Essay Study Guide

Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.

Exam preparation

Learn the material with the exam format in mind

  • Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
  • Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
    • Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
    • Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
      • Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.

Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions

  • Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
  • Anticipate questions by:
    • Looking  for patterns of questions in any tests you  have already written in the course;
    • Looking at the course outline for major themes;
    • Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
    • Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
    • Brainstorming questions with a study group.
  • Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
    • Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
    • Memorize your outlines or key points.
  • A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.

If the Professor distributes questions in advance

  • Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
  • Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.

Right before the exam

  • Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.

Exam writing

Read carefully

  • Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
  • Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
  • See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.

Manage your time

  • At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
  • If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
  • If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
  • Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
  • Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.

Things to include and/or exclude in your answers

  • Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
  • Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
  • Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
  • Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.

Follow a writing process

  • Plan the essay first
    • Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
    • Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
    • Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
    • To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
    • Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
  • Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
  • Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
    • A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
      • Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
    • Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.:  although, however) between paragraphs.
    • A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
    • If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
  • Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
    • As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
  • Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement.  If not, change the thesis.

For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.

Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site

The SAT exam is a college entrance and placement exam taken by approximately two million students each and every year. The Reasoning portion of the exam is broken down into three categories: Writing, Mathematics, and Critical Reading. The Writing section is further broken down into a 35 minute multiple-choice section and an essay section where the student is given 25 minutes to write on a given topic. Each section, including the Writing portion, is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points, with 800 points being the highest possible score one can receive on each individual section.

With only twenty-five minutes to write an essay that will effectively convey to the scorer that the student has great writing skills, the task can be daunting, and especially to students who are not confident in their writing abilities. However, there are some tips and strategies that will help students to perform their best on the essay.
There are many opinions as to what the scorers of the essay are looking for when they are reading the essays. Some people will argue that students should stick to writing a basic five-paragraph essay. Others will argue that in order to show that students are familiar with a variety of literature; they should quote from well-known novels as often as possible. And others will try to convince students to write as much as possible in the given amount of time. The truth, however, if that the scorers of the exams are high school teachers and college professors who have read thousands of essays. They are extremely knowledgeable about writing and they have read the very best essays and the very worst essays. In the end, the scorers are looking for an essay that contains the author’s unique voice, has a well-developed point of view backed by insightful supporting details, and skillfully uses the language to create a well-crafted essay.

Although you may have the impulse to immediately start writing, instead begin by thoroughly reading the entire assignment. Every essay section on the SAT will begin with a paragraph. The paragraph explores a specific issue and is taken from an author or from a book. Before starting to write, explore the paragraph. Think about questions that you may ask the author. Do you agree with what the paragraph is stating? Why or why not? Can you provide examples or details to back up your opinion? By taking a few minutes to explore the issue, you will be able to form your point of view and organize what you want to write.

It is important to have examples in your essay, but it is more important to thoroughly explore and explain these examples. Writing an essay with one or two well planned, well-thought out, insightful examples will score better than an essay with numerous, simplified examples. Also, do not be afraid to use “I” in your writing. The essay is asking for your point of view, so using relevant information and examples from your personal experiences can add a unique touch to your essay.

Finally, pay attention to spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation errors. An essay full of errors will distract the scorer from the content, which in turn will lead to a lower score.

For additional information, we recommend you check out these free SAT test resources:

SAT Study Guide
SAT Writing Practice
SAT Reading Practice
SAT Math Practice
SAT Essay Help
SAT Test Taking Tips

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