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How To Prepare For Exams Essay

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

Exam preparation

Learn the material with the exam format in mind

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

Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions

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

If the Professor distributes questions in advance

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

Right before the exam

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

Exam writing

Read carefully

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

Manage your time

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

Things to include and/or exclude in your answers

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

Follow a writing process

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

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

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

You totally don’t want to think about it right now, but finals are just around the corner. That means you can add studying for them to your already vast to-do list. Here are some helpful hints on how to prepare for your exams and get everything else done.

Tip 1: Start early
Preparation for exams should begin earlier than the day before the test. You can’t cram an entire unit of information into an all-nighter. Get started at least a week before the exam.

Tip 2: Organize
Begin by making yourself a calendar outlining a daily schedule of topics for review. Cover a small amount of material for each class each day. Every time you complete a topic, give yourself a mini review.

Tip 3: Outline
Once you have decided what you need to study and how much time you need to spend studying, it is time to actually study. One of the best ways is to make succinct outlines. As you read over your textbook and class notes, write a brief summary for each topic. Highlight the areas in your outline that were most troublesome. When you have finished with all the material, you will have an outline you can review.

Tip 4: Make flashcards
Similar to outlining, making flashcards is a really helpful technique for studying. By writing down the information from your outline, you are already doing half the studying. Once the flashcards are complete, you will have a portable study packet to look over.

Tip 5: Get help
If you are having trouble memorizing something or a particular concept is just not sinking in, get help before it’s too late. Ask your teacher to go over a glitch you might be having. Or if memorizing 200 vocabulary words seems like too much to do, recruit your family members to quiz you with index cards.

Tip 6: Sleep
You need at least seven hours of sleep a night to function. Tests are designed to make you think. If you are sleep-deprived, you won’t be able to remember any of the information you worked so hard to cram into your brain.

Tip 7:Stay calm
Do not panic at the exam! Even if at first glance the test is overwhelming, remember to breathe. If a question seems too hard, answer all the questions you know, then return to the ones you left blank. Remind yourself that you are prepared.

Tip 8: Don’t rush
You have spent at least two weeks studying, so what’s another couple of minutes? Work through the exam slowly and read all the questions before answering them. If you are done before the time is up, look over your answers.

Tip 9: Relax post-exam
Don’t let panic overwhelm you. Even if you think you bombed the exam, worrying will not change your score. It may, however, affect your mindset for your next final. Zone out the last test and stay focused on the next one. Odds are, you didn’t do as badly as you think.

Article reprinted with permission from Next Step Magazine.

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