How To Write An Exam Essay

Writing the In-Class Essay Exam

By Emily Schiller

The first in-class essay exam I took when I returned to college was a disaster. I had done all the reading, TWICE; thought extensively about the material; and filled pages with notes from my own responses as well as from class. I couldn’t have been more prepared to discuss the novels we’d read.

But I wasn’t at all prepared to write essays with time limits and no chance to revise. So what did I do? I took the questions as jumping-off points and
wrote everything I could think of, had thought of, or might even consider. Every once in awhile I’d indent, so they at least would resemble essays with real paragraphs. There was no logic to anything I did; I just spewed. Not good. The professor commented (kindly, gently) that my ideas were superb and my insights quite inspired. However, not only were my answers not essays, they never really responded directly to the questions. Aargh!

After that, I learned to contain and direct my enthusiasms. Essay exams are not a license to babble. They require reflection and control. Here are some
steps I created to help myself and, later on, to help my students.

1) First, read the question carefully. Pick out the salient points. What is the topic? A book, an event, an idea? What is the focus? A character? A problem?
What are you being asked to do with this? Discuss? Contrast? Agree/Disagree?

2) Next, make a few very quick notes in answer to the question or in response to the topic.

3) Stop and take a breath. Read over your ideas and ask yourself which ones directly address the question or essay prompt. Throw out whatever
is irrelevant to the task at hand no matter how much you love it. Really!

4) Now make a very brief (very rapid) outline:

  1. What is your thesis? What will you argue? Remember that your thesis is your promise to the reader: You are promising that by the end of this
    essay, you will have convinced the reader of such and such and nothing else. Once again, check to make sure the thesis responds directly and specifically to the question. The thesis will keep you honest as well as help prepare the reader.
  2. Create a list of the points you’ll need to make to prove your thesis. Throw out any point that only shows off another bit of information
    you have in your head rather than builds the argument for your thesis. Each point should be in the form of an assertion, a mini-thesis and will serve as the topic-sentences for your body paragraphs.
  3. Arrange these topic sentences in some sort of logical order rather in the order they have just occurred to you. What piece of information
    does the reader need first? Second? etc. Each point should build on the one that comes before and towards making the case for your thesis.

5) Now start writing the essay. Do not let yourself write a long introduction. You don’t want to take time away from the argument itself. Just use a sentence or two to introduce the problem being addressed, transition to your thesis, state your thesis, and then stop.

6) As you work your way through your body paragraphs—as specified in your brief outline—remember that each assertion needs an example as evidence. Your position means very little if you haven’t demonstrated an ability to support it. That’s what your professor is looking for. So specific, concrete evidence is crucial. If you are arguing that a character in a novel is greedy, don’t simply assert that she is greedy. Give the reader an example from the plot that illustrates her nature and then explain or analyze how it does so.

7) Always try to leave yourself a few minutes at the end to look over your essays. They won’t be perfect. No one expects that. But they should be clear, logical, and easy to read.

The steps I’ve outlined here aren’t much different from the ones you’ll use to write take-home essays, except that at home you’ll have time to do lots of brainstorming and freewriting. In-class exams leave precious little time to be creative. But if you come to class prepared and then carefully tailor your insights to the questions being asked, you’ll be able to express your ideas with grace and intelligence while staying on-topic.

Emily Schiller has been a re-entry student twice. She left college after two years to pursue work in dance, theatre and teaching and then returned six years later to complete a B.A. in Theatre Arts with a minor in Philosophy. After working as an office manager for a chiropractic office, manager of a national playwriting competition, free-lance reader, and public radio producer, she returned to college again, this time earning an M.A. in English from California State University at Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in English from UCLA where she taught American Literature and Writing.

Essay exams are designed to test your ability to synthesise information and to organise your thoughts on paper. The following points are designed to help you prepare for essay style examinations.

Be familiar with the terminology used

Make sure you understand the question and are clear about what you are being asked to do. Terms like: compare, trace, illustrate and evaluate all have different meanings and will require a different style of answer.

  See Exam Skills: Clue Words

Take time to read the exam paper thoroughly

Not reading questions properly is a common mistake made in essay exams. Therefore, make sure you read each question carefully and be sure you understand exactly what the question is asking.

If the question is ambiguous, unclear or too broad, clearly write your interpretation of the question before answering.

Plan before you write

Don't write your essay off the top of your head - the results will be disorganised and incoherent. Before you start writing, jot down your ideas and organise them into an essay plan.

    • You can write a plan on the exam paper itself, or on any spare paper you have with you.
    • Begin by thinking about how you will answer the question.
    • Note the main information in point form. Doing this will also help you think about your answer.

Number your answers

If you have to write more than one essay, always indicate the number of the essay so it is clear which question you are answering.

Hint: You don't have to answer questions in the order in which they appear in the exam paper. Start with the easiest one first and do the hardest last. This helps to reduce anxiety and facilitates clear thinking.

Time yourself on each question

    • Allocate a set time to complete each question (for example, two essays in two hours = 1 hour per question)
    • Start with the easiest one and do the hardest last. This approach reduces anxiety and helps you think more clearly.

Answer in the first sentence and use the language of the question

Always answer the question in the introduction. To clearly signal your answer, use the language of the question.

For example:

Question: "How do the goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ?"

 You could begin your essay with:

 "The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways . . ."

This approach makes sure you answer the question, and makes the exam easier to mark. 

Make sure you structure your essay 

It should follow basic essay structure and include:


An introduction should explicitly state your answer and the organisation of the essay. For example:

"The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways. The first is that . . . The second is . . . and the third main area of difference lies in the . . . This essay will argue that although these differences exist in approaches, the practices of liberal and socialist feminism have become very similar".


The Body of your essay should include:

    • supporting material
    • appropriate details for your answer.

Make sure you structure the body of the essay as you indicated in your introduction. Use transitions to tie your ideas together. This will make your essay flow. If you feel you are losing the plot, go back and reread the question and your introduction. 


In your Conclusion, re-answer the question and refer briefly to the main points in the body. Show HOW you have answered the question. For example: 

"In conclusion, it is clear that although liberal and socialist feminism originally held differing views on how to attain their goals, a realistic assessment now shows that their practice has become very similar. This is most clearly illustrated by . . . (give your best example and end the essay).

If you run out of time, answer in point form

Markers will often give you some marks for this.

Write as legibly as possible

    • Print your answers instead of using cursive writing.
    • Be aware of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
    • If you are using exam booklets, write on every second line.
    • If you have time at the end of the exam, proof read your essay for grammatical and spelling errors.
    • Leave space in between answers in case you have time to add any information you didn't include in your essays.


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