authorities, give evidence to support your position. (cf., CRITICIZE)

·         INTERPRET - Translate, give examples or comment on a subject, usually including your own viewpoint.

·         REVIEW - Examine a subject critically, analyzing and commenting on it, or statements made about it.

·         Related words: INTERPRET, RECOMMEND.

You can see that the various question words require you to be thinking at a variety of levels. It should be clear that you must go beyond simple definition of terms. The thinking that is involved in answering these questions is something that you have been practicing all year long as you have written papers and participated in tutorials. Here you are asked to demonstrate your ability to apply these skills to your course content.

Essay Style Practice Questions

In this section we will examine a few example essay style/ short answer questions. It is important, once again, to understand how the questions were developed so that you might be able to construct your own example questions. As you read each question, attend to the action words which direct you and try to interpret what the question is asking you to do; you should find that this helps you apply the strategies we have been discussing.

1. Define SQ3R and discuss its relationship to the other strategies we studied in this section of the course.

This first question is probably best understood as a short answer question because of its specific focus. This question is reasonably direct and tests knowledge which was learned explicitly in the course. Note the direction words define and discuss and the emphasis on the relationship between this strategy and the others studied. Preparing for this question would likely involve elaborative rehearsal of the concept SQ3R and of its relationship to other strategies. Depending on the limits of the question, a detailed answer which involves a brief description of both SQ3R and the related strategies may be important. Not only would you want to list the components of SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, review), but you might also want to elaborate on the meaning of each of these before proceeding to related the strategy as a whole to other strategies. An appropriate way of detailing the relationship between the strategies is that SQ3R seems to involve and coordinate a series of the strategies studied.

2. Outline the research done by Bahrick and Hall, 1991 and discuss its implications for the study of memory.

This question is more involved than the first and could appear as an essay question on an exam. Note the direction word "outline"; it indicates you must, instead of defining a concept or memory strategy, briefly review the research done by Bahrick and Hall, 1991. The next part of the question asks you to discuss implications of the research -- this would involve understanding and talking about the findings of the research (in this case, that periodic retrieval seems to strengthen long-term memories) and asking yourself what the findings imply about the memory process. In essence you are being tested on your understanding of the conclusions of the study and on your ability to see the relationships between these conclusions and the rest of what you have studied. It should be clear that you would require a solid and detailed understanding of the course material to answer this question well and that simply reciting definitions would likely not be sufficient preparation. The other, more active, methods of study talked about earlier (practice testing, question generating etc.) would be good choices here assuming your general knowledge of basic concepts was firm.

3. In the "Improving Memory" segment of our course, we considered a series of memory strategies, including "chunking" and "organization". Describe these strategies and discuss the different ways in which they can be applied to learning different kinds of information. Is one superior to the other? Why? Why not?

This question goes beyond the first two questions in that it involves not only definition and analysis, but also critical judgement. We are first asked to describe the strategies and then to compare and contrast their application to learning different kinds of information. We are then asked to consider whether or not one strategy is superior. The answer to this question involves reliance on either course content which explicitly answers this question or on a measure of original thinking done which extends course concepts. Preparation would involve a thorough understanding of the concepts, thinking on how these concepts might be applied in various settings, and critical thinking on how one might be superior to the other.

In-test Strategies

Once you have prepared, it will be important to develop a strategy for approaching the actual writing of the exam. In the exam, read over all of your choices and make selections early. Divide your time so that you know how many minutes you have per question and make a brief plan for each question before writing. Plan a little time to review. Begin with the easiest alternative to accumulate marks quickly and to boost confidence.

.Read over the questions, make necessary choices, and plan time. Note the relative worth of questions so you can plan your time accordingly. A question worth 50% of the grade should probably take 50% of the allotted time. Decide which questions you want to do, if you have a choice. It is often advisable to begin with questions you can do readily. Do not worry about doing the questions in order unless the professor specifies otherwise. If you fall seriously behind your time plan during the test, leave adequate space for the question you are working on, and start answering the other questions. You will be more likely to get a passing grade if you answer all the required questions at least partially rather than trying to make one or two answers perfect.

.Re-read the questions, carefully noting what each question asks you to do. At this point your knowledge about organizing essays from key words like "compare and contrast" and "discuss" will be helpful in focusing you on what to say and how to organize it. Many students lose grades because they fail to answer the question; instead they ramble on about material that may be closely related to the question but not precisely what the question requires.

.Organize your thoughts before beginning to write with a brief outline, mind-maps, diagrams. A well-organized answer will be better received than one with the same points but with a less coherent presentation.

.Write a brief introduction including your statement of thesis adapted from the question you are answering. Tell the reader how you will prove this. For example, if the question says "Compare and contrast radical feminist and liberal feminist approaches to equality." then you might begin with "Liberal feminists and radical feminists differ in terms of their view on equality. This is clear when one considers the theoretical stance each group takes on the origins of inequalities between the sexes, and on the differing stances each takes on proposing solutions to this inequality..."

.Keep your point straightforward and clear. To do this, use clear transitions to link your points. As well, include some examples or references to authors of your course; a few can be memorized and a few paraphrased (and it is wise to consult with your marker about conventions for doing this). Examples demonstrate your grasp of the subject matter. References to specific and precise examples from readings and lectures support and illustrate your points.

.Sum up simply to reinforce the coherence of your answer and review the paper for obvious errors, legibility, labelling of questions, and for things you might want to change. When writing essay answers, favour a direct, concise, precise writing style. Do not waste time trying to compose a graceful lead paragraph as you might if you were writing an essay; get to the point quickly and directly. State what you intend to discuss and develop those ideas with well-chosen examples. Demonstrate that you can analyze and evaluate the subject matter; do not merely repeat information from readings and lectures. The essay exam is an exercise in thinking and expressing yourself, not in memorizing and parroting. In other words, don't just stop at defining your terms; demonstrate your ability to think and express yourself using these terms. For the sake of your reader, be sure to write legibly, even if you have to print, and write on every other line. If your writing is virtually indecipherable, you may lose credit simply because the grader cannot understand what you have written. Writing on every other line produces a less crowded appearance, and also allows you to add material to your original answers when you proof-read them. If you use several exam booklets, be sure to number them before handing them in, for example, "1 of 3," "2 of 3," "3 of 3." Protect yourself in the event that one booklet becomes misplaced.

For Open Book Exams

The important point to remember is that you should prepare effectively and thoroughly. Do not expect to be able to simply look up everything you do not know: you will not have adequate time to do so. Be prepared to use your texts and notes efficiently. Know where to locate information you think you will need when writing your answers (quotations, dates, definitions, graphs, diagrams, etc.) But do not let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security such that you do little or no prior preparation.

For Take Home Exams

Follow the basic guidelines for essay exams. You probably will not be asked to do lots of new research for the take-home essay, nor will you be given as much time as you would if you were writing a formal essay. Be direct in your writing and use straightforward organizational patterns. Demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge of the subject matter by referring to a variety of sources when providing concrete examples to support your main points. Ensure that your responses are analytical and evaluative where appropriate.

For All Tests

Arrive a few minutes ahead of time, but be wary of frantic last-ditch cramming with classmates outside the exam room: you may find that such conversations clarify nothing and only serve to make you nervous and anxious. You may feel some degree of tension or excitement because of the coming test. Such arousal is normal and perhaps even desirable in the sense that it indicates you are alert and ready. If you feel overly anxious -- if your heart is pounding, if your stomach is full of "butterflies" (really just stomach acids being secreted) -- then calm yourself physically by attending to your breathing. Breathe deeply, slowly, rhythmically. You can also reduce physical tension by alternately tensing and relaxing various muscle groups. You might consider sitting in the front of the room to minimize distractions from other students. Be prepared to use all the time allotted for the exam; do not be upset or flustered if other people finish early. For all you know, they may have given up without having finished the test, or they may have neglected to do part of the test through sheer carelessness Enter your search terms . The next section talks about these relaxation skills in more detail