How to approach an essay exam

By Sophia Klymchuk, 2nd year ConEd/French/Psych student

It is common knowledge that different types of exams require different approaches to studying. While some courses, especially in the maths and sciences, often require memorization and practice problems in your studying, essay-based exams require a different technique.

This semester, I have three essay-based exams, where I am given 2 to 3 hours to write on a major text or concept that was covered throughout my course. In first year, I approached these types of exams with uneasiness. It is hard enough for me to write an essay in a few weeks time, I thought, what makes my professor think that I can do so in 3 hours?

Luckily, the past few exam sessions have helped me cultivate the skills I need to write these exams with ease, which I am happy to share in this blog post.

The first thing you want to do is consult your course syllabus to get a bird’s eye view of any readings you still have to catch up on, or any course concepts that you are still unfamiliar with. In general, your first priority should be to familiarize yourself with any course content you may have missed. This is especially important if your exam is cumulative, and covers your course as a whole.

If you are unsure of what exactly will be asked of you during your exam, talk to your professor or T.A.! They are one of your most important resources when it comes to studying, and will let you know exactly which content you should be prioritizing. This can come in handy when you are making your study schedule and can make you feel less overwhelmed about the entirety of the course.

Next, you want to make a study schedule that you will stick to during the exam period. The Student Academic Success Services exam schedule, often used by the Peer Learning Assistants, can help. Set aside 3 hour blocks to study for your course. Remember to take short breaks, and to vary the content you are studying! For example, choose one day to focus on one course concept, and then the next on a different concept.

The next step is to brainstorm potential essay topics. If you are in an English course, it might be useful to write down a list of the major themes of the course and link them to the texts you’ve seen in class. Organize your ideas by making a mind-map or a chart, and don’t be afraid to use colour! This helps organize your thoughts, and helps you visualize the links and associations between texts, themes, and examples. Adding colour to link together similar ideas in  your mind-map or chart is a good idea because our brains like colour, and helps solidify these associations.

Finally, find the time to write practice essays, as if you were in a mock exam! Practice is the best way to make the task at hand during the exam less daunting, and it equips you with the confidence you need to face your exam! Create your own exam topics by consulting your list of themes and your lecture notes, or look at past exams on Exambank. Find a comfortable, distraction-free place to do so. If the idea of writing a whole essay does not appeal to you, practice making outlines for potential essay topics.

On the day of your exam, make sure to relax and breathe! Avoid talking to anyone who is too nervous, and take an hour before the exam to relax and not look at notes. For example, I like to take a walk by the lake before my exams to clear my head.

Find more tips here: http://sass.queensu.ca/exam-prep/