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Multiple choice and essay exam writing

Multiple choice exam writingEssay-style exam writing

Answering multiple choice exam questions: A checklist


  • Bear in mind the purpose of this type of exam! Contrary to popular opinion, multiple choice questions are not designed to torture you or make you confused about your field. Actually, they are intended to ensure that you have key vocabulary and concepts clear in your mind and ready for use.
  • Anticipate questions: what terms/definitions/concepts (1) were in the course title or used frequently by the professor; (2) gave students problems or generated debate during the course; (3) were noted in comments on assignments? These are likely to be on the exam.
  • Prepare for the exam by making a list of key terms, concepts and definitions. Look up any that the professor uses in class but hasn’t discussed. Cross-check the material on your list with class notes, textbooks, etc. to ensure accuracy.
  • Based on your list, make flashcards with (1) the official definition of a term quoted from the text or another source; (2) a paraphrase in your own words; (3) a definition by example. This technique will ensure that your knowledge is based on understanding, not memorization: if the question is posed in an unexpected way, you can still cope! Flashcards help the mind to learn how to switch between topics quickly and recognize material out of context.

During the exam

  • Read the directions carefully. Work out how much time you have to answer each question and how you are supposed to register your chosen answer — circling letters, underlining, blackening, etc.
  • Note restrictions: will you be penalized for incorrect guesses?
  • Always cover up the list of suggested answers while considering the question. Try to answer each question in your head before deciding between possible solutions.
  • Cross out impossible answers so they don’t distract you when choosing between likely looking solutions.
  • Try not to get stuck on any question when all are worth the same marks. Don’t linger, but either guess or mark the question number with an X and come back to it later — working on other questions may help you get the right idea.
  • Translate the word or concept into an example if you can’t decide between possible answers.
  • Watch out for double negatives. If your study led you to believe that historian AJP Taylor thought that Stalin was partially guilty for the outbreak of World War II, then answer a), which states that Stalin was “not without blame for World War II,” could be the correct one.
  • If the instructions pertaining to any question are particularly complex, cross-check that your answer is possible by referring to the rules only after having answered the question in your head.

When you have to guess…

  • Answers that include absolute terms (“always,” “never,” etc.) are less likely to be right than those that don’t.
  • If two possible answers are similar, then the correct answer will likely be one of them rather than another option that is completely dissimilar.
  • If you are given a sequence of numbers, the correct answer will probably be in the middle, rather than the highest or lowest number.
  • If you are completely baffled, your first guess is often right.

After the exam

Relax! Remember that you have done the best you could with the time and resources available. Even if the exam didn’t go quite as you’d hoped, the work you have done on key definitions and concepts will stand you in good stead for the future.

Essay-style exam writing

Focus, strategy, and timing are keys elements in effective exam essay writing. You need to pay close attention to what the questions are asking, and you need to plan your answers. In most respects, an exam essay is like a term paper: it should be direct, focused, organised, and well supported. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief among students, grammar, clarity, proper punctuation and correct word choice all still count. You should avoid repetition, be coherent, and be concise. Of course, this is all much easier said than done, but the following steps should help you develop a process that allows you to write your best exam essay.

1. Re-read everything you can

Pay attention to anything that you may not have gotten to during the term. To do your best on the exam, you need to be able to demonstrate knowledge of and a familiarity with as much course material as possible, illustrating the ability to draw conclusions, see patterns, and make comparisons. Writing or typing your notes is also a valuable exercise, because it involves a greater degree of engagement than just skimming over the lecture material.

2. Do pre-exam writing

Preparation for exam essays actually begins prior to the exam itself. Just as you would not go into a calculus exam without having done practice questions, you must put in a similar amount of work in advance to receive a high grade on an exam essay. Whether you do so individually or in a group, it is important to devise potential essay questions ahead of time. You can derive these topics from major themes and issues you have discussed in class, or from independent work.

Once you have a few options, start brainstorming thesis statements. Make connections between the various works you have studied, and try to formulate responses relevant to the particular course. (For example, if you are in a class that focuses on the representation of animals in Victorian literature, it is not enough to remark that both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Great Expectations feature physically and/or emotionally abused characters. Rather, it is more effective to specify that the consistent animal imagery in the former and the borrowed rhetoric from Darwin’s Origin of Species in the latter suggest a parallel between human and animal natures in these novels.)

Prepare outlines. These can be skeleton outlines, containing just a thesis and main sub-arguments, or you can construct very detailed ones; you can even write out the entire essay if you are so inclined. The main purpose of this preparation is to stimulate your critical and analytical thinking so that you do not lose time for actual writing during the exam.

3. Read carefully through the entire exam

Often, instructors will specify that a work or an author cannot be discussed multiple times in one section or on the entire exam. In the case of such exclusions, you will need to plan accordingly. Furthermore, pay close attention to how many sources or points you need to use in each essay. Finally, underlining key words (analyse, discuss, compare/contrast, etc.) in each question ensures that you understand what is being asked, and gives you clues as to how you should structure your own thesis statements.

4. Determine the order in which you will approach the questions

Some students prefer to answer the questions sequentially, while others like to start with the more difficult questions, or the ones worth the most marks. Choose according to what will reduce your stress level.

5. Budget a particular amount of time for each question

Instructors will often include suggested time frames for each section of the exam that typically correspond to the number of marks that the sections are worth. Keep these in mind, but work to your strengths – if you find essay writing more difficult than passage analysis, start with the essay. However, try to adhere to the schedule you make, since it is better to have extra time at the end than not to finish. Ideally, you will leave yourself five to ten minutes at the end for review or to return to a question.

6. Prepare a brief outline

Before you start writing, take a few minutes to plan the organisation of your response. This will keep you focused, and it will help you present your ideas in a more coherent fashion than will a “think-as-you-go” method. At this point you should come up with specific references to the course material, whereas if you begin writing right away, you risk producing more vaguely formulated arguments.

For exam essays, an outline means preparing your thesis statement, figuring out which sources you are going to use, jotting down the evidence from each one, and deciding on the order of your arguments. Your thesis should only be a sentence or two, and will ideally rephrase the question’s essential terms into a statement. Do not get preoccupied writing an extensive introduction or conclusion. Preparing an outline for passage analyses and other types of questions is also extremely useful.

7. Write directly, quickly, and legibly

Try not to dwell too much on the phrasing of your essay, and do not write for the sake of it. Do not provide too much background information or “padding” (any information not directly relevan)t. Keep it simple.

8. Leave yourself enough time

Try to leave yourself enough time to proofread your answers and to correct any spelling or grammatical mistakes. Instructors might be more lenient when marking exams, but there is no guarantee that you will not be penalised for such errors. Moreover, the person marking your exam will understand and appreciate your ideas far more easily if they are presented clearly and correctly.