5 Ways to Prepare for Essay Exams

Exam test prep tips

Essay exams are some of the most difficult exams, not only because of the limited time for writing, but also because they require students to recall information unprompted and give detailed evidence to support answers.

Good preparation and practice in essay techniques can help students ace even the most unexpected essay questions. See a few techniques below to get you started.

Predict Likely Questions

Essay questions are often developed from a theme or a lens, so chapter and subject headings from readings, handouts, and class notes are a good source for deriving potential exam questions. Using common keywords like “describe,” “compare/contrast,” or “evaluate,” turn headings into exam prompts, then choose the most likely ones based on the focus of recent class sessions. For example, the header “Cotton is King!” might become the question, “Evaluate the role that cotton played in the decisions made by Southern leaders during the Civil War.”

Outline Practice Essays And Gather Evidence

Once you’ve determined some likely prompts, practice by creating essay outlines with the main points you’ll make written out. There’s no need to write the whole essay; however, do take the time to create a thesis statement and to gather evidence for your points once they’re outlined. Facts, quotes, dates, experimental results, or other evidence will all work to help support your essay’s thesis.

Use The Rule Of Threes As A Base Structure

An easy go-to structure for essays is the rule of threes: three sentences in the introduction, three body paragraphs, and three sentences in the conclusion. The three sentences in the introduction provide a preview of the body paragraphs and state the theme. Then, each body paragraph goes into detail and provides supporting evidence for the main idea of the paragraph. The three sentences in the conclusion restate the theme and main points again, using different language. This basic structure is helpful for preparing and can be easily modified on test day, either by adding paragraphs for length if needed or by adjusting the introduction and conclusion for a more subtle exploration of the essay’s subject.

Analyze Direction Words

One way to prepare specifically for an essay exam is to practice responding to different types of keywords within the question, also known as direction words. These words like explain, define, compare, contrast, discuss, interpret, or evaluate, will help you form a thesis and respond to the question appropriately. For example, a question that asks you to compare and contrast will require a balanced look at two opposing ideas, while a question that asks you to discuss will be best answered by including multiple factors that contributed to the subject at hand. Interpretation or evaluation questions, however, often indicate that you should choose an argumentative side and defend it against objections. Practice responding to different types of direction words by creating multiple thesis statements about the same subject matter.

Know The Material

Finally, and most importantly, stay up-to-date on the readings and be active in class. Sometimes, essay exams throw curveballs, and while mastery over essay forms and question types is helpful, mastery over the subject matter will do more for you in the long run. Take a little time after class to summarize the theme or main idea behind each lecture, and do the same with the readings.

While essay exams can be more difficult than ordinary tests and require some more in-depth preparation, familiarity with keywords, comfort with a basic essay format, and practice looking for themes and supporting evidence can all contribute to a strong performance and high grades under any circumstances.

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