Conquering the Exam Essay

Midterms are finally over, and grades are probably starting to take shape in each of your classes. If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Man, I could have done better on one of those exams, but the in-class essays tripped me up.” We’ve all been there. Exam essays are notorious for being difficult because of the lack of time needed to organize a coherent piece. Thus, the process we use to dive into a 15-page research paper isn’t exactly the best process to use for these quick-fire essays. Here are a few suggestions that may help next time you find yourself face-to-face with one of these exams:

Take some time to write down an outline. Whether you are given the essay questions prior to the exam, or they are flung on you by surprise, one of the best ways to come out with a solid essay is starting with an outline. If you’re lucky enough to receive the questions beforehand, writing down what you want to say in each paragraph, with a few supporting ideas (don’t have to be entire sentences) will help organize your thoughts. When you first receive your exam, take some time to rewrite the outline on the back of the sheet, before you answer multiple choice, etc. Even if you aren’t able to remember every supporting detail you put on the outline, the overall structure of the essay will be sound, and your professor will take notice. On the other hand, if you’re given a surprise question for your essay, I’ve found it helpful to just write a quick outline of the three or four main points I want to get across. All too often we get caught up with the pressure of time, and immediately start writing the first ideas that come to mind which can be dangerous if not properly thought out.

Keep your eye on the time. Pace yourself. This point probably seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth mentioning. I know the feeling of being on my first major paragraph and hearing “15 minutes left.” It’s not pretty. Your heart starts beating hard, adrenaline is pumping, and it’s easy to forget everything you were just about to write down. The best way to fix this is to avoid it all-together. When you start your essay, look at the clock and see how much time you actually have. You don’t necessarily have to ration time for each paragraph, but check the clock every time you finish with a major idea. This will avoid the feeling of doom that comes with the fifteen-minute warning, and allow you to stay focused up to the end of the exam.

Attempt to write legibly. This might not seem that important content-wise, but it may be enough to bump you from a B+ to an A-. We’ve all heard the professor’s preamble to these essays: “Do your best to answer the question, and don’t worry about messiness. As long as I can read it, you’ll be fine.”  While all of this true, you have to look at it from the point of view of the professor. There are probably twenty-five people in your class, which means twenty-five essays to read, not to mention whatever other sections they teach. If they just got done reading forty essays, and it takes them an extra twenty minutes to read yours because of messy handwriting, they aren’t exactly going to be thrilled. Some ideas that they may have given you some credit for may not look so good anymore, which can take a hit on the final grade.

With these points in mind, hopefully you can get the grade you want on your final exam. Either way, sit back and relax – winter break will be here before you know it!

-Chris Brault

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About BentleyWritingCenter

This is the official blog of the Bentley University Writing Center staff.
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