2.4 Essay Questions

Essay questions are used on exams when professors want students to provide a thoughtful, critical response to a complex issue. These questions almost always call on students to go above and beyond the points made in the class lectures and texts, so students need to be prepared to apply information in new ways, to draw new connections between ideas, or to take positions that they can back up with lots of good evidence and rationale. Essay exams may be given as take-home or in-class exams, the latter of which may or may not consist of question options that are provided ahead of time.

Take-Home Essay Exams

A take-home essay exam has the benefit of giving you more time to think about your essay carefully, to look up relevant research and examples, and to organize your ideas. That said, with more time for preparation and writing comes greater expectations, so treat these essay exams like you would a research paper. You will usually be expected to synthesize and analyze information from many sources, including your lectures, readings, and additional research, and chances are good your professor will expect a polished paper. Use the advice presented in Chapter 3 on writing essays to guide your efforts for a take-home essay exam.

In-Class Essay Exams

The pressure is on when you sit down to write an in-class essay, and that can make a lot of students freeze up or draw a blank. If the questions are provided ahead of time, refer to the following tips, plus the tips in the next section that are specific to papers where you are given some time to plan. If you are not given the questions beforehand, though, do not worry—there is still a lot you can do to make sure you stay focused, organized, and on track:

Do a Quick Outline

Outlines are helpful when you sit down to do any type of essay or longer piece of writing, but they are crucial for helping you stay on track when you are under pressure in an exam setting. Your outline does not need to be highly detailed, but it should include your thesis statement (a direct answer to the question that is stated in one or a couple of sentences), a list of the major points you plan to make, and the examples, evidence, or rationale you plan to present to support each point. At this stage, brief notes written on the inside cover of your exam booklet are fine.

Brainstorm and Freewrite

Freewriting is when you just start writing what you know and think about a topic to get your thought processes moving. In an in-class exam, you may find that allocating yourself just a few minutes of freewriting or brainstorming time helps you to get over the initial writers’ block that some students experience in these kinds of exam scenarios. When freewriting, you are not worried about how you are organizing or presenting your thoughts, and if it all comes out in one huge run-on sentence, so be it. The caveat here, though, is that you want to put some parameters around your freewriting time so that you do not accidentally get lost in the flow and forget to write an essay, and you also want to make sure your professor is not going to mistake your freewriting for your essay itself. If you have scrap paper, use that instead of your exam booklet, or use the back page of your booklet for your freewriting and draw a line through it when you are done and write something like FREEWRITING: DO NOT MARK at the top.

Brainstorming is another method you can use to help you get your ideas down and draw connections between them. Start by writing what you know about the topic and putting a circle around each of those points. Then, as you think of more things related to each idea, write it down in another circle with a line connecting them. Soon, you will start to be able to see which ideas have multiple points or parts to them, and you will start to also see relationships between major ideas, like cause and effect, emphasis, or contrast. This will help you start to see how your response to the essay question should be organized.

Budget Your Time

Planning time will include the time you take to brainstorm and to create an outline. There is no exact science here, but if you have an hour to write your paper, try to spend no more than about five minutes in the planning stages.

Prioritize the Body of the Paper, Not the Introduction and Conclusion

Lots of students get stuck trying to think of a good first sentence to kick off their paper, but in an exam, your priority is to get your response down, not to work on the next great Canadian novel. If you find yourself hesitating to get that first line down, just move halfway down the page, write your thesis, and get to work on the body paragraphs to support that thesis. You can go back at the end to write a few introductory sentences once the rest of the pieces are in place. If you run out of time to finish your introduction or conclusion, you will likely lose fewer marks than if you spent too much time on these pieces and were not able to fully argue your thesis and answer the question.

Write a Clear Thesis

Write a clear thesis that shows the order in which you will present your ideas in your paper, and make an extra effort to write very clear topic sentences that relate back to that thesis. The reason this is particularly effective in an in-class essay setting is that it helps to keep you on track as you write, and it also helps your instructor to quickly and easily see that you have done what you set out to do. When it comes to marking final exams, most professors are under a serious time crunch to get all of their grades in to the university by a specific date, and they are not going to have the time to comb through your paper closely, so the easier your argument is to follow, the better.

Keep Your Writing Simple and Straightforward

Aim for simpler transitions and signal phrases and a more basic paragraph style: Point, proof, discussion/explanation. When we write research papers at home, we have more time to add some flair or panache to our writing, but in an exam scenario, simpler is  better. Ensure that each paragraph starts with a focused topic sentence that gets right to the point of the paragraph. Then, provide supporting evidence or rationale, and then explain why this evidence or rationale supports the point and why the point supports the thesis or overall argument of the essay. Use strong signal phrases, too, which include transition words or phrases that show the relationship between ideas (e.g. in addition, furthermore, for example, in contrast, however). Also, if you tend to struggle a bit with grammar and punctuation, aim for shorter, simpler sentences instead of longer, complex sentences. You may not win any awards for style, but it is more likely that your professor will be able to understand what you are saying than if you write too many long-winded sentences with lots of errors that inhibit comprehension. Again, the easier you make it for your professor to follow along, the easier it will be for them to give you credit for your ideas.

Leave Space When Writing

Double-space your writing and leave a good amount of margin space to accommodate revisions if you have time for them at the end. Leaving space makes your writing more legible and gives your professor room to make notes, but it also allows you to make larger revisions at the end if you need to, such as crossing out and rewriting sentences or inserting arrows to direct your instructor to a new point you added in the margin.

Polish Your Writing Only if There Is Time Left Over

Proofread closely for grammar, punctuation, and spelling last, and only if there is time. Your professor needs to be able to read and understand your ideas, so it would be misleading to say that mechanics do not matter at all, but your professor is unlikely to be looking for perfection in an in-class paper. Your development and organization of ideas is more important. Students often try to focus on grammar and punctuation too early in the editing process, finding it easier to focus on more tangible errors like comma splices than on harder-to-solve issues like poor argumentation or underdeveloped ideas. Chances are good, though, that your grades will suffer less from a good idea expressed with a few spelling errors than from a perfectly punctuated logical fallacy, so focus on the bigger issues first and worry about the minutiae last.

Tips for When Questions Are Provided Ahead of Time

In-class essays usually are not graded as heavily as take-home exams or term papers for spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, and tone, but in the case of essay exams in which the questions are provided ahead of time, it is expected that students will do some preparatory work to ensure that their essay responses are well thought-out, organized, and appropriately supported with examples and evidence. Use the following tips to help you prepare for essay exams when the question options are known:

Determine How Many Questions You Need To Prepare For

It is common for professors to provide a few potential essay questions and to say that you will have a more limited choice for the exam itself. For example, you might get a list of five possible questions, and then when you go into the exam, you will be given a choice of three essay questions. In that case, you will need to prepare for at least three possible essay responses to ensure that at least one of the options given on exam day will be a question you have prepared for.

Prepare an Outline, Not a Full Essay

Time and again, we have seen students who have written their whole essay ahead of time and expect to be able to memorize and reproduce it verbatim in the exam. This is the wrong approach for a couple of reasons. First, most people are not going to be able to remember that much detail for the exam, so it is a waste of energy to focus on memorization instead of understanding. Second, you want to be able to be flexible enough in your response that you can draw on new information you remember as you do other sections of the exam or that come to you under the pressure and excitement of the exam itself. Instead, it is better to write an outline and make sure that what you are prepared for is the process of presenting your answer in a way that is organized, well informed, and persuasive, with lots of examples from your readings, lectures, and research at the ready to support your position.

Think of Specific Examples You Can Use

It can be hard to remember details and specific scenarios when we are in an exam setting, so take some time as you prepare for your in-class essay to find specific supporting examples you can use to help augment or illustrate your ideas.

Draw on Course Lectures, Readings, and Supplemental Material

An in-class essay is a great opportunity to pull together content covered as part of the course, so make sure that you do not forget to review the content broadly. Lecture notes, readings, recommended readings, guest lectures, group activities, and videos or podcasts or other media assigned or referenced in the class are all potential sources of great essay material.

Remember Where Your Content Came From

Some in-class essays are open book, where students can bring in notes or textbooks, which makes it a lot easier to cite sources. Some exams are not open book, though. In those cases, it is common for professors to assume that the information you include comes from your textbook and lectures, but if you do happen to use the unique argument, viewpoint, or findings of a certain scholar or theorist, you will want to be able to signal that in your paper (e.g. “This argument is supported by Chen’s long-range study of this population, which suggested that…”), even if you are not expected to stick to a rigid citation style or reference specific page numbers or publication dates.


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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.