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Essay Test Tips

True/False.  Multiple Choice. Short Answer. Essay.  Those are the typical options on a test.  Essay tests can be difficult for those students who have a hard time articulating, explaining, and/or analyzing a sequence of events, a broad topic, and even their own arguments.  With appropriate preparation and a few tips, students should be able to sharpen their analytical skills and their ability to craft an informative, well-written essay.

Part I.

  • Read the directions carefully; pay close attention to whether you are supposed to answer all the essays or only a specified amount (i.e. "Answer 2 out of the 3 questions).

  • If you don’t understand what the question is asking you, make sure to ask your instructor for clarification. 

  • Make sure to fully answer the question. Write down everything and more (time permitting)! The more details and facts that you write down the more likely you will receive a higher grade.

  • Budget your time. Don’t spend the entire time on one essay if the test requires more. Likewise, if you have an hour to write 3 essays, spend no more than 20 minutes on each essay, and then if you have time left over at the end go back and finish any incomplete essays.

  • Before you start writing, make an outline of the topics for each paragraph including the introduction and closing. This will help you organize your points and make your writing more fluid and lucid.  It will also help you budget your time.

  • Focus on one main idea per a paragraph.

  • If the question is asking for facts, don't give your personal opinion on the topic.

  • Write legibly.  Try to be as neat as possible when writing your essay.  Neater papers usually receive higher scores.   Leave space between essay questions so you can go back and add more or correct mistakes.  Likewise, if you make a mistake, simply draw a line through it. It is much neater and quicker than erasing it.

  • Don't write long introductions and conclusions, the bulk of your time should be spent on answering the question(s) asked.

  • If you have time left at the end proofread your work and correct any errors.

  • If you aren't sure about an exact date or number, then use approximations.  For example, “approximately 3,000 people voted on the new rule” or “in the late 16thcentury/ 1680s”.

  • By all means, review your essay before you turn it in if you have the time.

Part II.

The following words are commonly found in essay test questions. Understanding them is essential to success on these kinds of questions.

  • ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, critically examine, or interpret each part.

  • COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Generally, comparisons ask for similarities more than differences (because contrast looks for differences).

  • CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.

  • CRITICIZE: Make judgments. Evaluate comparative worth. Criticism often involves analysis and critique.

  • DEFINE: Give the meaning; usually a meaning specific to the course of subject.  Determine the precise limits of the term to be defined. Explain the exact meaning. Definitions are usually short.

  • DESCRIBE: Give a detailed account. Make a picture with words. List characteristics, qualities and parts.

  • DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast. Explore solutions.

  • ENUMERATE: Write a list, series and/or tabulation of several ideas, aspects, events, things, qualities, reasons, etc. Be concise.

  • EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.

  • ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons, analogies or examples. Make a topic clear and intelligible.

  • INTERPRET: Comment upon, give examples, describe relationships. Explain the meaning. Describe and then evaluate.  (Ex. Bring out the meaning of a specific topic such as the messaged convey from a short story).

  • OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events.  Present the most important ideas about a topic in a carefully organized fashion.  Does not mean write an actual Roman numeral, alphabetical outline.

  • PROVE: Support with facts from lectures, textbooks and research. Defend or justify with factual evidence and logical reasons.

  • STATE: Explain precisely.

  • SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details. Brief examples will help make your summary specific.

  • TRACE: Show the order of events or progress of a subject or event. This type of essay may require probing or deductions.


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