Help! I Have to Take an Essay Exam!

Maybe you hate writing and you’re better at multiple choice. Maybe you crushed your last two papers but your brain freezes under a time limit. Maybe the last time you wrote a timed essay was during the AP exam and all you can remember is scribbling as fast as you could until your hand cramped and your pinky turned blue from the ink. Essay exams can be challenging, but learning a few strategies for success can help you approach them with confidence.

You might be wondering, why do professors choose essay exams? Written exams allow you to demonstrate your understanding of key course ideas and show your capacity to engage with those ideas critically and analytically. Keep that important purpose in mind as you prepare.

How do I know what to expect?

Essay exams can vary, so you should read the syllabus and talk to your professor about the exam format. Is there one long essay? Several shorter ones? A multiple-choice section? Some kind of mash-up of everything? Is it open or closed note? Is there a choice of prompts? Are they provided in advance? What’s the time limit? Are there examples of successful in-class essays from previous years?

How should I study?

Study experts recommend that you start preparing the first day of class and avoid cramming. Your memory of the material will be more durable if you study consistently and leave plenty of time for repetition and reinforcement.

As the exam date approaches, your professor might preview the essay question or provide a list of possible prompts. In that case, review the relevant course materials and create an outline for each question that identifies a central argument and organizes evidence to support it.

When you don’t receive questions in advance, you can work to anticipate them (a good study method for all kinds of exams):

  • Think about what ideas your professor emphasized. What points came up repeatedly?
  • Look at the course syllabus. What themes are outlined?
  • Observe patterns of questions in prior tests.
  • Brainstorm questions with a study group.

Once you’ve anticipated some questions, review your notes and collect examples from readings, lectures, and discussions that you can use as evidence. Talking through this material with a study group can make the work faster and more effective: together, you’ll work on recall, synthesize the material, and draw connections between different readings, concepts, themes, etc. Organize your notes to support each prompt with a clear argument and evidence.

If it’s your first timed essay in a while, or you’re nervous about writing under pressure, practice timing yourself. Pick a topic and set a timer for five minutes. Write whatever comes to mind about that topic without backspacing or crossing things out. The important thing is to keep moving forward. If the test is handwritten, do this exercise by hand to get a feel for writing fast.

How much do I actually need to write?

Your professor will probably tell you, “write enough to answer the question.” How many points do you need to support your argument? How much supporting evidence do you have time to talk about? The time limit can also give you an idea of how much your professor expects. If you have three hours to write, your essay will be a lot longer and more complex than if you have less than an hour or multiple essays.

How should I manage my time?

Take the first 10% of the time to plan (5-6 minutes for an hour exam, 10-12 for a two hour exam, etc.).

First, preview the entire exam. Then apportion your time, allowing more time for longer, more complex questions or those worth more points. Start with the easiest questions and then move on to the harder ones. Careful time management is critical. Pay attention to the clock and make sure you leave some time for each question.

Read individual questions carefully and underline keywords. Notice when a question has multiple parts, and make sure you address each one. On scratch paper, quickly jot down useful points to help you answer the question, and then draft a thesis. It should be clear, direct, and argumentative. Write down the key points you want to make and specific evidence to support your thesis. You’ll end up with a rough outline that you can reference as you write.

Decide how you want to allot your time for individual questions. You could have a half-way checkpoint (I’ll have three paragraphs finished at 25 minutes), or, divide the time by section (I’ll spend 7 minutes on each paragraph). Save 5 minutes or so for the conclusion. Once your planning time is done, go ahead and start writing, even if you haven’t finished deciding how to address each point.

How should I structure my essay?

Start with a brief introduction. You need just enough context to explain your thesis, which should be clearly stated. Make sure your argument flows logically throughout your supporting paragraphs, and that you incorporate sufficient evidence. Remember the basic rule that one paragraph equals one idea.

If the exam is open book, you can include paraphrases and quotations, citing specific points. In each paragraph, clearly explain how each point ties back to your thesis. You might also address a counterargument to make your paper stronger.

End with a conclusion that emphasizes the implications (the “so what?”) of your argument.

As you write, reference your outline and check the clock to make sure you’re on track. If you fall behind schedule, either cut one of the points you plan to write and make sure your other points are really strong, or shorten your last couple of points. If you get stuck, try moving on to a different section and come back at the end. The conclusion can also be short: tie your points together and re-state your argument. If you don’t have time to look back over your essay, re-read your intro to make sure your thesis reflects what you’ve actually written in the paper. You may need to amend it slightly.

Things to remember:

First, your professor isn’t looking for a perfectly polished essay. They know you haven’t had weeks to revise. Prioritize the content over sounding pretty.

Second, don’t panic! If you find yourself in an anxious spiral, take a mini break. Look away from the paper. Take a breath. Take apart your pen and put it back together. Whatever calms your mind for 30 seconds. Then, refocus.

Third, when you finish the exam, try not to over-analyze what you could have done differently or compare the amount you wrote to your classmates. Be proud that you did it.

Finally, the WCC will be with you in spirit. You’ve got this!