10 Tips for Taking Essay Exams

students writing in class

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English isn't the only course that calls on you to exercise your writing skills. Essay examinations are commonly given in subjects as diverse as history, art, business, engineering, psychology, and biology. In addition, most standardized admissions tests—such as the SAT, the ACT, and the GRE—now have an essay component.

Although the subjects and the occasions may vary, the basic steps involved in composing an effective essay under strict time limits are essentially the same. Here are 10 tips to help you manage exam pressures and compose a strong essay.

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Know the Material

The most important step in preparing to take an essay exam begins weeks before the actual exam date: keep up with all assigned readings, participate in class, take notes, and look over those notes regularly. Spend the night before an exam reviewing your notes, handouts, and course texts—not reading them for the first time.

Of course, preparation for an SAT or ACT essay begins years rather than weeks before the exam. But that doesn't mean you should give up and party in the days (and nights) leading up to the test. Instead, put yourself in the right frame of mind by composing some practice essays.

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When faced with a time limit, we may be tempted to try composing an essay before we've composed ourselves. Resist that temptation. Breathe in, breathe out. Take a few minutes at the start of the exam period to read and think about each question.

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Read the Instructions

Make sure that you read the instructions carefully: know from the start how many questions you're supposed to answer and how long your answers are expected to be. For standardized tests such as the SAT or the ACT, make sure that you visit the test websites well before the day of the test so that you can read all instructions ahead of time.

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Study the Topic

Read the topic several times, looking for keywords that indicate how you should develop and organize your essay:

  • State: present the main points in a logical order
  • List, enumerate, trace: be brief and to the point, as if you're making an outline
  • Summarize, review: give a short version of the main points
  • Discuss, criticize, evaluate, justify: use specific facts and examples to back up your judgments
  • Show, explain: present specific points clearly and logically in step-by-step order
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Set up a Time Schedule

Calculate the time you have in which to write the essay, and set up a schedule. While working under a one-hour time limit, for instance, you might designate the first five or ten minutes for discovering ideas and planning your approach, the next forty minutes or so for writing, and the last ten or fifteen minutes for revising and editing. Or you might allot a shorter period to the initial drafting and devote more time to revising the essay. In any case, plan a realistic schedule—one based on your own writing habits—and then stick to it.

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Jot Down Ideas

Trying to write an essay before you have figured out what you want to say can be a very frustrating and time-wasting experience. Therefore, plan to spend a few minutes jotting down your thoughts in any fashion that works for you: freewriting, listing, outlining.

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Start With a Strong First Sentence

Don't waste time composing a long introduction. Clearly state your main points in the first sentence. Use the rest of the essay to support and illustrate these points with specific details.

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Stay on Track

As you're writing the essay, now and then reread the question to make sure that you haven't wandered off course. Don't pad your essay with information unrelated to the topic. And don't try to bluff your instructor by repeating information using different words. Cut the clutter.

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Don't Panic

If you find yourself running short on time, don't worry about crafting a lengthy conclusion. Instead, consider listing the key points you still want to make. Such a list will let your instructor know that lack of time, not lack of knowledge, was your problem. In any case, if you're pressed for time, a simple one-sentence conclusion emphasizing your main point should do the trick. Do not panic and begin writing frantically: your hasty work at the end could undermine the value of the rest of the essay.

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Edit and Proofread

When you've finished writing, take a few deep breaths and then read over the essay, word by word: revise and edit. As you reread, you may find out that you've left out an important piece of information or that you need to move a sentence. Go ahead and make the changes—carefully. If you're writing by hand (rather than on a computer), use the margins to locate new information; use an arrow to redirect a sentence. Make sure that all your corrections are clear and easy to read.