Exam Strategies for Essay Exams
- Office of Learning Resources
- University of Pennsylvania
- Know what is expected of you. What content will be covered? How many questions will be on the exam?
- Ask yourself:
- What do I know about this material?
- What do I need to know?
- Write out answers to possible exam questions. Practice organizing your ideas and writing a complete response.
- If your professor doesn’t provide sample questions, create a few for yourself and practice writing out your answers.
Preparing for the Exam
- Practice answering sample questions under conditions similar to those you will encounter in the actual exam. Find a quiet place. Set a time for the allotted time.
- Be mentally and physically prepared for the exam. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat healthy food.
Taking the Exam: Preview
- Skim over the entire exam to get a sense of everything you have to do
- Estimate how much time you have to spend on each question
- For example, if you have 4 questions and a 2 hour time period, plan for 30 minutes to organize, write, and review each question.
- Identify which essay question you want to answer first
- Read the question carefully
- Many students do poorly on essay exams because they misread the question.
- Underline key words or phrases
- Determine whether the question is asking you to respond to more than one thing
- Taking the Exam: Planning
- Write out a brief outline of your ideas in the margin or on scrap paper
- Be careful not to write down everything you know about a topic
- Remember that your goal is to answer a specific question in as much detail as possible.
- Think of specific examples you can use to support your argument
- Refer back to the question to make sure you have covered everything in your outline
Answer the question directly in the first few sentences of your response
- Answer the question directly in the first few sentences of your response
- Make sure each paragraph begins with a clear topic sentence
- Use headings, numbering, or spacing to make skimming the essay easy
- Included sufficient explanation
- Don’t leave anything to inference
- Define terms, explain statements, support ideas with facts and logic
- If you’re not specific enough your professor may assume you did not understand the material.
- Use your time efficiently, but don’t rush!
- When you are finished writing, read through your essay to check for errors before moving on to the next question
- If you run out of time, try to write at least a partial response or detailed outline rather than leave the question blank
Essay Question “Action” Words
- Discuss Consider important characteristics and main points.
- Enumerate List or discuss one by one.
- Illustrate Explain, using examples that demonstrate or clarify a point or idea.
- Compare Show how items are similar or different; include details or examples.
- Contrast Show how items are different; include details or examples.
- Define Give an accurate meaning of the term with enough detail to show that you really understand it.
Essay Question “Action” Words
- Explain Give facts and details that make the idea or concept clear and understandable
- Trace Describe the development or progress of a particular trend, event, or process in chronological order.
- Evaluate React to the topic in a logical way. Discuss the merits, strengths, weaknesses, advantages, or limitations of the topic
- Summarize Cover the major points in brief form; use a sentence and paragraph form.
- Essay Question “Action” Words
- Describe Tell how something looks or happened, including how, who, where, and why.
- Justify Give reasons that support an action, event, or policy.
- Criticize Make judgments about quality or worth; including both positive and negative aspects.
- Prove Demonstrate or establish that a concept or theory is correct, logical, or valid.
Do You Want to Know More?
- Meet with a Learning Instructor to learn more about taking
- Essay Exams
- Call 573-9235 to make an appointment, M-F, 9-5pm.
- Come to walk-in hours, M-F, 12-3pm.
- Visit our website and download self-helps and learning tools, www.vpul.upenn.edu/lrc.
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