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Essay Tests

Essay tests are common in college-level courses, especially in the humanities and sciences. They allow instructors to test students' abilities in remembering, organizing, and evaluating information. Though the instructor usually looks for certain points to be made in the answer, there are varying degrees of correctness. Sometimes instructors will accept as correct some answers that diverge from common interpretations, as long as the answers are logically and substantively supported. 

Pre-Test Preparation

  • Make up your own questions, or consult the textbook or workbook for sample questions and practice writing essays. When answering sample essay questions, give yourself the same amount of time you will have during the actual test and don't refer to your study materials.

Read the Directions Carefully

  • Are you to answer every question or do you have choices?
  • How are you to write your answers: skip a line, one side of page only, etc.
  • Is there a certain number of ideas you need to include? Or are you supposed to write a certain amount of information: a few sentences, a paragraph, etc.?
  • Are you supposed to include dates?
  • Are you supposed to include examples?
  • Are you supposed to include the names of important people?

Budget Your Time

  • Plan to spend more time on questions that count for more points
  • Spend equal time on questions with the same point value.
  • Allow time to check answers after completing all questions. For each question, allow half of the time for writing an outline and half for writing the answer.

Read All Questions Before Answering Them

  • Reading all the questions before answering them allows one's brain to begin processing information. Reading before answering is especially important when one has a choice of questions to answer.
  • Determine what information is given, what information is requested for the answer, and how you are to answer the question.

Closely Examine Instructions for Directional Words

  • Essay questions often contain verbs asking students to do certain things with the information. Students must know what these words mean in order to provide the information that the instructor wants. Be aware of variations on these words that are specific to certain instructors; not all instructors use the words in the same way. If unsure, ask the instructor for clarification.
    • Analyze, Compare, Describe, Evaluate, Prove, Summarize, etc.

Pick a Title

  • Titles help to keep one on track while writing the answers. Each title should contain the following information: topic, point of view or approach, and boundaries (temporal, spatial) of the topic. 

Outline the Answer

  • Good essay writers spend half of their time formulating an outline before answering a question.
  • Divide the outline into general points and specific details.
  • Organize the main points of the outline; brief descriptions of five common methods of organization are given below 
    • Chronological Order - order of historical events, cause to effect, step-by-step sequence
    • From General to Specific - general topic to subtopics, theoretical to practical, generalizations to specific examples
    • From Least to Most - easiest to most difficult, smallest to largest, worst to best, weakest to strongest, etc.
    • From Most to Least - most known to least known, most factual to least factual (fact to opinion)
    • Giving Both Sides (Grouped or Interspersed) - pros and cons, assets and liabilities, similarities and differences, 

Write Methodically

  • Your answer should have a title, an introduction or topic statement, a body, and an ending or conclusion.
    • Your topic statement can be a reworking of the title.
    • The body should include at least one paragraph for each general point in your outline. 
    • Your ending can be a summary of the answer, a restatement of the topic sentence, or your interpretations or opinions. Do not introduce new information in the ending.
    • Be direct and to the point.

Don't Waste Space

  • Although it's a good idea to skip lines between paragraphs, don't skip lines between sentences or use only one side of the paper unless told to do so. Avoid ornate or illegible handwriting that takes up a lot of room on the paper. Don't try to fill up extra test booklets by wasting space. Some graders interpret wasted space as a cover up for not knowing the material.

Check Your Work

  • Did you answer the question, and did you stick to your point of view? For organization, did you answer all parts of the question, and are paragraphs and sentences logically ordered? For writing, is your answer clear, is you writing legible, is your grammar correct, and is your punctuation correct?

If You Run Out of Time

  • If you are running out of time and haven't yet answered all questions, write down the outlines and indicate that you ran out of time for that/those question(s). Some instructors will give partial credit for outlines.
Retrieved from: http://www.muskingum.edu/~cal/database/general/testtaking.html