Essay Exams

Essay Exams

Here are a few points about essay exams:

  1. Long before the exam comes, try to learn what kind of an exam is to be given. Does the professor stress a number of short-answer questions of one or two paragraphs each? Does he sometimes give only one question (or two, or three) which requires orderly composition, a distinct organization, and a good flow of ideas? The nature of the exam will determine to a very large extent how you prepare for it. Preparing for essay exams involves recall, while objective exams usually call for a large percentage of recognition.
  2. When you see the exam, observe the percentage points usually written beside each question. If they are absent, you have a right to ask if all questions have equal value. This is important because of the timing.
  3. Rapidly calculate the minutes in proportion to the percent of value of each question. If the exam happened to be exactly 100 minutes long, the timing would be one minute per point. If the time is only 50 minutes long, each minute will be equal to two points out of 100.
  4. Glance rapidly over all the questions. Adjust the timing so that you allow longer time for longer answers, if any. Borrow time from the easy ones.
  5. There is no reason (unless required) to answer questions in the order asked. This is important, for it is a good rule to answer the easy ones first. Why? It’s very simple: If you puzzle too long over hard ones, you penalize yourself because you do not do the easy ones justice.
  6. Each essay answer will usually be graded for the maximum inclusion of major points first. Minor points get less credit. Extremely minor details get almost nothing by comparison. Jot down the major ideas as they occur to you, and build the answer around them in their right order, if there is a correct order.
  7. Too often students feel compelled to write at once, without thinking about the structure or organization of the answer. Sitting for a minute looking into space while organizing the answer may be much more productive than getting something on paper, just to be “busy.”
  8. Some instructors will give you credit for mentioning a major heading, even if you do not write much about it.
  9. No instructor is “fooled” by a student who shifts the topic a little to coincide with one known much better. Better spend the time clinching some other question after you run out of things about the one asked. Bluffing wastes time.
  10. Naturally, you should check off each question as answered, to avoid omitting one.
  11. It is pointless to complain to the professor, as you leave, “There wasn’t enough time ….” He doesn’t want all you know in the course! He hopes you will sort out the unimportant things — the things that are in his opinion fringe details — and give him back an organized account that would be understood by someone with your intelligence and background who never heard of the topic before. And that someone does not have all day to listen. Your essay answers should be organized, concise, to the point, and with only those details needed to fill out a full picture — not the whole book! If supporting evidence is asked for, though, this means details. Discriminating in your answer to conserve time is as logical as discriminating in studying to stress important topics and discriminating during lectures and discussions to weed out unessential items.

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