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Writing essay exams

Essay exams can seem daunting, but with some preparation and strategy, they can be manageable, maybe even enjoyable, for you. Focus, strategy, and timing are key elements in effective essay exam writing. You’ll need to pay close attention to what the questions ask, and plan your answers. Read on for some helpful tips on how to face this writing-intensive form of evaluation.

Before the examDuring the exam

Before the exam

Broad goals of writing essay exams

In most respects, an exam essay is like a term paper: it should be direct, focused, organized, and well supported. Grammar, clarity, proper punctuation and correct word choice all usually still count (although many instructors mark essay exams with the understanding that students have less time than usual to revise, edit, and proofread). You should avoid repetition; be coherent and concise.

Review the course content

To do your best on the exam, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate your understanding of and familiarity with the course material, and show your ability to draw conclusions, see patterns, and make comparisons. Make sure you have completed all the readings and reviewed any as necessary; see our exam prep resource for helpful study strategies.

Try practice questions

Writing in response to practice questions can be a useful study strategy.

  • You can create your own practice essay questions, on your own or with classmates, based on themes, theories and issues you’ve discussed in class, or topics mentioned in the course syllabus or its learning objectives.
  • Once you have a few options, start brainstorming thesis statements. Make thematic or rhetorical connections among the various works you’ve studied, and link them to the main concerns of the course. (For example, if your course has focused 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 abused characters. It’s more effective to specify that the animal imagery in the former and the borrowed rhetoric from Darwin’s Origin of Species in the latter suggest parallels between human and animal natures in these novels.)
  • Prepare outlines. These can be skeleton outlines, containing just a thesis and main sub-arguments. The idea is to kick-start your critical and analytical thinking in the context of the course; having a good grasp of key concepts, themes, theories, etc. in advance of the exam will save you some thinking time while writing the exam.

During the exam

Read carefully through the entire exam

Look for instructions that guide or limit how you approach questions, and plan accordingly. For example, an instructor might specify that a work or an author cannot be discussed multiple times in the exam. Similarly, you might be told how many sources or points you need to use in each essay. Underline key words (analyze, discuss, compare/contrast, etc.) in each question to understand what is being asked and how you should structure your approach.

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.

Budget 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. Ideally, you will leave yourself ten minutes at the end to review your answers and revise as you want to.

Prepare a brief outline.

Before you start writing, take a few minutes to organize your response. This will keep you focused on answering the question, and it will help you present your ideas in a more coherent fashion than will a “think-as-you-go” method.

  • Develop a thesis statement (a sentence or two; rephrase the question’s essential terms into a statement).
  • Jot down key concepts, theories, facts, or themes that could be relevant.
  • Choose a few main points to support your thesis.
  • Identify which sources you are going to use; jot down evidence from each.
  • Decide on the order of your arguments.

Write directly, quickly, and legibly.

Think of answering the question as a very businesslike task. Stay focused and generate content.

  • Try not to dwell too much on the phrasing of your essay.
  • Don’t provide too much background information or any information not directly relevant. Keep it simple.
  • Emphasize your analysis and insight; avoid plot summary.
  • Include one main idea per paragraph. Offer evidence and interpretation.
  • Consider writing (or considerably revising) your introduction and conclusion after writing your body paragraphs, and using them to frame and unify your argument.


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 penalized 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.