Preparing for Essay-Style Exams

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Preparing for Essay-Style Exams

  • AsIAm
  • 23/04/2021
  • 8 minutes read

Preparing for Essay-Style Exams

Essay exams are designed to assess your ability to draw from the information you learned over the course of the module and to formulate an argument based on what you have learned over the semester. This can help you to prepare for essay-based questions you might encounter in an exam.

Familiarise yourself with the terminology used

Try to ensure that you understand the question asked of you, and that you know what you are asked to do. Many questions have keywords that have precise meanings, which the lecturer used to tell you exactly how to answer each question.

Examples of these keywords include:

Analyse If you are asked to analyse a particular topic, this type of question is asking you to find what are the main ideas posed by the question, how these ideas are connected to both each other and the wider question and why discussing these ideas are important to understanding the topic raised by the question. 
Comment on If you are asked to comment on a particular topic, this is an open-ended question that asks you to discuss the main theory or ideas behind the topic, or to explain what it means and to provide a critical analysis about the topic and the underlying ideas behind the topic. The critical analysis gives you the opportunity to communicate what you perceive to be the advantages and disadvantages of the position posed by the statement and to give reasons why you took a position supporting or opposing a statement.
Compare If you asked to compare two competing ideas, this gives you the opportunity to compare the two topics and to show both topics’ constituent similarities and differences. 
Contrast This is a similar type of question to compare, but where you are asked to focus on what the differences are between two competing ideas. 
Criticise This type of question is asking you to give your judgement or reasoned opinion about a particular topic, and to lay out the benefits and disadvantages of the idea in question, and why you support or oppose the idea posed by the question. 
Define This type of question is asking you to provide a detailed explanation of what a topic means and to explain the differences between this topic and other similar topics.
Describe This type of question is asking you to write a detailed account about the topic raised by the question. This often takes the form of a detailed description written in sequence, but can also take the form of a story or a visual description of what you see. 
Diagram This type of question is asking you to draw a graph, chart or drawing that might explain a certain concept, like a statistic or a maths theory. Make sure to use labels to describe the diagram, provide a brief explanation of what it means if this is asked of you. 
Discuss This question is asking you to express an argument for or against a particular position posed by the question, and use appropriate evidence to support your position. 
Enumerate This type of question is asking you to name and list the main ideas of a topic in sequence. 
Evaluate This question is asking you to provide an opinion as to the truth or importance of a particular concept, including its constituent advantages and disadvantages, backed by some expert evidence supporting your opinion. 
Illustrate This question asks you to explain or clarify certain statements posed by the question using concrete examples, comparisons or analogies. 
Interpret This question is asking you to explain the meaning of a particular statement using examples and personal comments to clarify the statement. 
Justify This question is asking you to provide a statement explaining why you believe the statement is happening, and to give reasons explaining why you reached this statement or conclusion. 
List This type of question is asking you to name and list the main ideas of a particular topic in sequence. 
Outline This type of question is asking you to provide a general summary about a particular topic, containing a series of main ideas supported by secondary facts and demonstrating how each idea is organised. 
Prove This type of question is asking you to demonstrate by argument or logic why a particular statement is true. However, the word ‘prove’ has a more specific meaning in maths and physics, in showing the evidence as to why you reached a particular answer. 
Relate This type of question is asking you to show how certain ideas are caused or are connected with each other. 
Review This type of question is asking you to provide a survey or summary in which you look at the important parts and criticise if necessary.
State This type of question is asking you to concisely describe the key points of the topic raised, using clear, concise sentences.  
Summarise This type of question is asking you to provide a brief account of the topic, and its principal ideas. 
Trace This type of question is asking you to provide an account of a subject, following its progress or history.

Take some time to carefully and thoroughly read the exam paper

A common mistake that some students make in essay exams is to not read the question thoroughly before answering, and this can particularly be the case if the student is pressed for time and under pressure to answer the question. To avoid encountering this problem, it is essential that you take the time to ensure that you read the question carefully and that you have a clear understanding of what each question is asking you to do.

If you believe that the question is unclear or ambiguous, you can write how you interpret the question before proceeding to answer the question.

Plan before you Write

Try not to write an answer to an Essay-style exam question from memory – you might find that the answer might have inconsistencies, or that may be unstructured and doesn’t flow well.   Before you begin to write your answer, write down the ideas you have and structure these ideas into an essay plan. Your plan will put a structure that underpins your essay answer, with the introduction introducing your argument, the body covering the main themes of what you want to discuss and wrapping up with a conclusion that summarises your ideas and explains why you reached a particular conclusion. You can use a spare worksheet to draw up your essay plan – your plan can contain certain ideas or keywords that you want to discuss in each paragraph, and arrange these ideas into a cogent argument that you can use for your essay. Start your plan by thinking about how you want to answer the question, and by using bullet points to note the main points or keywords that you want to tell in your essay, and what you want your lecturer to take away from your answer when they are correcting your paper.


Number your answers

If you need to answer more than one question in the exam, make sure to write the number of the question you’re answering beside your answer to make it clear as to which question you’re answering.


Allocate a set time to answer each question

Try to allocate a set period of time to answer each question required. If you are asked to answer 3 questions out of a paper of five, this means that whilst you don’t have to answer every question, you also have to make sure that you give yourself enough time to answer the three questions required. 

If you have a two-hour exam and you are required to answer three questions, this means that you have three 40 minute blocks to complete the paper, or 50-minute block if you have an accommodation that gives you an extra 30 minutes at exams. Once you spend 5 minutes reading the question and planning your content, this gives you 30-35 minutes to answer your question, with an extra 5-15 minutes to put in anything that comes to you afterwards and to make small edits to your answer, depending on the time you have left. Try not to devote too much time to a particular question, as this will impact your ability to answer later questions and on your final grade, and help you to avoid the feeling of rushing through an answer in the last few minutes of an exam. 

One strategy that can be helpful if you find exams an especially nerve-wracking experience is to start with the easiest question first, as this can help you to calm your nerves and help you to think clearly about the question, and reserve the harder questions to the later stages of the exam.

 Answer the question in the introduction

For these questions make sure that you answer the question posed, ideally using the language used by the question. This provides the answer with a structure from the outset and makes it easier for your examiner to correct the question later. 

Ensure that you provide a structure to your answer

Your answer should follow the conventions of an academic essay, which means that your answer should include an introduction, body and conclusion. Certain disciplines, like law, might ask you to follow a particular convention when answering a question. This can include ILAC (Issue Legislation Application Conclusion), where you might be asked to state the issues posed by the question, describe what legislation relates to the question, use case law to describe how the law is applied and what judgments are relevant, and conclude with how you would use the legislation and case law to resolve the issue posed by the question. If you have to follow a convention like ILAC, it is advisable to do so when answering the question.

Introduction to the Answer

Your introduction to the answer should explicitly state how you intend to answer your question, or what point-of-view that you want to advance your essay to advance. You should follow up by outlining both how you wish to organise your essay and the main points that you wish to address in each paragraph of the body of the essay. 

The Body of your Answer

The body of your answer should include:

  • Any relevant material or evidence that supports your main argument or statement you wish to answer.
  • Appropriate details that both address the issues raised by the question and introduction and expands your argument. This can include fleshing out the point raised in the essay, explaining concepts that relate to your argument, like describing historical events and why they happened.

Try to ensure that the body of the essay is structured the same way as what you indicated in your introduction. You can use the end of the last paragraph and the start of the following paragraph as a bridge to both transition into your next argument, to connect the ideas in your essay together and to make sure that your answer is coherent and flow together. You can go back to the paper and the question and your introduction if you get stuck at any point in your answer. 


Use your conclusion to restate or rephrase your answer to the question in the introduction and briefly restate the main points that you answered in the essay’s body. You can also use the conclusion to demonstrate how you reached your answer to the question, and explain why. 

If you run out of time…

If at any point you are running out of time in an exam, you can use bullet points to answer the parts of the question that you are writing at the end. This gives an opportunity for your examiner to give some marks and to give an idea on how you wanted to answer the question, as otherwise, they can’t give marks for what they don’t see in the paper.

Write as clearly and as legibly as you can. If you feel that you need to print out your writing instead of joined-up writing, you can do this to make your answer clearer to the examiner.

Try to be as precise as you can with your spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Ideally, you can use the time at the end of the exam to proofread your essay, check your essay for any spelling or grammatical errors it might have.

Leave some space between your answers to each question (at least ½ page or ideally 1 page)  in the case of when you come to the end of the exam, you want to add any new information that you remember that you didn’t have the chance to include in your initial answer.



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