Study Techniques For Essay Tests Definition

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


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Before the Test

  1. Stay up-to-date on assignments. Learn material and review as you go along.
  2. Make sure you understand the information as you are learning it. That way, you won't have to "re-learn" it OR have to "cram" a great deal of information at one time.
  3. Read and study information in meaningful chunks (by chapters or units) so that you'll be able to "file" and "retrieve" information easily.
  4. At the end of each chapter or unit, identify the information that was most important. Make up "flash cards" on this information that you can easily carry and use for study on a regular basis.
  5. Analyze past tests to determine how you can improve test results.
  6. Get the big picture. Ask the instructor about the test. Find out what information will be stressed and the kinds of questions that will be asked. Then go over your text and lecture notes to develop a study strategy. Map or outline the course contents if you haven't done so previously.
  7. Before a test or exam, break study sessions into manageable time segments and meaningful units. You'll remember more if you study for short periods of time (45 minutes to 1 hour) and over a longer period of time (1-2 weeks) than if you cram all your study into a "binge" session the night before the test.
  8. Practice answering essay questions BEFORE the test. Use cognitive questions at all levels to assure learning and ability to answer essay questions. For example: How would you describe, compare/contrast, predict, classify, apply, evaluate, prioritize, etc?
  9. Use mnemonic techniques to memorize lists, definitions, and other specific kinds of information.
  10. Form a study group with other students in your class to discuss and quiz each other on important material. This will add other perspectives and help to "complete" your study if you tend to be either a "detailed" or "big-picture" learner.
  11. Maintain healthy living habits. Get a good night's sleep before the test.


During the Test

  1. Get to the test site early so you can select a seat, organize your materials, and get relaxed. Be prepared with pencils, paper, calculator, books (if appropriate), etc.
  2. Get the big picture. Survey the entire test before you answer any questions. This will help you to get an overview of what's expected and to strategize how you will take the test.
  3. Take a few deep breaths and to relax tense muscles. Repeat throughout the test. This process will help you to stay relaxed and to make more energy available for remembering, thinking, and writing.
  4. Read directions carefully. Ask questions if you don't understand or need clarification.
  5. Do a quick "mind dump" of information you don't want to forget. Write it down on scrap paper or in the margin.
  6. Answer the easiest questions first, to help yourself calm down. Matching questions are often good to start with because they provide a reminder of important terms and definitions.
  7. Use good strategies for answering multiple choice and other objective questions.
    • Look for the central idea of each question. What is the main point?
    • Statements that begin with always, never, none, except, most, or least-are probably NOT the answer . Underline these or other key words if you are allowed to write on the test paper.
    • Try to supply your own answer before choosing an alternative listed on the test.
    • Mark an answer for every question.
    • If you have to guess:
      • The length of choices can be a clue. Choose the longest.
      • If two choices are similar, choose neither.
      • If two choices are opposites, choose one of them.
      • The most general alternative is usually the right answer.
  8. When answering essay questions, remember that the objective is to demonstrate how well you can explain and support an idea, not just what you know. Keep the following in mind:
    • Read over all the essay questions before you start to write. Underline key words like define, compare, explain, etc.
    • Think before you write. Remember, a good answer:
      • Starts with a direct response to the question.
      • Mentions the topics or areas described in the question.
      • Provides specific as well as general information.
      • Uses the technical vocabulary of the course.
    • Then map or outline the main points you want to make, determine the order in which you want to write your points, determine the support you want to add, then write.
    • Write legibly. Leave some space so you can add to your answer, later.
    • Proofread your essay. Check for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. This often adds points!
  9. When problem solving, ask yourself:
    • What am I being asked to find?
    • What do I need to know in order to find the answer?
    • What information has been provided that will help me to find the answer?
    • How can I break the problem down into parts? What steps should I follow to solve the problem?
    • Does the answer make sense? Does it cover the whole problem?
  10. Keep an eye on the clock. Make sure you'll have time to complete the test sections with the highest value, if not the entire test.


After the Test

When you receive your test paper, go over it to determine areas of strength and weakness in your test-taking skills. If you have done poorly, learn from your mistakes! Always analyze your tests to determine how you can improve future test results.

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