A Guide to Essay Exams

by Matthew Woessner

Assistant Professor of Public Policy

Penn State Harrisburg


I wrote the following instructions to help students cope with my essay exams.† Securing a good grade in my class is ultimately a two step process.† Students must first learn the course material, and then demonstrate their knowledge in a few difficult exams. †This guide to writing essays exams was designed to help students prepare for a test and then demonstrate what theyíve learned.  In order to ensure the highest possible grade, students should integrate the following recommendation into their overall test-taking strategy.


  1. Read the exam instructions carefully.
    1. Students often fail to follow the exam instructions.† Be certain you know exactly what the instructor is looking for based on the instructions provided.
    2. Make certain you answer the precise number of essay questions called for in the exam.† Donít forget to complete every section of the test.†


  1. Answer the question.†
    1. Read the question carefully.† Donít assume you know what the instructor is asking.†
    2. As you write the essay, repeatedly reread the question to make certain your answer doesnít drift off point.
    3. Donít make up your own question in an attempt to hide the limits of your knowledge.† Instructors arenít impressed by overt attempts to circumvent the essay provided.


  1. Be certain to answer the question in its entirety.
    1. Answer every component of a multi-part question.† Multi-part essay questions are rarely optional.† If you omit portions of a multipart essay you will lose points on the exam.
    2. Be certain the instructor can clearly see youíve covered each part of the essay.†


  1. Clearly state your main point in the opening paragraph of the essay.
    1. Instructors often grow impatient, waiting for students to get to the point.† Itís often advisable to open your essay by definitively stating the main argument.† You can then spend the balance of your essay providing evidence to support your basic point.
    2. When dealing with a multifaceted question, open the essay by addressing the first part of the question, providing supporting evidence and move on to the next section.††
    3. When possible, take a definitive stance on a point of controversy.† Try not to appear being tepid or wishy-washy.† If asked to take a position between two conflicting arguments, donít simply argue that ďthe truth lies somewhere in-between.Ē


  1. Marshal facts to support your arguments, particularly when making a subjective contention.
    1. Essay exams often require students to offer opinions or make subjective arguments.† Be certain to explain how and why you came to a particular conclusion.† Assume the instructor will take the opposite position.† Try to imagine what facts you would need in order to be most persuasive.
    2. Consider summarizing your supporting evidence early in the essay.† Provide the reader a brief roadmap of the evidence you intend to present.†
    3. Feel free to tell the reader everything you know which supports your underlying position.† Donít assume youíve said enough to minimally satisfy the reader.
  2. Identify possible weakness in your position.† Explain why these potential weaknesses do not undermine your overall argument.
    1. Never assume that your essay position is fool proof.† Try to consider why others will take a different position. Try to incorporate these potential weaknesses into your answer.†
    2. Instructors are often impressed by essays that can take a definitive stand on an issue, yet recognize the potential problems in their chosen line of reasoning.† While disclosing prospective weaknesses in your position, explain why these concerns are not sufficient to change your overall opinion.


  1. Demonstrate a mastery of the material by utilizing the course terminology in your answer.†
    1. Most college courses involve the acquisition of new and often unfamiliar terms.† Learn these terms and where appropriate, incorporate them into your essays. Demonstrating a mastery of the course terminology is an effective way of signifying a competence in the overall course material.
    2. Donít be afraid to emphasize your mastery of the material by highlighting or underlining course terminology used in the essay.† Save this exercise for the end of the exam.† Itís not wise to interrupt a train of thought, especially when youíre on a role.


  1. Manage your time carefully.
    1. Do not spend a disproportionate amount of time on any given question.
    2. Avoid shortchanging a particular essay question by offering a minimalist answer.† If the essay question constitutes 50% of the exam grade, expect to spend half of the allotted time covering the relevant material.
    3. Donít linger on any particular question at the expense of other essays in the exam.
  2. When necessary, use illustrations to clarify your argument.
    1. Feel free to sketch diagrams in the margin of the essay to illustrate a point that is difficult to put into words.
    2. Make certain the illustrations are clear and relatively simple.
    3. Donít get bogged down in being artistic.† The purpose of sketching diagrams is to save time, not to show off your creative talents.


  1. Try not to leave the exam early.†
    1. Make certain that you have answered all of the questions called for in the exam.
    2. Look back over the exam for obvious errors. †
    3. Consider supplementing your essay with additional facts or material to support your key arguments.†
    4. Go back over your essays and emphasize (either by highlighting or underlining) the appropriate invocation of course terminology.† Make it clear you can draw from a wide variety of course related terms to answer essay questions.


My former students Sondra Hart, Leah Kithcart and Liana Zirilli deserve special thanks for spontaneously developing many of these techniques to cope with some exceptionally difficult essay exams.† †