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How to Deal with Essay Questions on Exams

If you’re a normal person and not a weirdo like me, then you probably hate essay questions on exams.

I mean, exams are already a huge source of anxiety….but essays, too? This means that you actually have to think; you can’t just circle “B” for each answer and hope for the best.

The thing is, although you may have to sound a little bit more formal for school, writing an essay for an exam is the same as writing for any other reason:

  1. You want to persuade your readers of your ideas clearly and simply
  2. You want every sentence to make your reader want to read the next one.

This means that although it’s not as hard as we make out it to be, clear and concise writing is still hard in practice.

This post is all about how to make essay questions more bearable — and how to get a good grade for an essay answer.

And one last thing before we dive in: I wrote this post with the assumption that you have to write a series of essays for a test and not just one. The reason is that a test with a series of short essays is trickier than a single long essay: you have to manage your time while making sure you hit all the points that each question requires.

And anyways, you can totally port over the rules in this article to a longer, single-essay test.

So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Rule 1: Understand What Makes an A+ Essay

typing on a typewriter

Before we get to the nuts and bolts of essay-writing, remember that professors want to see that:

  1. You understood the facts from the course.
  2. You have synthesized the information in your own way.
  3. You have come up with your own insights.

These 3 points make up an A+ essay. You see,

  • If you just state your opinion without using the facts, then they know you didn’t actually pay attention to the material or you didn’t study it well.
  • If you just regurgitate the facts without weaving them together into an argument with a unique, personal viewpoint, then all you’re demonstrating is that you memorized individual data points – not that you really understand them and how they relate to the bigger picture.

Finally, structure-wise your essay has to be logical and thorough, yet concise. Here’s a great quote from William Strunk, author of the seminal book on writing, The Elements of Style:

“Vigorous writing is concise. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

With these mindsets, let’s get into…

Rule 2: Create a Plan Before You Write

pen to paper

As soon as you open your test booklet or get the question sheet, resist the urge to start writing right away. Put down your pen, pick up the sheet, then read each prompt carefully. If the prompt is detailed, you might even want to highlight or underline points.

Depending on how many points a question has and how difficult it is for you to answer it, decide on how long you’ll take on each question. You can write out those minutes on your sheet to remind you. Try to leave 10 minutes at the very end to tie up any loose ends and look over your answers.

After you’ve decided how to tackle the test as a whole, pick up your pen and list out 2-3 bullet points for each prompt. These don’t have to be fully-fleshed out ideas, just a few points you want to hit for each essay. As you start writing and you remember answers for other prompts, feel free to add to each prompt’s list.

Rule 3: Use a Time-Tested Essay Format

“Instructors don’t have time to treat each essay as a puzzle in need of a solution. Take the guesswork out of your essay.” – Walter Pauk

After you’ve listed out some bullet points, now you have to make sure that the order of the points in your essay makes sense. (Pro-tip: Write numbers them so you don’t forget.)

To help with the order, use The 5-Paragraph Essay format to write your essay. This has:

  • An intro paragraph that summarizes your main idea, plus the supporting evidence you cover in the essay and how it ties into the main idea.
  • Three body paragraphs that go into detail about each supporting piece of evidence for your argument.
  • A conclusion that synthesizes the main idea and the evidence by connecting them to overarching themes in the course.

In addition to this structure, there are two main methods that you can use to write the body of the essay:

  • The decreasing-importance pattern where your first body paragraph contains your strongest argument and your last body paragraph covers the weakest or least consequential one
  • The chronological pattern where the paragraphs follow the sequential order of events

The method you use depends wholly on the prompt.

  • If the prompt is about how espionage influenced the outcome of World War II, then you should use the decreasing-importance pattern.
  • If the prompt is about tracing the events that led to the outcome of World War II, then you should use the chronological pattern.

Generally, however, the decreasing-importance pattern is my default option.

This is because decreasing-importance pattern follows the way journalists write: they start with the most important piece of news to get their reader’s attention so in case the reader doesn’t read to the bottom, they still get the gist of things.

Similarly, you want to front load your essay with the most important points because the person marking the paper is probably looking for key words and phrases; they won’t read the whole thing.

Rule 4: Get to the Point Quickly

pencil shavings

You’ve probably read an essay where the arguments ran in circles and the same handful of ideas were repeated over and over again, except with different words. Heck, maybe you’ve written one like this yourself!

The thing is, on a timed test that’s marked by a TA who has to grade a hundred more, this method doesn’t go over well.

Instead, write clearly and simply with the Argument-Evidence method (or, as I like to call it, the Sandwich Method). In this method, you sandwich the evidence between the arguments, like so:

  • State your argument or your point
  • Explain what you mean, preferably with concrete examples, quotes, or course material
  • Tie your evidence back to your initial point

For example, if I’m writing an essay about how pancakes are the healthiest food you can eat for breakfast, one of my arguments could be:

Pancakes are the healthiest food you can eat for breakfast because they are a historically significant food that has powered America for generations. One excellent example of this is how lumberjacks of old would eat pancakes before going out into the cold to chop down trees. They would douse their pancakes in maple syrup, stab through a stack of three pancakes, devour them in one go, and work hard for the rest of the day. If pancakes for breakfast are enough to power people who chop down and lug heavy trees around for a living, then they are sufficient for the average American student.

See how the first and last sentences echo each other, while the middle two sentences provide an example?

Sandwiching your examples between the point makes it easier for your readers to form a picture of the message you’re trying to convey.

Rule 5: Go Through a 2-Stage Editing Process


After you’ve written your answers, you may or may not have time to edit it thoroughly. Here’s an efficient way to clean up your essay before you move on to the next one.

Stage 1: Assess the Arguments

Scan through each sentence, then each paragraph, to see if the order makes sense and that each point ties together. If you followed Rule 3 closely, you shouldn’t see any gaping holes or questionable arguments, but it’s nice to have a sanity check.

Note: In a written essay, it usually takes too long to fix faulty argumentation because you’ll have to cross things out and rewrite them, while computers will let you cut and paste paragraphs and sentences. Because of this, I usually skip this stage on written exams and move on to Stage 2.

Stage 2: Do an “Out-Loud” Check

After I finish writing an essay and checking the order of the arguments, I like to quietly read the piece, mouthing every word. This helps with identifying grammatical errors and awkward wording that I couldn’t have picked up otherwise.

Conclusion"A" in neon

From the first part of this article, you might recall that essay writing is the same as any piece of writing:

  1. You want to persuade your readers of your ideas clearly and simply
  2. You want every sentence to make your reader want to read the next one.

Once you understand these two main principles for good writing, the rest of the rules – planning before writing, getting to the point, editing, and synthesizing – make better sense. They merely support clear, concise, and readable writing.

Good luck on your next essay exam and happy writing!

Image Credits: featuredTypewriter, Fountain pen, Pencil with shavingsReadingA