Essay Exam Tips


Read the whole exam through once, paying particular attention to the directions. If you do not understand a question, ask about it right away. Observe the suggested time limits. Obviously, a thirty-minute answer is more important than a fifteen-minute answer. Write accordingly.


Save a few minutes for proofreading. Budget your time so that you can reread the essay looking for misspellings, omitted words and omitted parts of questions.


Select your question carefully. If you are given a choice, make your choice carefully but quickly—then stick to it. Procrastination steals confidence as well as time. If half way through your answer you discover you’ve chosen the wrong question, you probably won’t have time to change it.


Do the easiest questions first. Sometimes it is hard to get started, and doing first the questions you know best gives you the chance to prepare mentally for the harder ones. If you answer questions out of order, make sure you number your answers carefully.


Address your answer specifically to the question asked. Do not use the essay exam as an excuse to “plug in” information that is not relevant.


Outline the answer before writing. Know your general answer before you begin to write. To begin writing in the hope that the right answer will somehow turn up is time-consuming and usually futile. The time you spend outlining is easily regained during the course of the exam.


Qualify answers when in doubt. It is better to say “Toward the end of the 18th century” than to say “In 1794” when you can’t remember whether it’s 1784 or 1794. In many cases, the approximate time is all that is wanted. Unfortunately, 1784, although appropriate, may be incorrect, and will usually be marked accordingly.


Use the following three-point plan in answering the essay question:


  1. Introduce your essay by restating the question and summarizing your answer. The first paragraph should not be more than about three sentences.
  2. Develop each point of your answer, allowing one paragraph per important point, and including subordinate points in an orderly way.
  3. Summarize your answer and 1) fit it into the larger context of the subject you are studying; 2) push it a little further by showing what it led to or what it leads to; or 3) point out the importance of the idea or phenomenon you have just discussed.


Be neat. Your essay should have a reasonably satisfactory appearance. A neat blue book will make a more favorable impression than a sloppy one. Write legibly, avoid excessive scratchouts, and write only on every other line (i.e., skip lines)


Shared by the Reading and Study Skills Center, University of Minnesota.