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Writing Essays for Exams

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While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.

What is a well written answer to an essay question?

Well Focused

Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.

Well Organized

Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.

Well Supported

Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.

Well Packaged

People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab

How do you write an effective essay exam?

  • Read through all the questions carefully.
  • Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
  • Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
  • Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
  • Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
  • Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
  • Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
  • Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.

Specific organizational patterns and "key words"

Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.

Typical questions

  • "Define X."
  • "What is an X?"
  • "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."

Q: "What is a fanzine?"

A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.

Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."

  • State the term to be defined.
  • State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
  • Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.

Tools you can use

  • Details which describe the term
  • Examples and incidents
  • Comparisons to familiar terms
  • Negation to state what the term is not
  • Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
  • Examination of origins or causes
  • Examination of results, effects, or uses

Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.

  • "Analyze X."
  • "What are the components of X?"
  • "What are the five different kinds of X?"
  • "Discuss the different types of X."

Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."

A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.

Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:

  • Vocational education
  • Continuing education
  • Personal development

Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:

  • first, second, third, etc.
  • in addition

Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).

Typical questions:

  • "What are the causes of X?"
  • "What led to X?"
  • "Why did X occur?"
  • "Why does X happen?"
  • "What would be the effects of X?"

Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."

A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .

The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.

Useful transition words:

  • consequently
  • for this reason
  • as a result


  • "How does X differ from Y?"
  • "Compare X and Y."
  • "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"

Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"

A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .

Two patterns of development:

  • Full-sized car


  • Compact car

Useful transition words

  • on the other hand
  • unlike A, B ...
  • in the same way
  • while both A and B are ..., only B ..
  • nevertheless
  • on the contrary
  • while A is ..., B is ...
  • "Describe how X is accomplished."
  • "List the steps involved in X."
  • "Explain what happened in X."
  • "What is the procedure involved in X?"

Process (sometimes called process analysis)

This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.

Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"

A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .

The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.

  • following this
  • after, afterwards, after this
  • subsequently
  • simultaneously, concurrently

Thesis and Support

  • "Discuss X."
  • "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
  • "Defend or refute X."
  • "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."

Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.

Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."

A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .

The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.

  • it follows that

A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?

Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.

a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.

b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.

From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose , 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.

B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?

1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?

2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?

3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."

4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.

5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?

6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?

For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.

9 tips for writing essays in exams

writing essays in exams

Lauren Condon

Marketing Specialist at Atomi

writing essays in exams

Essay writing is enough of a struggle when there isn’t any time pressure. Add in a 40 minute limit and that’s pretty much breaking point for a lot of us 🙃 . Well don't stress too much because we're going to help out here with some tricks and tips for writing exam essays* that will actually show the HSC marker all of our killer ideas and skills. This might end up being a pretty hefty post so let’s get cracking straightaway.

* This basically works for things like speeches and long responses as well...

1. Pinpoint the instructions in the question

Before you even start writing, you need to be reading each word of that essay question super carefully. Make sure you’re following instructions and paying attention to the little things that are actually... big things. Do they want you to write a speech or an essay? Do they specify that you need ONE, at least ONE or TWO or more related texts? No excuses for skipping this step because you can just do it during reading time.

2. Draft a quick plan of the structure

Always, always, always plan your essays in an exam. Like… always. The kick of pure fear adrenaline when you start an exam can make it pretty tempting to get writing asap but save yourself a world of pain and take a few minutes to plan. You want to basically write down your thesis (probably one you’ve prepared earlier but tailor it to the specific question) and the structure of your body paragraphs. We go into a bit more detail on planning over here if you’re keen 👍 .

3. Manage your time in writing the essay and the whole exam

Two tips here (lucky you) but basically you need to manage your time in writing the essay and manage your whole exam time. So firstly, you have to leave yourself enough of the exam time to do your essay. If the exam is something like English Paper 1, you know that a third of the (two hour long) exam is an essay so you should be starting that essay with at least 40mins to go.

Hot tip: a lot of top students try to move through the first two sections of that exam fairly quickly so they have more time for a banging essay 💯.

When it comes to writing the essay, the structure you planned out will let you know if you’re on track or not. 40 minutes to write an essay and you have an intro, conclusion and four body paragraphs? Sweet. Well then it’s pretty clear that you should get your intro and the first two paragraphs done in 20 minutes. If you kind of messed up the timing of the whole exam and you don’t have your full 40 minutes then pick up the pace and if you can’t do that, time to make some quick decisions about what to cut.

4. Write out your evidence first so you don’t forget it

This isn’t a must but can be seriously helpful. Every essay needs evidence. It might be quotes, it might be dates, it might be stats. Even though you’ve definitely memorised these perfectly by the HSC (lol), it’s worth having a strategy for making sure you put all your evidence in. My personal tactic was, before starting to write the essay, to scribble that evidence (or just a keyword to jog my memory) down at the top of my planning paper or scribble it under the plan I wrote. That way, if I had a total mind blank when I got to writing a certain paragraph, I didn’t have to leave the evidence out or waste time trying to remember it.

5. Keep it structured

This one is pretty closely related to the point about planning but hey, can’t push it enough. The pressure of writing essays in exams makes it sooooo easy to start rambling and just chucking idea after idea after idea onto the page. Make a structure during your planning and be really strict about sticking to it to keep your essay as clear and strong as possible. Keep your paragraphs to a regular structure like PEEL/PEAL (point, example, explanation/analysis, link) so you have a clear idea of when you’ve written enough in each paragraph and when it’s time to just move on.

6. Have some potential theses and essay structures prepared

Memorising essays gets a little controversial but I think we all agree that you need to, at least, have a few ideas and potential essay structures going into that exam room. Some of us will try to remember whole essays word-for-word which isn’t officially recommended but as long as you are prepared to ( and know how to ) adapt it to the question then it shouldn’t be too bad. It’s really about finding out what approach works best for you but having some possible essays structures and flexible thesis ideas up your sleeve will make sure that you can write an impressive essay in just 40 minutes.

7. If you get stuck, your best bet is to pause for a second

Having a mind blank during an exam is not a good feeling because the clock is literally ticking and there isn’t a way you can magically force yourself to remember a quote or come up with an idea. It will feel pretty stressful but your best bet here is actually to pause and think instead of continuing to waffle on.

writing essays in exams

Waffling affects the clarity of your essay and the marking criteria about the ‘composing’ of your response. It also might affect how well the marker thinks you understand your argument so it’s always better to pause, give yourself a few seconds to try and reach a solution. If you can’t, either move on and try to come back later or just cut your losses, conclude that point and move on.

8. Don’t forget to anchor your essay with the keyword and source material

Not every essay will give you source material (a picture or quote that you have to refer to) but you will always have a verb or keyword in the question that tells you how to position your argument. When it comes to unexpected source material, here are some tricks and tips and when it comes to the keyword, let’s start by having a look at three questions pulled from the 2016 Advanced English Paper 2 .

writing essays in exams

  • Discuss means you need to pinpoint the issues raised by that statement and provide examples and analysis for and/or against each of those issue.

writing essays in exams

  • How means you need to be providing really solid examples of contrast in Yeats poetry and explaining what that contrast says about personal concerns, political concerns and the relationship between the two.

writing essays in exams

  • To what extent means you need to making a judgement call about how much the themes and ideas in your texts support (or do not support) that statement. This doesn't have to be black and white, you can always say that the texts support that statement in some ways and challenge it in other ways as long as you provide good evidence and analysis to back it up.

All those instructing verbs and keywords came from just one paper so brush on up exactly what they mean and how to use them to anchor your essay . Addressing the keyword and source material really well will show your marker than you are actually answering the exam question, not just chucking out a pre-prepared response.

9. Remind yourself of what the markers are looking for

The overall best tip for writing essays in exams is to remind yourself what your markers are looking for. And no, that doesn't mean you just try to tell your mysterious, probably middle-aged NESA marker what you think they want to hear.

Instead, think about your essay sensibly. Your marker wants to see how well you understand the texts and how the authors communicated those ideas. They want to see how well you understand the concept of Discovery and all its nuances (hint: they’re written out here ). And they want to see how well you can bring all these ideas together and communicate them in a logical, cohesive manner. Don’t get too caught up in fancy language or insanely obscure techniques - you’ve got this.

Writing essays in exams really comes down to being as prepared as possible and having a good strategy for the exam itself. Make sure you’re managing your time and keeping calm enough to write the killer essay you’d be able to come up with outside of the exam room. Happy essay writing… 😬

Published on

October 5, 2017

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Essay Exams

What this handout is about.

At some time in your undergraduate career, you’re going to have to write an essay exam. This thought can inspire a fair amount of fear: we struggle enough with essays when they aren’t timed events based on unknown questions. The goal of this handout is to give you some easy and effective strategies that will help you take control of the situation and do your best.

Why do instructors give essay exams?

Essay exams are a useful tool for finding out if you can sort through a large body of information, figure out what is important, and explain why it is important. Essay exams challenge you to come up with key course ideas and put them in your own words and to use the interpretive or analytical skills you’ve practiced in the course. Instructors want to see whether:

  • You understand concepts that provide the basis for the course
  • You can use those concepts to interpret specific materials
  • You can make connections, see relationships, draw comparisons and contrasts
  • You can synthesize diverse information in support of an original assertion
  • You can justify your own evaluations based on appropriate criteria
  • You can argue your own opinions with convincing evidence
  • You can think critically and analytically about a subject

What essay questions require

Exam questions can reach pretty far into the course materials, so you cannot hope to do well on them if you do not keep up with the readings and assignments from the beginning of the course. The most successful essay exam takers are prepared for anything reasonable, and they probably have some intelligent guesses about the content of the exam before they take it. How can you be a prepared exam taker? Try some of the following suggestions during the semester:

  • Do the reading as the syllabus dictates; keeping up with the reading while the related concepts are being discussed in class saves you double the effort later.
  • Go to lectures (and put away your phone, the newspaper, and that crossword puzzle!).
  • Take careful notes that you’ll understand months later. If this is not your strong suit or the conventions for a particular discipline are different from what you are used to, ask your TA or the Learning Center for advice.
  • Participate in your discussion sections; this will help you absorb the material better so you don’t have to study as hard.
  • Organize small study groups with classmates to explore and review course materials throughout the semester. Others will catch things you might miss even when paying attention. This is not cheating. As long as what you write on the essay is your own work, formulating ideas and sharing notes is okay. In fact, it is a big part of the learning process.
  • As an exam approaches, find out what you can about the form it will take. This will help you forecast the questions that will be on the exam, and prepare for them.

These suggestions will save you lots of time and misery later. Remember that you can’t cram weeks of information into a single day or night of study. So why put yourself in that position?

Now let’s focus on studying for the exam. You’ll notice the following suggestions are all based on organizing your study materials into manageable chunks of related material. If you have a plan of attack, you’ll feel more confident and your answers will be more clear. Here are some tips: 

  • Don’t just memorize aimlessly; clarify the important issues of the course and use these issues to focus your understanding of specific facts and particular readings.
  • Try to organize and prioritize the information into a thematic pattern. Look at what you’ve studied and find a way to put things into related groups. Find the fundamental ideas that have been emphasized throughout the course and organize your notes into broad categories. Think about how different categories relate to each other.
  • Find out what you don’t know, but need to know, by making up test questions and trying to answer them. Studying in groups helps as well.

Taking the exam

Read the exam carefully.

  • If you are given the entire exam at once and can determine your approach on your own, read the entire exam before you get started.
  • Look at how many points each part earns you, and find hints for how long your answers should be.
  • Figure out how much time you have and how best to use it. Write down the actual clock time that you expect to take in each section, and stick to it. This will help you avoid spending all your time on only one section. One strategy is to divide the available time according to percentage worth of the question. You don’t want to spend half of your time on something that is only worth one tenth of the total points.
  • As you read, make tentative choices of the questions you will answer (if you have a choice). Don’t just answer the first essay question you encounter. Instead, read through all of the options. Jot down really brief ideas for each question before deciding.
  • Remember that the easiest-looking question is not always as easy as it looks. Focus your attention on questions for which you can explain your answer most thoroughly, rather than settle on questions where you know the answer but can’t say why.

Analyze the questions

  • Decide what you are being asked to do. If you skim the question to find the main “topic” and then rush to grasp any related ideas you can recall, you may become flustered, lose concentration, and even go blank. Try looking closely at what the question is directing you to do, and try to understand the sort of writing that will be required.
  • Focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don’t.
  • Look at the active verbs in the assignment—they tell you what you should be doing. We’ve included some of these below, with some suggestions on what they might mean. (For help with this sort of detective work, see the Writing Center handout titled Reading Assignments.)

Information words, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject. Information words may include:

  • define—give the subject’s meaning (according to someone or something). Sometimes you have to give more than one view on the subject’s meaning.
  • explain why/how—give reasons why or examples of how something happened.
  • illustrate—give descriptive examples of the subject and show how each is connected with the subject.
  • summarize—briefly cover the important ideas you learned about the subject.
  • trace—outline how something has changed or developed from an earlier time to its current form.
  • research—gather material from outside sources about the subject, often with the implication or requirement that you will analyze what you’ve found.

Relation words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected. Relation words may include:

  • compare—show how two or more things are similar (and, sometimes, different).
  • contrast—show how two or more things are dissimilar.
  • apply—use details that you’ve been given to demonstrate how an idea, theory, or concept works in a particular situation.
  • cause—show how one event or series of events made something else happen.
  • relate—show or describe the connections between things.

Interpretation words ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Don’t see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation. Interpretation words may include:

  • prove, justify—give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth.
  • evaluate, respond, assess—state your opinion of the subject as good, bad, or some combination of the two, with examples and reasons (you may want to compare your subject to something else).
  • support—give reasons or evidence for something you believe (be sure to state clearly what it is that you believe).
  • synthesize—put two or more things together that haven’t been put together before; don’t just summarize one and then the other, and say that they are similar or different—you must provide a reason for putting them together (as opposed to compare and contrast—see above).
  • analyze—look closely at the components of something to figure out how it works, what it might mean, or why it is important.
  • argue—take a side and defend it (with proof) against the other side.

Plan your answers

Think about your time again. How much planning time you should take depends on how much time you have for each question and how many points each question is worth. Here are some general guidelines: 

  • For short-answer definitions and identifications, just take a few seconds. Skip over any you don’t recognize fairly quickly, and come back to them when another question jogs your memory.
  • For answers that require a paragraph or two, jot down several important ideas or specific examples that help to focus your thoughts.
  • For longer answers, you will need to develop a much more definite strategy of organization. You only have time for one draft, so allow a reasonable amount of time—as much as a quarter of the time you’ve allotted for the question—for making notes, determining a thesis, and developing an outline.
  • For questions with several parts (different requests or directions, a sequence of questions), make a list of the parts so that you do not miss or minimize one part. One way to be sure you answer them all is to number them in the question and in your outline.
  • You may have to try two or three outlines or clusters before you hit on a workable plan. But be realistic—you want a plan you can develop within the limited time allotted for your answer. Your outline will have to be selective—not everything you know, but what you know that you can state clearly and keep to the point in the time available.

Again, focus on what you do know about the question, not on what you don’t.

Writing your answers

As with planning, your strategy for writing depends on the length of your answer:

  • For short identifications and definitions, it is usually best to start with a general identifying statement and then move on to describe specific applications or explanations. Two sentences will almost always suffice, but make sure they are complete sentences. Find out whether the instructor wants definition alone, or definition and significance. Why is the identification term or object important?
  • For longer answers, begin by stating your forecasting statement or thesis clearly and explicitly. Strive for focus, simplicity, and clarity. In stating your point and developing your answers, you may want to use important course vocabulary words from the question. For example, if the question is, “How does wisteria function as a representation of memory in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom?” you may want to use the words wisteria, representation, memory, and Faulkner) in your thesis statement and answer. Use these important words or concepts throughout the answer.
  • If you have devised a promising outline for your answer, then you will be able to forecast your overall plan and its subpoints in your opening sentence. Forecasting impresses readers and has the very practical advantage of making your answer easier to read. Also, if you don’t finish writing, it tells your reader what you would have said if you had finished (and may get you partial points).
  • You might want to use briefer paragraphs than you ordinarily do and signal clear relations between paragraphs with transition phrases or sentences.
  • As you move ahead with the writing, you may think of new subpoints or ideas to include in the essay. Stop briefly to make a note of these on your original outline. If they are most appropriately inserted in a section you’ve already written, write them neatly in the margin, at the top of the page, or on the last page, with arrows or marks to alert the reader to where they fit in your answer. Be as neat and clear as possible.
  • Don’t pad your answer with irrelevancies and repetitions just to fill up space. Within the time available, write a comprehensive, specific answer.
  • Watch the clock carefully to ensure that you do not spend too much time on one answer. You must be realistic about the time constraints of an essay exam. If you write one dazzling answer on an exam with three equally-weighted required questions, you earn only 33 points—not enough to pass at most colleges. This may seem unfair, but keep in mind that instructors plan exams to be reasonably comprehensive. They want you to write about the course materials in two or three or more ways, not just one way. Hint: if you finish a half-hour essay in 10 minutes, you may need to develop some of your ideas more fully.
  • If you run out of time when you are writing an answer, jot down the remaining main ideas from your outline, just to show that you know the material and with more time could have continued your exposition.
  • Double-space to leave room for additions, and strike through errors or changes with one straight line (avoid erasing or scribbling over). Keep things as clean as possible. You never know what will earn you partial credit.
  • Write legibly and proofread. Remember that your instructor will likely be reading a large pile of exams. The more difficult they are to read, the more exasperated the instructor might become. Your instructor also cannot give you credit for what they cannot understand. A few minutes of careful proofreading can improve your grade.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in writing essay exams is that you have a limited amount of time and space in which to get across the knowledge you have acquired and your ability to use it. Essay exams are not the place to be subtle or vague. It’s okay to have an obvious structure, even the five-paragraph essay format you may have been taught in high school. Introduce your main idea, have several paragraphs of support—each with a single point defended by specific examples, and conclude with a restatement of your main point and its significance.

Some physiological tips

Just think—we expect athletes to practice constantly and use everything in their abilities and situations in order to achieve success. Yet, somehow many students are convinced that one day’s worth of studying, no sleep, and some well-placed compliments (“Gee, Dr. So-and-so, I really enjoyed your last lecture”) are good preparation for a test. Essay exams are like any other testing situation in life: you’ll do best if you are prepared for what is expected of you, have practiced doing it before, and have arrived in the best shape to do it. You may not want to believe this, but it’s true: a good night’s sleep and a relaxed mind and body can do as much or more for you as any last-minute cram session. Colleges abound with tales of woe about students who slept through exams because they stayed up all night, wrote an essay on the wrong topic, forgot everything they studied, or freaked out in the exam and hyperventilated. If you are rested, breathing normally, and have brought along some healthy, energy-boosting snacks that you can eat or drink quietly, you are in a much better position to do a good job on the test. You aren’t going to write a good essay on something you figured out at 4 a.m. that morning. If you prepare yourself well throughout the semester, you don’t risk your whole grade on an overloaded, undernourished brain.

If for some reason you get yourself into this situation, take a minute every once in a while during the test to breathe deeply, stretch, and clear your brain. You need to be especially aware of the likelihood of errors, so check your essays thoroughly before you hand them in to make sure they answer the right questions and don’t have big oversights or mistakes (like saying “Hitler” when you really mean “Churchill”).

If you tend to go blank during exams, try studying in the same classroom in which the test will be given. Some research suggests that people attach ideas to their surroundings, so it might jog your memory to see the same things you were looking at while you studied.

Try good luck charms. Bring in something you associate with success or the support of your loved ones, and use it as a psychological boost.

Take all of the time you’ve been allotted. Reread, rework, and rethink your answers if you have extra time at the end, rather than giving up and handing the exam in the minute you’ve written your last sentence. Use every advantage you are given.

Remember that instructors do not want to see you trip up—they want to see you do well. With this in mind, try to relax and just do the best you can. The more you panic, the more mistakes you are liable to make. Put the test in perspective: will you die from a poor performance? Will you lose all of your friends? Will your entire future be destroyed? Remember: it’s just a test.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Axelrod, Rise B., and Charles R. Cooper. 2016. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing , 11th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Fowler, Ramsay H., and Jane E. Aaron. 2016. The Little, Brown Handbook , 13th ed. Boston: Pearson.

Gefvert, Constance J. 1988. The Confident Writer: A Norton Handbook , 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Kirszner, Laurie G. 1988. Writing: A College Rhetoric , 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Lunsford, Andrea A. 2015. The St. Martin’s Handbook , 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Woodman, Leonara, and Thomas P. Adler. 1988. The Writer’s Choices , 2nd ed. Northbrook, Illinois: Scott Foresman.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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How to Prepare for an Essay Exam

Last Updated: April 20, 2023

This article was co-authored by Michelle Golden, PhD . Michelle Golden is an English teacher in Athens, Georgia. She received her MA in Language Arts Teacher Education in 2008 and received her PhD in English from Georgia State University in 2015. This article has been viewed 137,181 times.

The dreaded essay exam. Whether you like it or not, at some point in your life you are certain to encounter an exam composed entirely of essays. In the days leading up to the exam you may feel anxious or downright sick to your stomach. Fortunately, with a little bit of preparation and practice, you can turn any pre-exam jitters into a feeling of confidence, which will allow you to successfully tackle any essay exam.

Participating in Class

Step 1 Go to class.

  • Actively participate. It’s important to find a participation method that works for you, whether that’s asking thought-provoking questions or commenting on the reading. Active participation just means involving yourself in some way, so even if you don’t feel comfortable speaking at length in front of your peers, try to ask a question every now and then.
  • Free yourself from distractions. Put away your cell phone or tablet and concentrate on listening and taking good notes. Now is not the time to work on homework for another class or to catch up with friends on Facebook.

Step 2 Take notes.

  • Always have a notebook on hand. It is helpful to use one notebook per subject or course, so that you don’t confuse yourself when looking back.
  • Be sure to date your notes so that you can quickly reference or find the subject material covered on the exam.
  • If you struggle with taking notes, ask the instructor if you can record the lecture. You can then go back and listen to the recording and either take notes at your own pace or review any parts of the lecture, which will be relevant for the exam.

Step 3 Do the readings.

  • Take notes on what you’ve read and have questions ready for class.
  • Follow the schedule for reading assignments. Typically readings are broken out in a way that is both manageable and topical. If, however, you find yourself unable to keep up with the readings, speak with your instructor about a schedule that suits your particular needs. For example, if readings are assigned for every other day of class, you may need to break it out such that you are reading a portion every day.

Reviewing the Material

Step 1 Collect your notes from class.

  • In addition to having one notebook per course, it may be helpful to also have an individual course binder or folder, which contains all course materials.
  • Take your organization to the next level by categorizing according to exams. Don’t throw away previous notes or materials from past exams. They may come in handy for midterm or final exams. Instead, organize the materials as if they were chapters, with chapter one being the first exam and so forth and so on.

Step 2 Find a quiet place to study.

  • Limit phone calls and any other distractions such as texting. It might help to turn your phone and other devices to silent mode while you’re studying.
  • The TV should always be off while you’re preparing for an exam.
  • If you want to listen to music, be sure it’s something that is relaxing or peaceful. Also, keep the music at a low level. Otherwise, music can easily become a distraction.

Step 3 Review class materials.

  • Get into the habit of reviewing class materials after each course. This will help to ease anxiety leading up to the exam, as you won’t have as much to review and will be able to clear up any questions that arise, prior to the big day.
  • Cramming doesn’t work. Multiple studies have shown that spacing out learning was more effective than cramming. [2] X Research source What’s more, cramming only increases the feeling of desperation which leads to panic, and then to test anxiety.

Step 4 Look for potential...

  • Creating an outline will also come in handy when drafting essay responses, so give yourself some practice and start with your class materials.

Practicing Ahead of Time

Step 1 Understand the structure of an essay.

  • Don’t wait until the night before to outline answers. As you’re studying and organizing your class materials, come up with potential questions along the way. You can then go back and review and revise as necessary.
  • Some instructors do specify a word count for essays. Don’t focus on counting words though. Write what you can and look for opportunities to flesh out your answers without being overly wordy.

Step 3 Recognize different types of questions.

  • Identify - typically short and direct answers will do.
  • Explain - requires a more detailed answer.
  • Compare - look for connections.
  • Argue - address this from your own perspective.

Step 4 Revise your answers.

  • This is a good opportunity to proofread your work and to look for any grammatical errors as well.
  • Have a friend, parent or peer look over your essay as well. It is often helpful to have a fresh set of eyes review your work and provide feedback.

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • For open-notes or open-book tests, study thoroughly anyway. This will prepare you for other exams or tests where you're not allowed to use notes, and will allow for you to complete the test faster and easier because you won't need to search for everything in the book or your notes. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Be positive. If you are negative and believe you will not do well, chances are that you will perform the way you expect to. Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0
  • Practice writing. Be sure you can write fairly well in other situations so that you can express your ideas clearly. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

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  • ↑ http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140917-the-worst-way-to-learn

About this article

Michelle Golden, PhD

If you’re worried about an upcoming essay exam, start reviewing your class notes by topic. One helpful way to prepare for your essay exam is to create a potential outline for each theme. For example, if you’re studying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, you might come up with an essay outline about the themes of the play. Once you have a few of these outlines, do practice essays at home under timed conditions, using old exams or questions you can see from your outline. Additionally, make it easier to prepare for future exams by attending all classes, doing the assigned readings and taking clear notes. Keep reading for more tips, including how to understand what the essay questions are asking of you. Did this summary help you? Yes No

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Preparing for the ACT Test with Writing

About the act writing test.

The ACT writing test is a 40-minute essay test that measures your writing skills. The test consists of one writing prompt that will describe a complex issue and present three different perspectives on that issue.  It is a paper-and-pencil test. You will write your essay in pencil (no mechanical pencils or ink pens) on the lined pages of an answer folder that will be provided to you. The only exception is for approved students with diagnosed disabilities who cannot hand write the essay. (See Accommodations .) 

The ACT writing test complements the English and reading tests. The combined information from these tests tells postsecondary institutions about students’ understanding of the conventions of standard written English and their ability to produce a direct sample of writing. The writing test cannot be taken without first taking all four multiple-choice tests in the same session. 

You are asked to read the prompt and write an essay in which you develop your own perspective on the issue. Your essay should analyze the relationship between your perspective and one or more other perspectives. You may adopt a perspective from the prompt, partially or fully, or you may generate your own. Your score will not be affected by the point of view you take on the issue.

Some colleges require the ACT writing test. You should decide whether or not you should take it based on the requirements of the colleges you are applying to or considering.

Why the ACT Writing Test Is Optional 

Because postsecondary institutions have varying needs, we offer the ACT writing test as an option. 

  • Postsecondary institutions are making their own decisions about whether to require the results from the ACT writing test for admissions and/or course placement purposes. 
  • Students will decide whether to take the writing test based on the requirements of the institutions they are considering. 

Practice Your Writing Skills 

Read. Write. Repeat. 

There are many ways to prepare for the ACT writing test that don't even include writing at all. Reading newspapers and magazines, listening to news analyses on television or radio, and participating in discussions and debates about issues and problems all help you build a foundation for your writing skills. These activities help you become more familiar with current issues, with different perspectives on those issues, and with strategies that skilled writers and speakers use to present their points of view. 

Of course, one of the best ways to prepare for the ACT writing test is to practice writing. But you don’t have to sit at a desk and fill a notebook with essays. Practice writing for different purposes, with different audiences in mind. The writing you do in your English classes will help you. Practice writing stories, poems, plays, editorials, reports, letters to the editor, a personal journal, or other kinds of writing that you do on your own—including, yes, essays. 

The ACT writing test asks you to explain your perspective on an issue in a convincing way, so writing opportunities such as editorials or letters to the editor of a newspaper are especially helpful. Practicing various types of writing will help make you a versatile writer able to adjust to different writing assignments. 

Finally, don’t forget you only have 40 minutes on test day. Get some practice writing within a time limit. This will not only give you an advantage on the test, but also will help you build skills that are important in college-level learning and in the world of work. 

Build Your Writing Skills 

Everyday ways to improve your writing 

You can strengthen your writing skills just about anywhere, anytime. Read below for some ideas to make writing, responding, and organizing your thoughts part of your daily routine:   

  • Read and write frequently.  Read as much as you can from a variety of sources, including plays, essays, fiction, poetry, news stories, business writing, and magazine features. 
  • Become familiar with current issues in society and develop your own opinions.  Think of arguments you would use to convince someone of your perspective. Taking speech and debate classes can help you think through issues and communicate them to others. 
  • Practice writing in different formats and in as many real situations as possible.  Write letters to the editor, or letters to a company requesting information. 
  • Try some writing in extracurricular activities.  School newspapers, yearbooks, and creative writing clubs offer opportunities to express ideas in writing. 
  • Share your writing with others and get feedback.  Feedback helps you anticipate how readers might interpret your writing and what types of questions they might have. This can help you anticipate what a reader might want to know. 
  • Learn to see writing as a process —brainstorming, planning, writing, and then editing. This applies to all writing activities. 
  • Listen to the advice your English teacher gives you about your writing. 
  • Strive for well-developed and well-organized writing  that uses precise, clear, and concise language. 
  • Remember that everyone can improve their writing skills.  Confidence and skill will grow with the more writing you do. Practice and work lead to achievement. 

Tips for Taking the ACT Writing Test

Pace yourself.

The ACT writing test contains one question to be completed in 40 minutes. When asked to write a timed essay, most writers find it useful to do some planning before they write the essay and to do a final check of the essay when it is finished. It is unlikely that you will have time to draft, revise, and recopy your essay.

Before writing, carefully read and consider all prompt material. Be sure you understand the issue, its perspectives, and your essay task. The prewriting questions included with the prompt will help you analyze the perspectives and develop your own. Use these questions to think critically about the prompt and generate effective ideas in response. Ask yourself how your ideas and analysis can best be supported and organized in a written argument. Use the prewriting space in your test booklet to structure or outline your response.

Establish the focus of your essay by making clear your argument and its main ideas. Explain and illustrate your ideas with sound reasoning and meaningful examples. Discuss the significance of your ideas: what are the implications of what you have to say, and why is your argument important to consider? As you write, ask yourself if your logic is clear, you have supported your claims, and you have chosen precise words to communicate your ideas.

Review Your Essay

Take a few minutes before time is called to read over your essay. Correct any mistakes. If you find any words that are hard to read, recopy them. Make corrections and revisions neatly between the lines. Do not write in the margins. Your readers know you had only 40 minutes to compose and write your essay. Within that time limit, try to make your essay as polished as you can.

There are many ways to prepare for the ACT writing test. These include reading newspapers and magazines, listening to news analyses on television and radio, and participating in discussions and debates.

One of the best ways to prepare for the ACT writing test is to practice writing with different purposes for different audiences. The writing you do in your classes will help you. So will writing essays, stories, editorials, a personal journal, or other writing you do on your own.

It is also a good idea to practice writing within a time limit. Taking the practice ACT writing test will give you a sense of how much additional practice you may need. You might want to take the practice ACT writing test even if you do not plan to take the ACT with writing, because this will help build skills that are important in college-level learning and in the world of work.

Find more info about how the writing test is scored .

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Studying for Essay Exams

  • Can you study for an essay exam? 
  • The challenge of essay exams
  • Study Strategy 1: Create a study guide
  • Study Strategy 2: Try to guess the questions
  • Study Strategy 3: Study from old exams
  • Study Strategy 4: Outline or write possible answers
  • Study Strategy 5: Study in a group

Can you study for an essay exam?

Yes, you can! Many students mistakenly think that, because essay exams focus on analysis rather than memorization, they cannot really “study” for an essay exam. However, essay exams generally require you to pull together information from different parts of the course to create a coherent answer and to support an interpretation with specific examples. That is pretty hard to do well if you haven’t studied the course material! Indeed, there are a number of study strategies that are well-suited to preparing for an essay exam.

The Challenge of Essay Exams

Essay exams require you to interpret a complex and often lengthy question, develop a coherent thesis statement that addresses this question, and write an essay that provides specific evidence to develop and support this thesis. And, it requires you to do all of this under time pressure.

Meeting these challenges will require that you study in ways that will allow you to recognize both the major themes and ideas of the course as well as the specific facts, events, authors, or examples that are associated with those themes.

Study Strategy 1: Create a Study Guide

Essay exams require you to show connections between details, to gather up the specifics and tie them together with the major themes of the course. One of the best ways to prepare for this is to create a study guide.

A study guide is a document that attempts to identify the major themes and synthesize information from different units or weeks of the course. In a study guide, you list information from different units together under thematic categories. Here are some tips on creating a good study guide.

Step 1 : Read through lecture notes and reading notes and list the main themes of the class. This is not a list of facts, dates, events or authors, but of themes and ideas.  For example, in your History 1500, this would NOT be a list of events or dates. It would be themes: terror and the state, religion and terror, technology and terror. In English 1000, your list would NOT be a list of authors or books that you have read. Instead, it would be a list of themes that are common to them: literary techniques, self and society, gender etc.

Step 2 : Now go back and read through your notes again. This time, you are looking for details such as authors, key terms, events, and examples. Use these details to flesh out your study guide and to show how the details build your understanding of the themes.

Sample Study Guide for History 1500

Theme: Religion and Terror

Module: Witch Craze

  • Catholicism and beliefs in white and dark magic
  • The Reformation/Wars of Religion brought social, cultural, and economic disruption, which bred anxiety.
  • Most intense hunting = 1550-1650 (religious wars = c.1540-1648)
  • Proximity to religious tension increases tendency to burn witches

Module: Crusades – List relevant examples

Study Strategy 2: Try to Guess the Questions

When professors write essay questions, they usually review the material they have covered and try to choose topics that will require students to bring together the major themes of the course. By guessing the questions that will be on the exam, you will engage in the same process. Look through your syllabus, lecture and reading notes, and study guide. What concepts or themes have been developed throughout the term? What questions would you ask if you were the professor?

Study Strategy 3: Study from Old Exams

While you are guessing the questions and preparing for an essay exam, it can be very helpful to consult previous exams in the course. While it is unlikely that a professor would use exactly the same questions again on your exam, it can be helpful to get a sense of the types of questions that have been asked in the past. Some professors share old exams with their classes. However, in classes where this is not the case, you can seek out sample questions from your textbook, syllabus, or assignment instructions. There are great online sources of sample questions from textbook publishers, but take caution when searching online. Some sites that crowdsource student work encourage acts of academic dishonesty; students should  never share old exam questions or answers. 

Study Strategy 4: Outline or Write Possible Answers

Trying to identify what questions might be on the exam is, of course, only one part of studying for the exam. You also need to try to create answers to these questions. You can do this by outlining answers. Begin with a clear thesis that addresses the question, and then create a section of the outline that develops each part of your thesis. Finally, add in specific examples that you would use to support your ideas in the appropriate section.

You can also write full answers to the essay questions you devise as you study. The act of writing will help you to remember the material, and although the identical question may not appear on the exam, you will usually be able to employ the connections and supporting details in a response that addresses similar issues.

Study Strategy 5: Study in a Group

One of the best ways to learn material is to talk about it with others. As you do, you deepen your understanding not only by having to explain concepts or themes to others but also by hearing their perspective on the central issues of the course.

While you will ultimately take an exam, and thus need to know course information, on your own, study groups can be a great supplement to independent study activities. Each group member could come prepared with one or two potential exam questions, and then other group members could try to answer them. Or, the entire group could review the course syllabus together and identify central themes or particularly challenging material. Through the process of discussing the information with others, you will increase your understanding and thus be studying for your essay exam.

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Taking an essay exam.

You may often be asked in college to take essay exams. In certain ways, the same principles for writing good out-of-class essays apply to writing good in-class essays as well. For example, both kinds of essays are more successful when you take into consideration your purpose, audience and information; when you develop a thesis with support; when you prove your assertions with evidence; when you guide your readers with transitions, etc.

However, there are some differences to keep in mind as you prepare to write. The most important one is the purpose for writing. Usually you write a research paper, for example, to learn more about your selected topic; however, you write essay exams to demonstrate your knowledge. You are not only conveying information, but also proving to your audience--the examiner--that you have mastered the information and can work with it. In other words, your purpose is both informative and persuasive. Keeping this purpose in mind will help you both prepare for and write the essay.


Study connections between ideas. Your instructor is not looking for a collection of unrelated pieces of information. Rather, he or she wants to see that you understand the whole picture, i.e., how the generalizations or concepts create the framework for the specific facts, and how the examples or details fill in the gaps. So, when you're studying, try to think about how the information fits together.

Prepare practice questions. Try to prepare for questions that are likely to be asked. If your instructor has given you the questions themselves or a study sheet in advance, practice answering those questions. Otherwise, try to anticipate questions your instructor is likely to ask and practice those. At the very least, outline how you would answer the test questions; however, it's better to actually write out the answers. That way, you will know where you need to study more.


Again, while you're taking the exam, remember that it's not simply what you say or how much you say, but HOW you say it that's important. You want to show your instructor that you have mastered the material.

Plan your time. Although you will be working under pressure, take a few minutes to plan your time. Determine how many minutes you can devote to each answer. You will want to devote most of your time to the questions that are worth the most points, perhaps answering those questions first. On the other hand, you might want to answer first the questions that you are best prepared for.

Read the questions thoroughly. Take a few minutes before writing your essay to read the question carefully in order to determine exactly what you are being asked to do. Most essay exam questions, or "prompts," are carefully worded and contain specific instructions about WHAT you are to write about as well as HOW you should organize your answer. The prompt may use one or more of the following terms. If you see one of these terms, try to organize your essay to respond to the question or questions indicated.

classify: Into what general category/categories does this idea belong? compare: What are the similarities among these ideas? What are the differences? contrast: What are the differences between these ideas? critique: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this idea? define: What does this word or phrase mean? describe: What are the important characteristics or features of this idea? evaluate: What are the arguments for and against this idea? Which arguments are stronger? explain: Why is this the case? identify: What is this idea? What is its name? interpret: What does this idea mean? Why is it important? justify: Why is this correct? Why is this true? outline: What are the main points and essential details? summarize: Briefly, what are the important ideas? trace: What is the sequence of ideas or order of events?

Plan your answer. Jot down the main points you intend to make as you think through your answer. Then, you can use your list to help you stick to the topic. In an exam situation, it's easy to forget points if you don't write them down.

Write out your essay, using good writing techniques. As was said earlier, essay exams are like other essays, so use the same good writing strategies you use for other kinds of writing. Keep in mind that your purpose is to persuade your reader—the examiner—that you know the material.

First, create a thesis for your essay that you can defend. Often, you can turn the questions stated or implied on the exam into an answer and use it as your thesis. This sentence also functions as an introduction.

For example, suppose you are given the following prompt in your psychology class:

Define "procedural knowledge" and describe its relationship to the results of studies of amnesic patients.

The implied question is:

What is "procedural knowledge" and how is it related to the results of studies of amnesic patients?

Note how you can turn the answer to that implied question into the thesis of your exam essay. This paragraph might serve as your introduction.

"Procedural knowledge" is knowing how to perform a task, such as tying a shoe or driving a car, and studies of amnesia have shown that this type of knowledge or memory is often retained by amnesic patients. Even in amnesic patients who have lost most of their declarative memory capacity, the ability to form new procedural memories is often intact...

Then, proceed immediately to explain, develop, and support your thesis, drawing upon materials from text(s), lectures, and class discussions. Be sure to support any and all generalizations with concrete evidence, relevant facts, and specific details that will convince your reader that your thesis is valid. Make your main points stand out by writing distinct paragraphs, and indicate the relationship between them with transitions.

For example, in response to this prompt from a social work class,

Identify and give an example of four alternative solutions available in cases of family conflict.

a student wrote the following paragraph. Note the transition phrase and the generalization supported by specific evidence.

. . . The fourth alternative open in cases of family conflict is violence, and this is not an uncommon response. 25% of all homicides in the U.S. involve one family member killing another; half of these are spouse homicides. Violence usually takes one of two forms: explosive or coercive. Explosive violence is not premeditated. When the son takes and crashes the family car, for instance, the father may explode and beat him. Coercive violence, on the other hand, is pointed and intentional; it has the goal of producing compliance or obedience. Thus, a blow delivered with a threat not to repeat certain behaviors would be coercive. . . .

Finally, sum up your argument with a brief conclusion that lends your essay a clear sense of closure.

Finishing the Exam

Proofread your answer. Reserve a few minutes after completing your essay to proofread it carefully. First, make sure you stick to the question. Always answer exactly the question asked without digressing. If you find you have digressed, neatly cross out the words or paragraphs. It's better to cross out a paragraph that is irrelevant (and to replace it with a relevant one if you have time) than to allow it to stand. In this context at least, quality is always preferable to quantity. Also check sentence structure, spelling and punctuation.

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The Beginner's Guide to Writing an Essay | Steps & Examples

An academic essay is a focused piece of writing that develops an idea or argument using evidence, analysis, and interpretation.

There are many types of essays you might write as a student. The content and length of an essay depends on your level, subject of study, and course requirements. However, most essays at university level are argumentative — they aim to persuade the reader of a particular position or perspective on a topic.

The essay writing process consists of three main stages:

  • Preparation: Decide on your topic, do your research, and create an essay outline.
  • Writing : Set out your argument in the introduction, develop it with evidence in the main body, and wrap it up with a conclusion.
  • Revision:  Check your essay on the content, organization, grammar, spelling, and formatting of your essay.

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Essay writing process, preparation for writing an essay, writing the introduction, writing the main body, writing the conclusion, essay checklist, lecture slides, frequently asked questions about writing an essay.

The writing process of preparation, writing, and revisions applies to every essay or paper, but the time and effort spent on each stage depends on the type of essay .

For example, if you’ve been assigned a five-paragraph expository essay for a high school class, you’ll probably spend the most time on the writing stage; for a college-level argumentative essay , on the other hand, you’ll need to spend more time researching your topic and developing an original argument before you start writing.

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Before you start writing, you should make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. There are a few key steps you can follow to make sure you’re prepared:

  • Understand your assignment: What is the goal of this essay? What is the length and deadline of the assignment? Is there anything you need to clarify with your teacher or professor?
  • Define a topic: If you’re allowed to choose your own topic , try to pick something that you already know a bit about and that will hold your interest.
  • Do your research: Read  primary and secondary sources and take notes to help you work out your position and angle on the topic. You’ll use these as evidence for your points.
  • Come up with a thesis:  The thesis is the central point or argument that you want to make. A clear thesis is essential for a focused essay—you should keep referring back to it as you write.
  • Create an outline: Map out the rough structure of your essay in an outline . This makes it easier to start writing and keeps you on track as you go.

Once you’ve got a clear idea of what you want to discuss, in what order, and what evidence you’ll use, you’re ready to start writing.

The introduction sets the tone for your essay. It should grab the reader’s interest and inform them of what to expect. The introduction generally comprises 10–20% of the text.

1. Hook your reader

The first sentence of the introduction should pique your reader’s interest and curiosity. This sentence is sometimes called the hook. It might be an intriguing question, a surprising fact, or a bold statement emphasizing the relevance of the topic.

Let’s say we’re writing an essay about the development of Braille (the raised-dot reading and writing system used by visually impaired people). Our hook can make a strong statement about the topic:

The invention of Braille was a major turning point in the history of disability.

2. Provide background on your topic

Next, it’s important to give context that will help your reader understand your argument. This might involve providing background information, giving an overview of important academic work or debates on the topic, and explaining difficult terms. Don’t provide too much detail in the introduction—you can elaborate in the body of your essay.

3. Present the thesis statement

Next, you should formulate your thesis statement— the central argument you’re going to make. The thesis statement provides focus and signals your position on the topic. It is usually one or two sentences long. The thesis statement for our essay on Braille could look like this:

As the first writing system designed for blind people’s needs, Braille was a groundbreaking new accessibility tool. It not only provided practical benefits, but also helped change the cultural status of blindness.

4. Map the structure

In longer essays, you can end the introduction by briefly describing what will be covered in each part of the essay. This guides the reader through your structure and gives a preview of how your argument will develop.

The invention of Braille marked a major turning point in the history of disability. The writing system of raised dots used by blind and visually impaired people was developed by Louis Braille in nineteenth-century France. In a society that did not value disabled people in general, blindness was particularly stigmatized, and lack of access to reading and writing was a significant barrier to social participation. The idea of tactile reading was not entirely new, but existing methods based on sighted systems were difficult to learn and use. As the first writing system designed for blind people’s needs, Braille was a groundbreaking new accessibility tool. It not only provided practical benefits, but also helped change the cultural status of blindness. This essay begins by discussing the situation of blind people in nineteenth-century Europe. It then describes the invention of Braille and the gradual process of its acceptance within blind education. Subsequently, it explores the wide-ranging effects of this invention on blind people’s social and cultural lives.

Write your essay introduction

The body of your essay is where you make arguments supporting your thesis, provide evidence, and develop your ideas. Its purpose is to present, interpret, and analyze the information and sources you have gathered to support your argument.

Length of the body text

The length of the body depends on the type of essay. On average, the body comprises 60–80% of your essay. For a high school essay, this could be just three paragraphs, but for a graduate school essay of 6,000 words, the body could take up 8–10 pages.

Paragraph structure

To give your essay a clear structure , it is important to organize it into paragraphs . Each paragraph should be centered around one main point or idea.

That idea is introduced in a  topic sentence . The topic sentence should generally lead on from the previous paragraph and introduce the point to be made in this paragraph. Transition words can be used to create clear connections between sentences.

After the topic sentence, present evidence such as data, examples, or quotes from relevant sources. Be sure to interpret and explain the evidence, and show how it helps develop your overall argument.

Lack of access to reading and writing put blind people at a serious disadvantage in nineteenth-century society. Text was one of the primary methods through which people engaged with culture, communicated with others, and accessed information; without a well-developed reading system that did not rely on sight, blind people were excluded from social participation (Weygand, 2009). While disabled people in general suffered from discrimination, blindness was widely viewed as the worst disability, and it was commonly believed that blind people were incapable of pursuing a profession or improving themselves through culture (Weygand, 2009). This demonstrates the importance of reading and writing to social status at the time: without access to text, it was considered impossible to fully participate in society. Blind people were excluded from the sighted world, but also entirely dependent on sighted people for information and education.

See the full essay example

The conclusion is the final paragraph of an essay. It should generally take up no more than 10–15% of the text . A strong essay conclusion :

  • Returns to your thesis
  • Ties together your main points
  • Shows why your argument matters

A great conclusion should finish with a memorable or impactful sentence that leaves the reader with a strong final impression.

What not to include in a conclusion

To make your essay’s conclusion as strong as possible, there are a few things you should avoid. The most common mistakes are:

  • Including new arguments or evidence
  • Undermining your arguments (e.g. “This is just one approach of many”)
  • Using concluding phrases like “To sum up…” or “In conclusion…”

Braille paved the way for dramatic cultural changes in the way blind people were treated and the opportunities available to them. Louis Braille’s innovation was to reimagine existing reading systems from a blind perspective, and the success of this invention required sighted teachers to adapt to their students’ reality instead of the other way around. In this sense, Braille helped drive broader social changes in the status of blindness. New accessibility tools provide practical advantages to those who need them, but they can also change the perspectives and attitudes of those who do not.

Write your essay conclusion

Checklist: Essay

My essay follows the requirements of the assignment (topic and length ).

My introduction sparks the reader’s interest and provides any necessary background information on the topic.

My introduction contains a thesis statement that states the focus and position of the essay.

I use paragraphs to structure the essay.

I use topic sentences to introduce each paragraph.

Each paragraph has a single focus and a clear connection to the thesis statement.

I make clear transitions between paragraphs and ideas.

My conclusion doesn’t just repeat my points, but draws connections between arguments.

I don’t introduce new arguments or evidence in the conclusion.

I have given an in-text citation for every quote or piece of information I got from another source.

I have included a reference page at the end of my essay, listing full details of all my sources.

My citations and references are correctly formatted according to the required citation style .

My essay has an interesting and informative title.

I have followed all formatting guidelines (e.g. font, page numbers, line spacing).

Your essay meets all the most important requirements. Our editors can give it a final check to help you submit with confidence.

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An essay is a focused piece of writing that explains, argues, describes, or narrates.

In high school, you may have to write many different types of essays to develop your writing skills.

Academic essays at college level are usually argumentative : you develop a clear thesis about your topic and make a case for your position using evidence, analysis and interpretation.

The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement , a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.

The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.

Your essay introduction should include three main things, in this order:

  • An opening hook to catch the reader’s attention.
  • Relevant background information that the reader needs to know.
  • A thesis statement that presents your main point or argument.

The length of each part depends on the length and complexity of your essay .

A thesis statement is a sentence that sums up the central point of your paper or essay . Everything else you write should relate to this key idea.

The thesis statement is essential in any academic essay or research paper for two main reasons:

  • It gives your writing direction and focus.
  • It gives the reader a concise summary of your main point.

Without a clear thesis statement, an essay can end up rambling and unfocused, leaving your reader unsure of exactly what you want to say.

A topic sentence is a sentence that expresses the main point of a paragraph . Everything else in the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence.

At college level, you must properly cite your sources in all essays , research papers , and other academic texts (except exams and in-class exercises).

Add a citation whenever you quote , paraphrase , or summarize information or ideas from a source. You should also give full source details in a bibliography or reference list at the end of your text.

The exact format of your citations depends on which citation style you are instructed to use. The most common styles are APA , MLA , and Chicago .

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Student sat writing at a table. Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

Essay and dissertation writing skills

Planning your essay

Writing your introduction

Structuring your essay

  • Writing essays in science subjects
  • Brief video guides to support essay planning and writing
  • Writing extended essays and dissertations
  • Planning your dissertation writing time

Structuring your dissertation

  • Top tips for writing longer pieces of work

Advice on planning and writing essays and dissertations

University essays differ from school essays in that they are less concerned with what you know and more concerned with how you construct an argument to answer the question. This means that the starting point for writing a strong essay is to first unpick the question and to then use this to plan your essay before you start putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

A really good starting point for you are these short, downloadable Tips for Successful Essay Writing and Answering the Question resources. Both resources will help you to plan your essay, as well as giving you guidance on how to distinguish between different sorts of essay questions. 

You may find it helpful to watch this seven-minute video on six tips for essay writing which outlines how to interpret essay questions, as well as giving advice on planning and structuring your writing:

Different disciplines will have different expectations for essay structure and you should always refer to your Faculty or Department student handbook or course Canvas site for more specific guidance.

However, broadly speaking, all essays share the following features:

Essays need an introduction to establish and focus the parameters of the discussion that will follow. You may find it helpful to divide the introduction into areas to demonstrate your breadth and engagement with the essay question. You might define specific terms in the introduction to show your engagement with the essay question; for example, ‘This is a large topic which has been variously discussed by many scientists and commentators. The principle tension is between the views of X and Y who define the main issues as…’ Breadth might be demonstrated by showing the range of viewpoints from which the essay question could be considered; for example, ‘A variety of factors including economic, social and political, influence A and B. This essay will focus on the social and economic aspects, with particular emphasis on…..’

Watch this two-minute video to learn more about how to plan and structure an introduction:

The main body of the essay should elaborate on the issues raised in the introduction and develop an argument(s) that answers the question. It should consist of a number of self-contained paragraphs each of which makes a specific point and provides some form of evidence to support the argument being made. Remember that a clear argument requires that each paragraph explicitly relates back to the essay question or the developing argument.

  • Conclusion: An essay should end with a conclusion that reiterates the argument in light of the evidence you have provided; you shouldn’t use the conclusion to introduce new information.
  • References: You need to include references to the materials you’ve used to write your essay. These might be in the form of footnotes, in-text citations, or a bibliography at the end. Different systems exist for citing references and different disciplines will use various approaches to citation. Ask your tutor which method(s) you should be using for your essay and also consult your Department or Faculty webpages for specific guidance in your discipline. 

Essay writing in science subjects

If you are writing an essay for a science subject you may need to consider additional areas, such as how to present data or diagrams. This five-minute video gives you some advice on how to approach your reading list, planning which information to include in your answer and how to write for your scientific audience – the video is available here:

A PDF providing further guidance on writing science essays for tutorials is available to download.

Short videos to support your essay writing skills

There are many other resources at Oxford that can help support your essay writing skills and if you are short on time, the Oxford Study Skills Centre has produced a number of short (2-minute) videos covering different aspects of essay writing, including:

  • Approaching different types of essay questions  
  • Structuring your essay  
  • Writing an introduction  
  • Making use of evidence in your essay writing  
  • Writing your conclusion

Extended essays and dissertations

Longer pieces of writing like extended essays and dissertations may seem like quite a challenge from your regular essay writing. The important point is to start with a plan and to focus on what the question is asking. A PDF providing further guidance on planning Humanities and Social Science dissertations is available to download.

Planning your time effectively

Try not to leave the writing until close to your deadline, instead start as soon as you have some ideas to put down onto paper. Your early drafts may never end up in the final work, but the work of committing your ideas to paper helps to formulate not only your ideas, but the method of structuring your writing to read well and conclude firmly.

Although many students and tutors will say that the introduction is often written last, it is a good idea to begin to think about what will go into it early on. For example, the first draft of your introduction should set out your argument, the information you have, and your methods, and it should give a structure to the chapters and sections you will write. Your introduction will probably change as time goes on but it will stand as a guide to your entire extended essay or dissertation and it will help you to keep focused.

The structure of  extended essays or dissertations will vary depending on the question and discipline, but may include some or all of the following:

  • The background information to - and context for - your research. This often takes the form of a literature review.
  • Explanation of the focus of your work.
  • Explanation of the value of this work to scholarship on the topic.
  • List of the aims and objectives of the work and also the issues which will not be covered because they are outside its scope.

The main body of your extended essay or dissertation will probably include your methodology, the results of research, and your argument(s) based on your findings.

The conclusion is to summarise the value your research has added to the topic, and any further lines of research you would undertake given more time or resources. 

Tips on writing longer pieces of work

Approaching each chapter of a dissertation as a shorter essay can make the task of writing a dissertation seem less overwhelming. Each chapter will have an introduction, a main body where the argument is developed and substantiated with evidence, and a conclusion to tie things together. Unlike in a regular essay, chapter conclusions may also introduce the chapter that will follow, indicating how the chapters are connected to one another and how the argument will develop through your dissertation.

For further guidance, watch this two-minute video on writing longer pieces of work . 

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How to Write Good Essays in Exams (And Avoid Stress)

Blog , Pedagogy July 18, 2023

An essay is a piece of writing that presents a focused argument or explores a specific topic in a structured and coherent manner. Students often write essays in exams to assess their understanding of a subject matter, their ability to analyze and interpret information, and their skills in constructing coherent arguments. However, writing good work in exams requires careful planning, effective time management, and strong writing skills. Therefore, here is a step-by-step guide to help students write good essays for exams (and avoid stress).

How to Write Good Essays in Exams (And Avoid Stress)

Write Good Essays in Exams: A Step-By-Step Guide

Writing in exams can be challenging and stressful for many students. The step-by-step guide below will help you write good essays for exams, avoid stress and achieve better results.

Read the Instructions Carefully

Check you understand any restrictions or limitations mentioned in the instructions, such as word count, time limit, and how many questions to answer.

Read the Questions Carefully

Read through the exam paper once and then re-read each question. You might think a topic you’ve revised hasn’t come up when it is there, but the wording is unusual. Alternatively, the question might be obtuse, and you do not understand it.

Choose Your Questions Carefully

Mark any questions you might answer, and then check that you fully understand them. Do you have relevant knowledge, ideas, and evidence for the essays you plan to write?

Understand the Questions

Before you start writing, take time to read and understand the question. Underline or highlight the key points and requirements. And make sure you know what is asked of you.

Look for any keywords or phrases that indicate what you need to do, such as “explain,” “compare,” “contrast,” “define,” or “justify.”

Decide the Order You Plan to Answer Questions

Some people like to start with the topic they know best to give them a good start. Others prefer to answer their best question second because, with one essay written, they can relax, expand on their best ideas and gain a higher grade.

Plan Your Response to Write Good Essays in Exams

The stress of writing essays for exams can make all your preparation disappear. And it is essential to get your ideas across clearly and concisely in exams. So, take a few minutes to brainstorm and organize your thoughts.

Identify the main topic and discussion areas. Choose a few points or arguments about which you can write.

Make a mini-plan that puts your points/arguments in order before you start writing. This plan will serve as a roadmap for your writing and help you stay focused.

Manage Your Time

Good time management is necessary when writing essays under timed conditions. Ensure you allocate enough time for each essay section and stick to the time limit.

Divide your time according to the number of essays or sections to write.

Allocate time for each essay section, including planning, writing, and proofreading. Stick to this schedule to ensure enough time for all the necessary tasks.

Good Essays in Exams Are Clear and Concise

When writing time-constrained essays, express your ideas clearly and concisely. Avoid long, rambling sentences and focus on making your points clearly and concisely.

Write in clear and concise sentences. Avoid using overly complex language or jargon that might confuse the reader. Use specific and descriptive language to convey your ideas effectively.

Proofread and Edit

Take a few minutes at the end to review your essay. Check for any grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. Ensure you present ideas clearly and logically. If time permits, read your work aloud to identify any awkward phrasing or unclear sentences.

Once you have finished writing, take a few minutes to edit your work. Check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and make sure your essay flows logically.

Stay Calm and Focused

Stay relaxed and focused during the exam. Read the instructions carefully, manage your time wisely, and answer the questions to the best of your ability.

Write Good Essays in Exams: Structure Your Essay

A well-structured essay will make it easier for the reader to follow your arguments and understand the ideas presented.

Therefore, students should follow some basic guidelines to ensure their answers are concise and effectively convey their knowledge and understanding of the material.

Here are some tips to help you structure your exam essay.

  • Start with a Strong Introduction : To write good essays in exams, begin your essay with a compelling introduction that grabs the reader’s attention. Clearly state your thesis or main argument. And provide a brief overview of the points you will discuss. This information shows the assessor how you understand the question and how you will answer it.
  • Develop Coherent Body Paragraphs : Each body paragraph should focus on a single main idea that supports your thesis. Start each section with a topic sentence that introduces the main point and provides evidence or examples to support it. Use clear and logical transitions between paragraphs to maintain a smooth flow of ideas. Moreover, develop your story!
  • Provide Evidence : Support your claims with relevant evidence such as examples, statistics, or references to authoritative sources. Make sure your evidence is accurate and supports your arguments effectively. This strategy will make your essay more convincing and help you score higher marks.
  • Address Counterarguments : Acknowledge and address counterarguments or opposing viewpoints. This strategy demonstrates that you have considered different perspectives and strengthens your argument. Refute counterarguments with logical reasoning and evidence.
  • Conclude Effectively : Summarize your main points in the conclusion and restate your thesis. Avoid introducing new information at this stage. End with a strong closing statement that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

What to Do if Your Mind Goes Blank

Most students fear this happening.

If it does—put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back, and relax for a moment.

If you’re in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far—what happens next?

Lastly, if you can’t progress with your writing, then leave a gap! Your thoughts will probably return once you are less anxious.

What to Do if You Are Running Out of Time

Don’t panic.

Look at the questions left to answer (or essay sections left to write) and divide your remaining time to cover all the parts.

Or, perhaps you are halfway through writing an essay with 30 minutes to finish. Remember, give yourself 15 minutes to complete (or upload) your work because you may encounter technical problems!

Write economically—make your point, support it with evidence, and then move on to the next point.

If you can’t finish on time, briefly list the points you wanted to make—they could pick you up a few marks.

Referencing in Exams

Refer by name to the theorists and researchers in your subject area, also giving the year of their major works—the best you can given the time you have.

Citing a few up-to-date references in your essay demonstrates current knowledge and understanding.

For open-book exams, provide a reference list (i.e., evidence of your reading) at the end of your essay.

A reference list is not necessary for in-person exams, which are typically shorter in duration than open-book assessments. This requirement helps students focus on writing when time is at a premium.

Note. The reference section (if you require one) does not usually count towards the word limit. Moreover, there is no penalty for minor formatting deviations.

Write Good Essays in Exams: Marking Criteria

The marking criteria for written exams have a reduced emphasis on stylistic elements (e.g., APA formatting) to allow students to write good essays in exams.

However, being mindful of your marker’s needs is essential when writing good essays. For instance, understanding what they will be looking for can help you tailor your writing to meet their expectations. Plus, this will improve your chances of receiving a good grade.

Here are some things to consider when thinking about your marker’s needs (and to achieve better grades!):

  • Knowledge & Understanding : Ensure you show thorough, up-to-date knowledge and comprehension of the topic by including evidence of reading beyond the key texts.
  • Analysis : Ensure you examine ideas and principles beyond those introduced in the module resourcefully and imaginatively. Synthese ideas from diverse sources. Additionally, show independence of thought with critical evaluation.
  • Reading & Referencing : Show clear evidence of extensive and relevant reading.
  • Essay structure : Ensure your essay structure is logical, easy to follow, addresses the title, and enhances your argument and discussion.
  • Use correct language : Use excellent standard written English.

Remember, writing essays for exams can be stressful, but you can succeed with careful planning and a clear strategy. So, stay calm, stay focused, and do your best.

However, a clear strategy is not enough when writing good essays for exams. Students should also be able to analyze, interpret, and synthesize the information they have learned, thus demonstrating their understanding of the subject matter.

Good luck with your exams!

Want to get the most out of your degree? Then check out my other pedagogy articles!

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  • A Research Guide
  • Writing Guide
  • Essay Writing

Writing Essays for Exams: Question and Answer Format

  • Begin by carefully reading each of the questions.
  • Take note of how much time you have (particularly for timed writingassignments) and determine which of the questions you should answer first.
  • Identify and underline relevant keywords and those that instruct you on what needs to be done for each question.
  • Select an organizational pattern that is appropriate for each of the keywords identified and strategize your responses on a piece of scrap paper (or in the margins if you aren’t provided extra paper.)
  • Write out your answers as quickly and as neatly as you can – do not waste time trying to recopy your responses.
  • Start each answer with a short thesis that clearly summarizes your reply. Wherever possible, phrase your statement so that it restates the question’s essential terminology into a complete statement (and, in itself, answers the question.)
  • Back up your thesis by using specific references to the things that you have researched and studies.
  • Remember to proofread your answers and edit or correct and errors in spelling or grammar.
Read also: How to start a good essay ?

Know the Types of Essay Questions

  • Cause and Effect
  • Comparison and Contrast
  • Process Analysis and,
  • Thesis Support
  • What is a ____
  • Select X terms from the following list and define them
  • Restate the term that will be defined
  • State the genus (or class of objects) that the item belongs to
  • Distinguish the term from other members of the same genus by listing the terms defining characteristics.
  • Any details that can be used to describe the term
  • Specific examples or case studies
  • Contrast and comparison to familiar terms
  • Further classification
  • Exploration of the origins, results, effect, etc.
Read Also: The C heapest Essay Writing Service to Escape Writing Anxiety
  • What are the elements of Y
  • What are the four different kinds of Y
  • Discuss the different types of Y
  • Outline all supporting details and examples.
  • Write the essay, clearly describing each element and making transitions between each description. Helpful transition words include: first, second, third, next, another, in addition, etc.
  • End the essay by restating how each element makes up the whole.
  • What are the causes of Y
  • What led to Y
  • Why did Y occur
  • Why does Y happen
  • What would be the effect of Y
  • How does A differ from B
  • Compare A and B
  • What are the benefits and downfalls of A and B
  • The power to fly
  • The power to walk through walls
  • Describe how Y is carried out
  • List all of the steps involved in Y
  • Explain the outcome of Y
  • What is the procedure for Y
  • A thought leader has said Y. Do you agree or do you disagree
  • Do you believe that Y is valid? Defend your argument.
Read also: College paper writing service reviews from top experts.

List of Common Essay Writing Tips Suitable For All Essay Types

  • Jot down every piece of information that you’ve had to memorize while studying for the exam – in point form, of course.
  • Read the questions and instructions more than once. Reread every question on the exam. If you just take the time to answer each question as you come across it, you may find that you uncover information that could help you with another question. Remember to identify every part of the question.
  • Develop your thesis and form your answer around that. You are welcome to use wording from the question itself. There is no time to waste on crafting elaborate introductions, but remember to clearly introduce your topic, your statement and how you intend to support your argument.
  • Organize your points in a clear and concise manner. Prior to jumping into the body paragraphs, take the time to write an outline that summarizes the points you intend to make. Confirm that you are answering all of the relevant parts of the question. Structure and organization are the most important elements of any great essay.
  • A clear thesis statement
  • Enough supporting evidence that you are able to back up your thesis
  • Logical progression through the parts and ideas in the essay.
Read also: Professional  essay writing help for busy students.
  • Never pad your essay. Your instructor will know when you are trying to talk circles around them – they are after all, smarter than you.
  • Stay away from excuses. No one like them. Your teacher doesn’t want to read that you’ve run out of time, or that you weren’t able to study because your cat was in the hospital. If these are true, make an appointment to speak with the TA after the exam.

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writing essays in exams

  • Essay Exams

How to write an essay under exam conditions

Cathedral and Campanary - Pisa 2014

This is a full analytical essay, which is written under exam conditions. In this kind of task, you will be required to give a response to a question or statement, using sources provided by your teacher.

You will be required to demonstrate a whole gamut of skills. You will need to:

  • respond to stimulus provided for the exam
  • use the sources to create a hypothesis in response to the key question /statement
  • plan and write a complete essay within the exam time limit
  • quote from a wide range of sources
  • analyse and evaluate the sources you've used
  • correctly reference all sources quoted in your essay

Whilst this seems like a lot to complete in an exam, planning will help accomplish most of this. Most essay exams provide you with 10 minutes of perusal time. Use this time to plan out your hypothesis , topic sentences and what quotes from the sources you are going to use in each of your body paragraphs. If you use this time well, your essay writing will remain clearly structured.

Understand the Key Question/Statement

The question or statement will not be provided before the test (therefore, the question is ‘unseen’). Therefore, it is imperative that you take the time to read and understand what the statement or question is asking you to do before you begin planning your response.

Essay questions use a variety of terms and it is essential you understand what each of these mean if you are to answer properly. Here is a list of the most common terms and what they mean: 

An Example Planning Structure


Your three main points that your body paragraphs will focus on

Paragraph 1

Topic Sentence

Sources chosen

Analysis and evaluation of sources

Paragraph 2

Paragraph 3

Restate hypothesis

Restate three main points that your body paragraphs focused on

Essay paragraph writing advice

writing essays in exams

How to write an Introductory Paragraph

This page explains the purpose of an introduction, how to structure one and provides examples for you to read.

writing essays in exams

How to write a Conclusion

This page explains the purpose of conclusions, how to structure them and provides examples for you to read.

writing essays in exams

How to write Body Paragraphs

This page explains the purpose of body paragraphs, how to structure them and provides examples for you to read.

Time Management

Managing the use of your time in an exam is crucial to doing well. Divide the time to make sure you have enough time to write each paragraph. However, make sure you give yourself time at the end to check your work and proofread your writing.

For example:

If you have a 100-minute exam:

10 mins planning

10 mins for Intro

20 mins for each three Body Paragraphs

10 mins for Conclusion

10 mins proofreading.

Additional Resources

What do you need help with, download ready-to-use digital learning resources.

writing essays in exams

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Table of Contents

Tips for Writing In-Class Essay Exam

  • June 15, 2023

Tips for Writing In-Class Essay Exams: Ace Timed Essay Tests

In-class essay exams are significant in the college grading methodology. These exams test your knowledge, understanding of study material, and ability to explain your knowledge in a specific duration. Doing well in these exams will improve your grades and overall academics. Students learn how to manage time and be precise in these time-bound tasks. These learnings will play a role in your future projects.

In-class essay exams are time-bound tasks, and you must finish them quickly and with quality to score good grades.

This article will present practical tips for writing in-class essay exams quickly and accurately. You will find actionable tips on how to prepare before the exam, practice answering, and manage your time to express the main point with specific evidence. Keep reading.

Writing a college essay involves several key steps. Start by understanding the essay prompt and brainstorming ideas. Create an outline to organize your thoughts and structure the essay logically. Craft a compelling introduction that grabs the reader’s attention, followed by body paragraphs that support your main points with evidence and examples. Ensure each paragraph flows coherently and relates back to the thesis statement. Conclude by summarizing your main arguments and reinforcing the essay’s significance. Finally, revise and edit for clarity, coherence, and grammar before submitting.

Before the Exam

Exam preparation is essential for success. By taking the time to prepare before the exam, you can increase your chances of doing well.

Here are three key tips for preparation before an in-class essay test:

1. Thoroughly Review Course Materials

Before the exam, make sure to carefully go through your course materials. This step is essential to become well-acquainted with the critical concepts and ideas that the exam might cover. Take the time to revisit your class notes, textbooks, and any relevant readings. This foundational knowledge will serve as the backbone for your essay responses.

2. Practice Essay Writing on Various Topics

writing essays in exams

To enhance your essay-writing skills, engage in practicing essays on a range of topics. This practice not only hones your ability to express ideas clearly but also helps you understand how to structure an essay effectively. Consider addressing diverse essay prompts and experimenting with different writing styles. This practice will make you more versatile in approaching essay questions during the exam.

3. Time Management Practice

Efficient time management is of utmost importance during an in-class essay exam. To excel in this area, it’s crucial to time yourself while practicing essay writing.

Establish realistic time limits for each phase of the essay-writing process: brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and proofreading. By mastering the art of allocating your time effectively, you ensure that you can successfully complete your essays within the confines of the exam’s time constraints.

Maintain a timer during your practice sessions to instill a sense of time-bound tasks. This will familiarize you with the entire process, making in-class essay writing second nature. Additionally, through consistent practice, you’ll stay composed and collected during the actual exam.

By following these three essential preparation tips, you’ll be well-prepared to tackle in-class essay exams with confidence and skill.

During the Exam

Once you have arrived for the exam, it is important to stay calm and focused. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you are prepared.

Here are some tips for what to do during the exam:

1. Understand the question and plan before writing

Read the question carefully and understand the main topic and what it is asking you. Identify key words like “discuss,” “explain,” “compare,” or “prove” to know the intent of the question. Plan your answer once you understand the question. Create an outline for the answer and choose the main points that you will present and discuss. Arrange the points to ensure the logical flow of the answer so that your teacher can easily follow it.

2. Brainstorm a list of ideas and develop an outline for your essay.

To excel in in-class essay exams, it’s vital to master the art of brainstorming and crafting a structured outline. Begin by reading the prompt carefully to understand what’s required. Then, brainstorm a list of ideas related to the prompt. Group them to find common themes, and select the most relevant ones that align with the prompt.

Your outline acts as a blueprint, showing how your ideas will be organized and support your thesis. Remember, keep the essay prompt’s key words in mind for relevance. Familiarize yourself with various essay types, and practice with different prompts to refine your skills.

To brainstorm a list of ideas and develop an outline for your in-class essay exams, follow these steps:

  • Analyze the prompt carefully, identifying key concepts and important ideas.
  • Pick a topic you understand and find interesting for a smooth answering process.
  • Brainstorm ideas related to the prompt without worrying about completeness.
  • Group ideas with common themes or connections.
  • Select the most relevant ideas, guided by the essay prompt.
  • Use prompt keywords for focus and relevance.
  • Be aware of different essay types for effective brainstorming and outlining.
  • Practice with various prompts to refine your skills and gain comfort with the process.

Once you have a list of ideas and have organized them into groups, you can begin to develop an outline for your essay. Your outline should show how your ideas will be organized and how they will support your thesis statement.

Here is a simple outline template that you can use:

writing essays in exams

This is just a basic outline template, of course. You may need to adjust it to fit the specific essay question that you are being asked. But by following these tips, you can brainstorm and outline a clear, concise, and well-organized in-class essay.

3. Organize your essay in a logical way

In crafting a well-structured essay, several strategies can be employed for a logical flow. Here are some valuable tips:

  • Choose an Organizational Pattern : Selecting an organizational pattern is crucial. Common options include:
  • Chronological Order: This arranges your essay in the order of events. Use words like “first,” “second,” “next,” “then,” and “finally” to maintain the chronological flow.
  • Spatial Order: Structure your essay based on location, utilizing terms like “above,” “below,” “beyond,” “behind,” “beside,” “between,” “in front of,” and “on top of.”
  • Cause and Effect Order: Organize your essay by explaining causes or effects. Employ phrases like “because,” “as a result,” “therefore,” “consequently,” and “thus.”
  • Problem-Solution Order: Identify a problem and propose a solution. Use words such as “first,” “second,” “next,” “then,” and “finally” for this structure.
  • Compare and Contrast Order: Analyze and contrast two or more things. Include terms like “similarly,” “differently,” “on the other hand,” “in contrast,” and “however.”

Once you’ve made your choice, stick with it throughout your essay. Consistency in organization ensures a smooth, reader-friendly flow.

  • Craft a Clear Thesis Statement : Your thesis statement is the central argument of your essay. It should be concise, clear, and open to debate. Place it in the introduction and support it with evidence in the body paragraph of your essay.
  • Utilize Topic Sentences : Every paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, which encapsulates the main idea. These sentences should be reinforced with evidence within the paragraphs.
  • Employ Concluding Sentences : A concluding sentence should sum up the primary idea of a paragraph and smoothly transition to the next one.

4. Stick to your central theme

Stick to your main points of the answer. Do not deviate from them and start giving different and irrelevant arguments. Support your ideas and argument with explanations, examples, and any case study. Your in-class essay must be focused on the central theme and present supporting ideas and concepts around that theme. Irrelevant ideas and concepts may dilute the context and logic of the answer and make it harder to follow.

5. Provide evidence

Provide evidence for your claims, thesis, and ideas. Supporting your ideas with evidence gains the trust of the teacher and increases the chances of better grades. Claims without concrete evidence look bluff and irrelevant to the question. Your arguments, thesis, and ideas will look hollow, vague, and unestablished without supporting evidence.

6. Write in a clear and concise style

To craft an essay with precision and brevity, consider these invaluable pointers:

  • Trim Excess Phrases : Begin by removing superfluous wording. Employ plain language to express your thoughts. Favor the active voice and reduce wordiness. Avoid commencing sentences with “there is,” “there are,” or “it is,” and cut down on redundant nouns and filler words like “that,” “of,” or “up.”
  • Keep It Simple : Opt for straightforward language and shun complexity. Leave out jargon and intricate sentences in favor of clarity and directness.
  • Detail Is Key : Provide specific and vivid descriptions. Avoid vague or general language and enhance your writing with rich details.
  • Conciseness Is King : Get to the point without delay and minimize excess words and phrases. Clarity often emerges from brevity.
  • Activate Your Voice : Employ the active voice, which is concise and direct compared to the passive voice.
  • Diversify Sentence Structure : Don’t rely on repetitive sentence structures. Vary your construction to keep your readers engaged.

Here are some specific examples to illustrate these principles:

  • Instead of, “The aforementioned individual was in possession of a canine specimen,” say, “The man had a dog.”
  • Rather than stating, “The car was fast,” express, “The car could reach speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.”
  • For conciseness, transform, “The reason why I am writing this letter is to inform you that I am resigning from my position” into “I am resigning from my position.”

Additionally, here are some extra tips to elevate your writing:

  • Read your work aloud to spot awkward or unclear sentences.
  • Consider using a recognized style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, or MLA Style Manual for detailed writing guidelines.

7. Proofread and Review your essay carefully before submitting it

Review your answer for any grammatical errors, irrelevant arguments, ideas, or thesis, and evidence-less claims. Check if the logical flow of the answer is clear. Revise any point or idea that is ambiguous and unclear. Add further clarifications to the ideas and thesis if needed. Remove texts that are irrelevant and vague to provide more clarity.

Proofreading writing assignments involves carefully reviewing your work for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and syntax. It also includes checking for clarity, coherence, and consistency in ideas and arguments. Take time away from the document before proofreading to approach it with fresh eyes. Read the text aloud or use proofreading tools to catch mistakes. Focus on one type of error at a time to ensure thoroughness. Lastly, consider seeking feedback from peers or professors for an additional perspective on your work.

Bonus tips for writing in class essay test questions

Bonus tips for writing in class essay test questions

  • Incorporate the essay prompt’s keywords into your essay to demonstrate your comprehension of the question and direct address.
  • Ensure you respond comprehensively to all facets of the exam questions. If it requires multiple actions like analysis, comparison, and contrast, tackle each in your essay.
  • Don’t hesitate to assert your perspective. In in-class essay exams, seize the opportunity to showcase your knowledge and critical thinking.
  • If you encounter a roadblock, take a deep breath and move forward to the next segment of your essay. You can always return to the challenging part later.
  • Be prudent with your time. Avoid excessive focus on any single section of the essay. If time is running short, prioritize completing your conclusion.

A college writing center is a valuable resource that provides students with guidance and support for their writing assignments. It typically offers services such as one-on-one consultations with writing tutors who help students at various stages of the writing process, from brainstorming ideas to polishing final drafts. Writing centers also assist with improving writing skills, refining grammar and style, structuring essays, and citing sources correctly. They are designed to support students in enhancing their writing abilities and producing high-quality academic work.

Final Thoughts

Mastering and practicing the tips for writing in-class essay exams is crucial for every student aiming for better grades and academics. By following tips like understanding the question, outlining the answer, and providing evidence to your claims, a student can improve the quality of the answer.

Practicing writing in-class essays regularly can improve writing speed. Lastly, by reviewing the answer, you can ensure the quality of the answer.

writing essays in exams

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Essays on Various Topics - List of Essay Writing Ideas

Essay writing is not everyone’s cup of tea. Most students find it difficult to begin writing. Essays can be made easier if students start thinking about the topic either through brainstorming or by putting them down on a sheet of paper. After getting the ideas, they need to know how to organise them to form an essay. For this, they need to practise essays on different topics. Here, we have compiled a list of Essays on various topics.

These are the general essay topics which are most likely to be asked in the exam. Some of these essay topics are also picked from past year papers. Students of Classes 6 to 10 can go through these essays and know the right way of expressing their thoughts to form a perfect essay. Apart from the CBSE , students of ICSE and other state boards can also use these topics to prepare for their English exams.

Essay Topics: List and Writing Ideas

Usually, one essay is asked in the English paper. The essay writing question mainly comes under the writing section and comprises 5 to 10 marks. By having a look at the essays on the below-mentioned topics, students can easily score these marks in the exam.

We will be soon updating more Essays.

Characteristics of a Good Essay

A composition on a particular topic consisting of more than one paragraph is an essay. The characteristics of a good essay are:

1) Unity: The essay should deal with the main subject and all parts of it should be clearly linked with that subject.

2) Coherence: There should be a logical sequence of thought. This requires a logical relationship between ideas, sentences and paragraphs.

3) Relevance: Unimportant information should not be included.

4) Proportion: Give more space to important ideas.

Students can also get the essays for class 2 and class 3 to improve their writing skills.

Types of Essays

Essays are mainly ways of expressing one’s ideas and thoughts. Essays vary in how one narrates a personal experience, describes an issue, or convinces the reader to accept a certain viewpoint. So, essays are mainly classified into four major types, as mentioned below:

1) Narrative Essays: Telling a Story

While writing a narrative essay, students must consider the topic as if telling a story. Through these essays, they can express themselves in a creative way. These essays are usually written in the first person, so as to engage the readers.

2) Descriptive Essays: Painting a Picture with Words

In a descriptive essay, students have to paint a picture with words. They have to describe something. It can be an object, person, place, experience, emotion, situation or anything else. These essays allow students a great deal of artistic freedom.

3) Expository Essays: Presentation of the Facts

An expository essay is an informative piece of writing that presents a balanced analysis of a topic. To write a good expository essay, students need to investigate the topic, evaluate evidence, express the idea, and set forth an argument clearly and concisely. It can be done by comparison and contrast, definition, example, the analysis of cause and effect, etc.

4) Persuasive Essays: Convince Me

A persuasive essay is one in which a writer tries to convince the reader to accept his/her viewpoint. It presents all sides of the argument but clearly communicates the writer’s personal opinion.

CBSE Unseen Passages

Students can increase their scores in the reading section of the English paper by practising the comprehension passages. To help them, below, we have listed the links to unseen passages.

Students must have found these Essay Topics helpful for their studies. For more study material and latest updates on the CBSE / ICSE / State Board / Competitive exams, keep visiting BYJU’S. Also, download the BYJU’S App for interactive study related videos.

Frequently Asked Questions on Essay writing Essay

How should students practise essay writing.

The following points should be remembered while practising essay writing: 1. Constant written practice is required for honing essay writing skills. Writing alone tests the competency of the students to ideate and execute a proper essay within a specified time. 2. In-depth knowledge on various topics is a prerequisite for students preparing to write essays in school exams and competitive examinations. Such knowledge can be acquired by regularly developing a habit of reading extensively — especially newspapers and magazines — and following other news sources on various media available to them. 3. Developing a good vocabulary is another important factor students should focus on. Essay writing demands a more formal and extensive vocabulary as the range of topics asked are so wide-ranging. Every topic will demand familiarity with words and phrases pertaining to it. Use of good idiomatic English rich with apt vocabulary will help students pen memorable essays.

How to write an essay on an unknown or unfamiliar topic?

If an essay topic is unfamiliar then students can try to write in general about topics which are related to the main topic. Reading magazines and books can help in acquisition of knowledge in various subject matters.

How to score high marks in essay writing?

Given below are some of the points to be considered to ensure that students can score high marks in essay writing. 1. Maintain flow of text in essay: Ensure that the essay follows a natural progression from introduction to conclusion. Make sure that each paragraph is thematically or logically connected to successive paragraphs. Only then will the essay be evocative and easy to read and comprehend. 2. Phrase the essay is a relatable way: Keep the target audience in mind while drafting the essay and use images and language that resonate with them. Otherwise it would fail to connect with the reader, even if you have come up with a decent essay. 3. Be creative: Show the audacity to think out of the box and to deviate from traditional ways of writing essays while coming up with ideas to present your viewpoints in the essay. Readers will be immediately drawn to a piece of writing that gives them a fresh perspective, even if you are writing on a very common topic. But too much creativity and idiosyncratic writing will only mar an otherwise well-researched essay. 4. Present the essay in a better manner: Always think of new ways and strategies to present your ideas which you may have drawn from multiple sources. Doing background research is definitely essential. But that does not mean that you have to present the content you found in the same way. A fresh approach can turn a boring essay into a very engaging one. 5. Do not be over confident: Essays usually require students to state personal opinions as well as facts. Be prudent in voicing your opinions as well as in stating facts – make sure you don’t hurt the sentiments of readers when writing on sensitive and controversial topics. Practice diligence, not overconfidence, while writing essays as a best practice.

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Essay on My Preparation for Examination

Students are often asked to write an essay on My Preparation for Examination in their schools and colleges. And if you’re also looking for the same, we have created 100-word, 250-word, and 500-word essays on the topic.

Let’s take a look…

100 Words Essay on My Preparation for Examination

Understanding the syllabus.

My preparation for examinations begins with understanding the syllabus. I carefully read through all the topics to know what I need to study.

Making a Study Plan

Next, I create a study plan. This includes allocating time for each subject, ensuring I cover all the topics.

Study Materials

I gather all necessary study materials, including textbooks, notes, and reference books. These resources help me understand the subject better.

Finally, I revise all the topics. This helps me remember what I’ve studied and ensures I’m ready for the exam.

250 Words Essay on My Preparation for Examination

The first step in my preparation for any examination is a thorough understanding of the syllabus. I go through each topic, noting down the areas that require more attention. This helps me in creating a comprehensive study plan, ensuring that no topic is left unattended.

Creating a Study Plan

Next, I create a study plan, dividing my time efficiently among all subjects. I prioritize topics based on their weightage in the exam and my comfort level. I make sure to allocate time for revisions and solving sample papers. This step-by-step approach keeps me organized and reduces stress.

Adopting Effective Study Techniques

I adopt various study techniques like active recall, spaced repetition, and the Feynman technique. These methods have been scientifically proven to enhance understanding and retention. I also make use of visual aids like diagrams and mind maps to simplify complex topics.

Healthy Lifestyle Choices

A healthy lifestyle is integral to my exam preparation. I maintain a balanced diet, regular exercise schedule, and ensure adequate sleep. This not only keeps me physically fit but also enhances my mental agility and concentration.

Regular Assessments

I regularly assess my preparation by solving previous year question papers and timed mock tests. This helps me gauge my understanding of the topics and also familiarizes me with the exam pattern.

Stress Management

Finally, managing stress is crucial during exam preparation. I practice mindfulness and meditation to keep anxiety at bay. I also take short breaks during study hours to relax and rejuvenate.

In conclusion, my preparation for examinations is a balanced mix of strategic planning, effective study techniques, healthy lifestyle choices, regular assessments, and stress management. This approach not only ensures thorough preparation but also builds confidence to face any examination.

500 Words Essay on My Preparation for Examination


Examinations are an integral part of a student’s academic life. They are not merely a test of knowledge, but a trial of one’s discipline, perseverance, and time management skills. As a college student, I have found that a strategic approach to exam preparation is crucial. This essay will shed light on my personal strategies for exam preparation.

The first step in my exam preparation is understanding the syllabus thoroughly. This involves identifying key topics, understanding the weightage of each unit, and recognizing the pattern of questions asked in previous years. I often create a study plan, allocating time to each topic based on its importance.

Time Management

Time management is the backbone of my preparation. I divide my study hours into manageable slots, dedicating specific time for each subject. I ensure that I study for at least a few hours every day, increasing the duration as the exam approaches. This consistent effort helps me avoid last-minute cramming.

Active Learning

To ensure effective learning, I employ active studying techniques. I make use of flashcards, mind maps, and mnemonic devices to better retain information. I also practice active recall, a method of studying where I try to remember key points without referring to my notes. This technique has been scientifically proven to enhance memory retention.

Practice and Revision

Practicing with past papers and mock tests is a vital part of my preparation. It helps me understand the exam pattern and improve my time management during the actual exam. I make it a point to revise all topics multiple times, focusing more on my weak areas.

Healthy Lifestyle

While studying is important, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is equally crucial during exam preparation. I ensure that I get a good night’s sleep, eat a balanced diet, and take short breaks during study sessions to avoid burnout. Regular physical exercise also helps me stay focused and reduces stress.

Positive Mindset

Lastly, I believe in the power of a positive mindset. I try to stay calm and composed throughout my preparation, treating exams as a way to enhance my knowledge rather than a burden. I also practice mindfulness exercises to keep anxiety at bay.

In conclusion, my preparation for examinations is a holistic process that involves understanding the syllabus, effective time management, active learning, regular practice and revision, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and fostering a positive mindset. I believe that this approach not only equips me to perform well in exams but also inculcates valuable life skills such as discipline, perseverance, and stress management. As college students, we must remember that exams are not just about grades, but about learning, growing, and preparing for the challenges that lie ahead.

That’s it! I hope the essay helped you.

If you’re looking for more, here are essays on other interesting topics:

  • Essay on My Exams
  • Essay on Importance of Exams
  • Essay on Ice Cream

Apart from these, you can look at all the essays by clicking here .

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Illustration shows ChatGPT logo and AI Artificial Intelligence words

How to get away with AI-generated essays

Prof Paul Kleiman on putting ChatGPT to the test on his work. Plus letters from Michael Bulley and Dr Paul Flewers

No wonder Robert Topinka found himself in a quandary ( The software says my student cheated using AI. They say they’re innocent. Who do I believe?, 13 February ). To test ChatGPT’s abilities and weaknesses, I asked it to write a short essay on a particular topic that I specialised in. Before looking at what it produced, I wrote my own 100% original short essay on the same topic. I then submitted both pieces to ChatGPT and asked it to identify whether they were written by AI or a human. It immediately identified the first piece as AI-generated. But then it also said that my essay “was probably generated by AI”.

I concluded that if you write well, in logical, appropriate and grammatically correct English, then the chances are that it will be deemed to be AI-generated. To avoid detection, write badly. Prof Paul Kleiman Truro, Cornwall

Robert Topinka gets into a twist about whether his student’s essay was genuine or produced by AI. The obvious solution is for such work not to contribute to the final degree qualification. Then there would be no point in cheating.

Let there be real chat between teachers and students rather than ChatGPT , and let the degree be decided only by exams, with surprise questions, done in an exam room with pen and paper, and not a computer in sight. Michael Bulley Chalon-sur-Saône, France

Dr Robert Topinka overlooks a crucial factor with respect to student cheating – so long as a degree is a requirement to obtain a reasonable job, then chicanery is inevitable. When I left school at 16 in the early 1970s, an administrative job could be had with a few O-levels; when I finished my PhD two decades ago and was looking for that sort of job, each one required A-levels, and often a degree. I was a mature student, studying for my own edification, and so cheating was self-defeating. Cheating will stop being a major problem only when students attend university primarily to learn for the sake of learning and not as a means of gaining employment. Dr Paul Flewers London

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Higher education
  • Universities

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    Do you want an analysis? An evaluation? A recommendation? A comparison? For a list of helpful verbs, see our student handout Understanding Writing Assignments. Narrow the topic. Consider the time available to write a reasonable response, and build in time to pre-write (brainstorm) and revise at least once.

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    use the sources to create a hypothesis in response to the key question /statement. plan and write a complete essay within the exam time limit. quote from a wide range of sources. analyse and evaluate the sources you've used. correctly reference all sources quoted in your essay. Whilst this seems like a lot to complete in an exam, planning will ...

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    How to prepare for writing exams (Last updated: 12 May 2021) Since 2006, Oxbridge Essays has been the UK's leading paid essay-writing and dissertation service We have helped 10,000s of undergraduate, Masters and PhD students to maximise their grades in essays, dissertations, model-exam answers, applications and other materials.

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    1) Unity: The essay should deal with the main subject and all parts of it should be clearly linked with that subject. 2) Coherence: There should be a logical sequence of thought. This requires a logical relationship between ideas, sentences and paragraphs. 3) Relevance: Unimportant information should not be included.

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