How to Take an Essay Exam

  • Make sure you are ready for the test both mentally and physically. If you have taken careful lecture notes, read the assigned texts critically, and reviewed regularly, you are ready. Also, get a good night's sleep before the day of the exam.
  • Listen carefully to the final instructions of the instructor. How much time do you have to complete the exam? Do all the questions count equally? Can you use any aids (dictionary, handbook)? Are there any changes or additions to the exam?
  • Read the exam all the way through at least once. Do not start answering any questions until you have read them all.
  • Weigh the questions. Determine which questions seem most important, which ones are going to be most difficult for you, and approximately how much time you will need for each one. Do not spend so much time answering one question that you run out of time to answer the others.
  • When you are ready to turn to an individual essay question, read it at least twice. Pay attention to key words. For an explanation of key words, see How do I get started?
  • Spend a few minutes planning your answer before you begin to write.
  • Rephrase the question into a thesis statement (controlling idea) for your essay answer.
  • Make a brief outline of the main ideas that will support your thesis statement.
  • Polish the thesis statement, making sure that it responds directly to the question and includes the main ideas (supporting evidence) that will be discussed in your answer.
  • Use a logical pattern of organization and a strong topic sentence for each paragraph.
  • Support each point with specific, relevant information.
  • Write concisely without using abbreviations or nonstandard language.
  • Avoid wordiness, padding, or unnecessary repetition.
  • Keep your test paper neat with reasonable margins. Readability is a must!
  • Revise and proofread. Correct any errors, and make sure your thesis is accurate. Did you write about what the thesis said you would write about?

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