A Guide to Essay Exams
by Matthew Woessner
Assistant Professor of Public Policy
Penn State Harrisburg
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.
- Read the exam instructions
- Students often fail to
follow the exam instructions.† Be certain you know exactly what the
instructor is looking for based on the instructions provided.
- Make certain you answer
the precise number of essay questions called for in the exam.† Donít
forget to complete every section of the test.†
- Answer the question.†
- Read the question
carefully.† Donít assume you know what the instructor is asking.†
- As you write the essay,
repeatedly reread the question to make certain your answer doesnít drift
- 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.
- Be certain to answer the
question in its entirety.
- 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.
- Be certain the instructor
can clearly see youíve covered each part of the essay.†
- Clearly state your main
point in the opening paragraph of the essay.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- Marshal facts to support
your arguments, particularly when making a subjective contention.
- 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.
- Consider summarizing your
supporting evidence early in the essay.† Provide the reader a brief
roadmap of the evidence you intend to present.†
- Feel free to tell the
reader everything you know which supports your underlying position.†
Donít assume youíve said enough to minimally satisfy the reader.
- Identify possible weakness
in your position.† Explain why these potential weaknesses do not undermine
your overall argument.
- 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
- 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.
- Demonstrate a mastery of the
material by utilizing the course terminology in your answer.†
- 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.
- 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.
- Manage your time carefully.
- Do not spend a
disproportionate amount of time on any given question.
- 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.
- Donít linger on any
particular question at the expense of other essays in the exam.
- When necessary, use illustrations
to clarify your argument.
- Feel free to sketch
diagrams in the margin of the essay to illustrate a point that is
difficult to put into words.
- Make certain the
illustrations are clear and relatively simple.
- Donít get bogged down in
being artistic.† The purpose of sketching diagrams is to save time, not
to show off your creative talents.
- Try not to leave the exam
- Make certain that you have
answered all of the questions called for in the exam.
- Look back over the exam
for obvious errors. †
- Consider supplementing
your essay with additional facts or material to support your key
- 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.† †