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.
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.
- 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.
- A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
- 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
Essay Writing for Standardized Tests: Tips for Writing a Five Paragraph Essay
Most, if not all, high school and college standardized tests include a writing portion. Students are provided a writing prompt and must then write an essay on the topic. Writing for standardized tests can strike fear in the hearts and minds of students of all ages, but it doesn’t have to. If you know what to expect and understand how to write a five paragraph essay, you will be prepared to tackle any essay writing prompt.
Types of Essays on Standardized Tests
When you begin to write your essay for a standardized test, you must first decide what type of essay you are being asked to write. There are many different types of essays, including narrative, expository, argumentative, persuasive, comparative, literary, and so on. The type of essay will determine your topic and thesis. Essays for standardized tests are typically either persuasive, in which you will answer a question, or literary, in which you will write about something you read.
For standardized tests, students usually have to write a five paragraph essay, which should be 500 to 800 words long and include an introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph.
The First Paragraph: The Introduction
The first paragraph will introduce your topic. The introduction is the most important paragraph because it provides direction for the entire essay. It also sets the tone, and you want to grab the reader’s attention with interest and clarity. The best way to tackle the introduction is to:
- Describe your main idea, or what the essay is about, in one sentence. You can usually use the essay writing prompt or question to form this sentence.
- Develop a thesis statement, or what you want to say about the main idea. When the writing prompt is a question, your thesis is typically the answer to the question.
- List three points or arguments that support your thesis in order of importance (one sentence for each).
Voila! You’ve just written your introductory paragraph.
The Second, Third and Fourth Paragraphs: Supporting Details
These three paragraphs form the body of the essay. They provide details, such as facts, quotes, examples and concrete statistics, for the three points in your introductory paragraph that support your thesis. Take the points you listed in your introduction and discuss each in one body paragraph. Here’s how:
- First, write a topic sentence that summarizes your point. This is the first sentence of your paragraph.
- Next, write your argument, or why you feel the topic sentence is true.
- Finally, present your evidence (facts, quotes, examples, and statistics) to support your argument.
Now you have a body paragraph. Repeat for points two and three. The best part about introducing your main points in the first paragraph is that it provides an outline for your body paragraphs and eliminates the need to write in transitions between paragraphs.
The Fifth Paragraph: The Conclusion
The concluding paragraph must summarize the essay. This is often the most difficult paragraph to write. In your conclusion, you should restate the thesis and connect it with the body of the essay in a sentence that explains how each point supports the thesis. Your final sentence should uphold your main idea in a clear and compelling manner. Be sure you do not present any new information in the conclusion.
When writing an essay for a standardized test, outline your essay and get through each paragraph as quickly as possible. Think of it as a rough draft. When your time is up, a complete essay will score more points than an incomplete essay because the evaluator is expecting a beginning, middle and an end.
If you have time to review your essay before your time is up, by all means do so! Make any revisions that you think will enhance your “rough draft” and be sure to check for any grammatical errors or misspellings.
Online instruction like the Time4Writing essay writing courses for elementary, middle and high school students can help children prepare for state and college-entrance standardized writing tests. These interactive writing classes build basic writing skills, explain essay types and structure, and teach students how to organize their ideas.
For general tips on test preparation and details about each state’s standardized tests, please visit our standardized test overview page.