Exam Strategies for Essay Exams



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Exam Strategies for Essay Exams

  • Office of Learning Resources
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • www.vpul.upenn.edu/lrc

Preparing for the Exam

  • 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?

Preparing for the Exam

  • 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

  • Taking the Exam: Preview
  • 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

Write out a brief outline of your ideas in the margin or on scrap paper

  • 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

  • Taking the Exam: Writing
  • 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!

  • Taking the Exam: Review
  • 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.

Describe Tell how something looks or happened, including how, who, where, and why.

  • 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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