20: Writing essays for an exam

While the book has been focused on writing essays at the assignment level, you may also be asked to write an essay for an exam for one or more courses. Although it can seem very different, especially in relation to what little time you have to write your essay and the fact that it has to be abbreviated, focused, and reliant on your knowledge of concepts and findings from the course, you can still apply many of the essay writing best practices we have provided throughout the book in terms of planning, managing time, and organisation. This chapter also covers some of the other preparations you can make to get ready for an essay exam.

Chapter 20 contents:

20.1: Planning for an essay exam

Planning for an essay exam should start from the beginning of a course when you find out whether or not you will have an essay exam. Don't leave your revising until the last minute. Previously, we talked about the value of note taking throughout the lectures and your reading list. These notes can now be pulled out and used to plan your revising time and even offer you an outline for writing out some practice essay exam answers.

Part of the planning can also include reading and rereading your notes throughout the course rather than to save all the reading for the very end. One place to look for a good plan for studying the information is in your course book that you most likely received. It listed what are known as learning outcomes and cover all the basic concepts that you will study over the semester or quarter. This provides the overall picture of what you need to plan for when it comes time for the essay exam.

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20.2: Managing time

To best manage time, you need to look at it two ways:

  • Overview: You will most likely have more than one essay exam, so look at the big picture in terms of what you have to do for each one and set aside a certain amount of time for revising for each one. Once you get the timetable for when the essay exams will be held, work backwards to see how much time you have for revising for those, finishing course work, and taking care of anything else in your life not to mention time for relaxation.
  • Detailed Schedule: You also need to take each essay exam and create a list for revising with the main concepts chunked together with notes that align with each concept chunk. Plan the amount of time you will spend on each chunk as well as any time for writing a practice essay exam answer.

Earlier in the book, we provided a lot of tips on managing your time that can be applied for preparing for essay exams just like using them for researching and writing your essay.

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20.3: Revising for an essay exam

There are a number of revising techniques that work well for essay exams.

Here is a brief summary of different essay exam revision techniques:

  • Revising isn't about just rereading course material, notes, and handouts. You are looking for patterns and findings that show you truly understand what you have learned and can apply it to specific situations or issues.
  • Condense all your notes into an outline forma t that covers keywords and ideas, keeping to just a couple of pages at the most to study from rather than continually re-reading pages and pages of information.
  • Use the chunk method to memorise and make connections between ideas and concepts and then write these out in your own words to explain what they mean and how they tie together.
  • Many of the memory techniques used for revising involve associations and the development of visual maps of information that show how the ideas connect together.
  • Consider using different colours of paper or highlighters to separate information you need to study for your essay exam. This will also help you to quickly find a particular set of notes.
  • Take breaks in your revision sessions and step completely away from the information, including getting fresh air or unwinding with friends. This gives your brain a rest and allows it the time it needs to store the knowledge and commit information to memory. This will help everything you need to know to move to a deeper level in your brain but yet where you can easily access it during the essay exam.
  • For some, the revising strategy of re-writing notes is useful while others respond positively to recording themselves and then playing it back during their revision sessions.
  • Don't revise heavily the night before your essay exam or consider new information not previously studied. You need to get sleep rather than try to cram more in your brain at this point.

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20.4: Borrowing from best practices

Be sure to use the other best practices we have suggested in this book about essay writing. In fact, use what you have done in past essays and papers to prepare for writing out your essay exam. Look at all the feedback your tutor has provided and learn from those mistakes and suggestions so as to not make the same errors on the essay exam.

Don't waste time by trying to memorise essays you have already written for the course. The essay question is not going to be exactly the same on the exam. Your course grade is not based on your ability to memorise anyways; it's about how well you understand and apply what you have been taught.

What you should do in terms of memorisation is remember key dates, facts, definitions of terms and names that show your tutor you can add specifics to your answer as well as critically assess why the concepts are important. In looking back at past essays and assignments, spend the time also looking for patterns in what has been asked and what the key concepts have been, which will provide insights as to the potential framework of the essay exam question.

Another best practice is to form a study group to revise for an essay exam where you can share your notes, your essays, and your assignments as well as spend time discussing different concepts. Of course, the social element also makes revising more fun and can change the dynamic for how your brain processes the revising. Just be sure to stay focused and not have it turn into just a social gathering!

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20.5: Taking care of yourself

Not everything about preparing for an essay exam is about writing, studying, and memorising. Part of doing well on your essay exam is about looking after yourself. This goes a long way to being mentally sharp and physically alert for the actual essay exam. Here are some tips that can help you succeed when it comes time to take your essay exam:

  • Get enough good sleep.
  • Make time to exercise and relax.
  • Eat well and avoid alcohol, which can disrupt sleep and brain power.
  • Say hydrated with lots of water.
  • Stay positive and focused because this helps you stay calm and confident, which can be reflected in your writing. Tell yourself you will do great and you will. It's the power of positive thinking in action.
  • Be realistic in terms of how much time you have put in to what kind of marks you think you will get.

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20.6: Getting ready for essay exams

When it comes to getting ready for the essay exam, there are other strategies you need to think about in order to be fully prepared:

  • Make sure that your tutor has not changed anything about the essay exam in terms of expectations, time frame, or supplies needed to take the essay exam.
  • Verify the location of the essay exam just in case it is different from where you sat for lectures.
  • If you need to travel to the university, using public transport, double check the bus schedules and consider allotting extra time by taking an earlier bus. It's better to be early than to show up late!
  • Before exam day, make a list of what you need to take and pack it up in advance as much as possible. This might include water, snacks, pens and pencils, student ID and a watch.
  • Go to bed early the night before the essay exam and be sure to set your alarm!
  • Eat a good meal prior to the exam for a mental and physical energy boost.

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20.7: Writing by hand

One of the primary differences between essay writing and essay exams is that, with an essay exam, you will be writing by hand on examination paper or in an examination booklet. So much of what all of us do nowadays is typing - typing on a keyboard, phone, or tablet. And, while you may take notes in class by hand, you do not do it for two hours straight, covering ten pages or so.

Because so many of us no longer handwrite regularly, tutors often find that they have a difficult time even marking essay exams due to illegibility. Therefore, it becomes a challenge all around. However, there are things that you can do to make writing by hand easy for you and for your tutor. Here's what you can do:

  • Practice writing by hand in advance by making up some mock essay exam questions and using your revising time to write up these answers in the same amount of time you are given during the actual exam. This will give your hands and muscles some workout and they will be less sore the day of the exam.
  • As you practice, try to keep your writing as legible as possible but gradually speed up how you write in order to make it easier on the tutor and potentially help with getting better marks.

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20.8: Dealing with nerves

No matter how much you prepare for your essay exam, you still may get nervous. It's understandable as your essay exam is a large part of your overall grade for the course. But, there are things that you can do to make it less nerve-racking:

  • Be positive and confident in your thinking that you will do well, you know the information, and this is your time to show your tutor how well you understand all the concepts and material.
  • Don't dwell on any bad experiences in the past. They happened but that was the past and now you are ready to do well. Concentrate on other successes that you have had rather than any mistakes.
  • Remind yourself that all your classmates are feeling the same way even if they don't look nervous on the outside.
  • Think of your nerves as the adrenaline you need to keep going toward the finish line!

If your nerves start to get the best of you after the exam has started and it may lead to you panicking or your mind blanking, here are some more tips:

  • Look around for a moment and take a minute to compose yourself, including your thoughts. Even take a deep breath if that helps.
  • Don't compare yourself to others around you who may be writing fast and furiously. They may be writing any old thing and not be as focused as you can be, so just think about what you revised and what you are ready to put down on paper.
  • If you look at the exam question and your mind goes blank, re-read the essay exam question a few times to make sure it is correct. Then, mentally run through the question and what you have studied. It may even help to visualise the mind mapping or the outline you created so your mind can pull that information back up from your memory banks, replacing the blank screen with all the material you prepared. Then, start writing what you see and you should be back on track.
  • Remember that your tutor actually wants you to succeed, not fail. They are not trying to trick you with the essay exam question or make it super hard for you. This will help you stay positive and on track so you can show them that you can succeed and have taken all the information and can apply it well.

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20.9: Answering the exam question

When you approach answering the exam question, read the question and the instructions very carefully before you begin to write so you know whether you are to select one question or answer all the questions there. Then, follow this strategy:

  • Double check your question before starting. If you have to just choose one, make your selection carefully and go with the one that you feel strongest about and feel the most prepared to answer.
  • Focus on the keywords to help you make your decision.
  • The tutor will have also noted how many marks are allocated to each question listed in the essay exam. Segment your time according to the marks given so that the longer essay worth more marks gets the most time and the others get less time.
  • As you go to answer the essay question, use the keywords and function words as your guide to form the basis of your answer and work as an outline for the structure and organisation of your argument.
  • You are most likely allowed to make notes and set down your ideas in shorthand, which is the basis for developing the essay in a logical way that flows from one idea to the next just as you would do with a regular essay assignment.
  • Have in mind examples for each section and idea that will back up your argument and main ideas.
  • Keep your main argument at the top of your mind so you can weave it through your entire essay exam answer. It is essential that you include this as a thesis statement in your introductory section.
  • Make sure the paragraphs tie together from the introduction through the body paragraphs and into the conclusion. Use transition words and hooks to connect all of the paragraphs.
  • Keep an eye on the clock so you manage your time effectively. If you find that you are running out of time, try to get all your points down all the way through to the conclusion. Even if you only get ideas and not full sentences and paragraphs at the end because the clock has run out, that is better than having a blank page. You might still get a few points for noting down the ideas and argument in shorthand to at least illustrate you knew the important points to include. The main objective, however, is to manage your time as best as possible.

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20.10: Presenting the final essay exam

If you planned your time appropriately during the essay exam, then you have time left to re-read, proofread, and maybe even edit some sections. Remember that you can go back to our chapter on editing and proofreading and then use those same tips during your essay exam. This is important to do because, with so many essay exams to mark just like there are when a tutor has regular essays to mark, you want yours to stand out in the crowd.

Try to leave yourself about 5-15 minutes to check over your essay exam answer for the following:

  • Spelling: While you may not have a dictionary that you can use during the essay exam, you should know how to spell technical terms, names, places and other key words by the end of your course and thanks to all that time you put in on revising.
  • Punctuation: Keep it simple and focus on basic punctuation like full stops and commas.
  • Writing flow: Look to see if you might need to add a linking word or phrase to link all the paragraphs together. Also, make sure you have complete thoughts all the way through your essay exam answer.
  • Leftover notes: Be sure to cross these out or erase them so the tutor is not confused when reading your essay exam answer.

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Chapter 20: Summary of Writing Essays For An Exam

In summarising the chapter, ask yourself the following:

  • How can you plan for an essay exam?
  • What are the best strategies for managing your time?
  • What are some effective revising techniques?
  • How can you use previous essays and work to help you revise for your essay exam?
  • How should you take care of yourself prior to an essay exam?
  • What are some strategies to get ready the day before your essay exam?
  • What can you do to do well at writing your essay exam answer by hand?
  • What happens when you get nervous and how can you calm yourself down?
  • How should you approach answering the essay exam question or questions?
  • What are some final tips to make sure you turn in a polished essay exam answer you can feel proud about?

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