Exam Writing

This is information culled from many sources. A list of the sites is listed below. There is much good information out there. This is just a glimpse of what I thought would be useful to you….

Why do professors require essay exams?

Essay exams are an effective way to see whether you understand concepts that provide the basis for the course. They want to see you can            

  • use those concepts to interpret specific materials
  • make connections, see relationships, draw comparisons and contrasts
  • synthesize diverse information in support of an original assertion
  • justify your own evaluations based on appropriate criteria
  • argue your own opinions with convincing evidence
  • think critically and analytically about a subject
  • demonstrate a thorough mastery of the subject.

 Before the exam:

 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. I found that getting together with peers helped me focus. It also reminded me of things that I hadn’t thought of or written in my notes.

How to study for the exam (this applies for a course exam or for the larger MA exam)

The following suggestions are all based on organizing your study materials into manageable chunks of related material. If you have a plan of attack, you’ll feel more confident and your answers will be clearer.

  • Don’t just memorize aimlessly; clarify the important issues of the course (or at the MA level- for a period, for an aesthetic movement, for an author, for a particular text) and use these issues to focus your understanding of specific facts and particular readings.
  • Try to organize and prioritize the information into a thematic pattern. Look at what you’ve studied and find a way to put things into related groups. Find the fundamental ideas that have been emphasized throughout the course and organize your notes into broad categories. Think about how different categories relate to each other.
  • Find out what you don’t know, but need to know, by making up test questions and trying to answer them. Studying in groups helps as well.


In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:


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.

  • Read all the questions and jot down your ideas that come to you on reading the question.
  • Plan to spend a few minutes jotting down your thoughts in any fashion that works for you: freewriting, listing, outlining. Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.


    Take at least five long , slow, deep belly breaths. This will calm you J

Read all the questions and instructions carefully again and make your choice (if applicable).

  • If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.

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.

Study the question or topic

  • Read the topic several times, looking for key words that indicate how you should develop and organize your essay. Some examples are:
  • Discuter, Commenter: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
  • Critiquer, Evaluer, Justifier: use specific facts and examples to back up your judgments. Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
  • Montrer, Expliquer: present specific points clearly and logically in step-by-step order.
  • Decrire: Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities and parts.
  • Analyser: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
  • Comparer: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences. (See Contrast.)
  • Contraster: Show differences. Set in opposition.
  • Tracer: Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event
  • Illustrer: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.

Start with a strong first sentence and formulate a thesis that answers the question.

Don’t waste time composing a long introduction. Clearly state your main points in the first sentence. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction. Be sure to introduce the topic, your argument or case, and how you will support your thesis in your first paragraph. The rest of the essay will support and illustrate these points with specific details.

  • Organize your supporting points.
    • Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive case.
    • Most essays in literature ask you to make some kind of argument, case or demonstration. What makes an argument or case persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidence to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay

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.

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.

Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.

What makes a good exam answer? It is…

Well Focused

Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid « padding. » A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn’t really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.

Well Organized

Don’t write in a haphazard « think-as-you-go » manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make. This is the answer to the question in a concise form. Begin by stating your forecasting statement or thesis clearly and explicitly. Strive for focus, simplicity, and clarity. In stating your point and developing your answers, use important course vocabulary words from the question. For example, if the question is, “Corneille et Racine marquent les limites du classicisme dans le domaine du théâtre. Il y a pourtant une grande différence entre leur représentation du monde et dans leur conception du héros. En vous référant aux deux pièces de théâtre que vous avez lues, discuter des différences entre ces deux dramaturges, » you may want to use the words héros, répresentation, and conception in your thesis statement and throughout your answer. The question or topic can be used as a springboard for your response.

If possible, you should include in this first paragraph how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion that summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.

If you have devised a promising outline for your answer, then you will be able to forecast your overall plan and its subpoints in your opening sentence. Forecasting always impresses readers and has the very practical advantage of making your answer easier to read and write. Also, if you don’t finish writing, it tells your reader what you would have said if you had finished (and may get you partial points).

Well Supported

Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, texts, etc. prove your point or support your contention? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade–or a pass and a fail– is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.

Here is an exam answer map:*

  1. State answer briefly in 5-10 lines. (Short version of answer.) This is your introduction. Write out a concise statement of your argument (or thesis) and indicate what major point you will make in each paragraph.
  2. Provide factual, historical and literary/cultural framework information as background to the response. This is to be drawn from lectures and from secondary readings. This is the memorization part of the exam and sets out the relevant context for your answer.
  3. Provide the arguments and evidence that lead to the answer they have arrived at, being sure to speak specifically about the text.
  4. Conclusion



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