Taking Essay Tests
FOR ESSAY TESTS
- Begin your
preparation by reading your instructor's course description and
syllabus and then writing down whatever assumptions, biases,
and teaching objectives are stated or implied in these
materials. Determine how the various course topics relate to
one another, and note any repeated themes. Think about any
potential essay questions you can generate from this
information, and then write them down.
assignments and listen to lectures and discussions with the
purpose of determining how the course content supports the
major themes and answers the major questions you have generated
from the course description and syllabus. Modify and refine
these themes and questions throughout the course as you gain
- At some point
prior to the test - preferably a week or two before - quickly
look over your notes and the chapter headings from your
readings. From this overview, generate a list of major topics
for the course material covered. For each major topic, create a
summary sheet of all the relevant factual data that relates to
that topic. (See "Taking Tests - General Tips"
for more information about summary sheets.
- In addition to
learning the factual material, determine any logical
relationships among topics. These relationships are often
predictive of essay test questions. For example, if, in a
history course, you find that two political movements are
noticeably similar, then your instructor may very well ask you
to compare and contrast the two movements. Generate a list of
possible essay questions and consider setting up and answering
as many of these questions as time permits.
- BEFORE YOU
- Read all essay
questions before you start to write. As ideas and examples come
to you, jot them down on scratch paper or on the back of the
test so that you won't clutter your mind trying to remember
- Budget your
time according to the point value of each question, allowing
time for proofreading and any unexpected emergencies (such as
taking longer than you expected on a questions or going blank
for a while.)
- As you read
the questions, underline key words (eg., compare, explain,
justify, define) and make sure you understand what you are
- Begin with the
questions that seems easiest to you. This procedure reduces
anxiety and facilitates clear thinking.
actually writing, determine the relationship implied by the
question, even if the key word or words do not express a
specific relationship. For example, if you were given the
following question, "The Progressive Movement was a direct
response to the problems of industrialization. Discuss.", you
might narrow your response to a more specific cause/effect
relationship like the following:"What were the problems of
industrialization that caused a response that we label The
determing the relationship implied by the question, picture the
relationship by creating a chart or matrix of the related
elements. Be sure to separate general issues you wish to bring
up from supporting details and examples. Once this framework
for your ideas has been created, generate as many ideas as you
can within the allotted time to fill in the categories you have
established. (See Figure 1).
Sample of Prewriting Matrix
PROBLEMS OF INDUSTRIALIZATION
WHILE YOU WRITE
- Be sure your
answer has a definite thesis that directly answers the
question. State this thesis within the first few sentences of
specific as well as general information in your response by
including examples, substantiating facts, and relevant details
from your pre-writing matrix.
- Use the
technical vocabulary of the course.
- Leave space
for additions to your answer by writing on every other line and
on only one side of each page.
- If your mind
goes blank or you don't know much about a question, relax and
brainstorm for a few moments about the topic. Recall pages from
your texts, particular lectures, and class discussions to
trigger your memeory about ideas relevant to the question.
Write these ideas down as coherently as you can.
- When you reach
the end of your alloted time period for a given question, move
on to the next item: Partially answering all questions is
better than fully anwering some but not others. The instructor
can't give you any credit for a question you haven't
- If you find
yourself out of time on a question but with more to say,
quickly write down in outline form what you would write if you
AFTER YOU WRITE
- Re-read your
answers and make any additions that are necessary for clarity
- Check your
response for errors in grammar, spelling, and
RETURNED ESSAY TESTS
- Read all
comments and suggestions.
- Look for the
origins of the questions. Did most of the information your
instructor expected on your essay come from the lectures? From
the texts? From outside readings?
- Determine the
source of your errors. Was there any course content tested for
which you failed to prepare or were inadequately prepared? Did
you misread or misunderstand any of the questions? Did you do
poorly because you ran out of time? Were you too anxious to
focus on the questions and your responses? Did the instructor
criticize your writing skills - grammar, spelling, punctuation,
sentence structure, style, or organization - or how you
developed or argued your points?
- Check the
level of difficulty or the level of detail of the test
questions. Were most of the questions asking for precise
details or main ideas and principles? Did most of the quesitons
come straight from the material covered, or did the instructor
expect you to be able to analyze and/or evaluate the
information? Did you have any problems with anxiety or blocking
during the test?
Portions of this handout have been adapted from materials
developed by Nancy Wood, University of Texas at El Paso, and David
Hubin and Susan Lesyk, University of Oregon.