Essay Test-taking Skills
Students who know how to write essay answers well will be in a better position to
succeed academically. Here are some suggestions for writing an excellent essay exam.
The best advice anyone can give you for receiving a high grade on an essay exam
is to be sure your answer is well organized. A well-organized answer sends the right
message to the person grading the essay: this person has spent some time thinking about
the material reflected in this question. The way to achieve a well-organized essay begins
with a short outline of the major thrust points you wish to include in your answer. Write
or type this outline at the top of the page you plan to use. Even if you do not have
enough time to complete the essay, the professor may give you partial credit because of
the information contained in your outline evidencing your knowledge and comprehension
of the subject matter. The outline also prevents you from committing the fatal flaw of
most essay answers: excessive length.
Begin your answer with a brief introduction or background that conveys the intent
and direction of your answer. This opening short paragraph should give an overview of
what you intend to cover in more detail as the answer unfolds. Again, if by some
circumstance, you are unable to finish the answer, the opening paragraph indicates your
grasp of the subject at hand.
Follow your outline as you build the body of your essay. Each thrust point in your
outline should be an expanded paragraph in your answer.
Finish off your answer with a summary statement or conclusion that packs a
wallop. Leave a good impression in the mind of the grader as she/he finishes reading your
answer. Let your conclusion be short and to the point.
While reading the essay question, pay attention to the key verbs (compare,
contrast, explain, discuss, define, describe, etc.). Key verbs tell you how to approach the
topic. Note key nouns in the question because they may often suggest key topics or
subtopics that you may need to cover in your response. Here is a sample:
“Compare and contrast the major tenets of the three monotheistic religions:
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.”
Based upon the verbs used, you should plan to structure your answer to reflect a
contrast/comparison format. Based upon the nouns used, there should be three sets of
major tenets representing all three monotheistic faiths reflected in your answer.
If there is a time limit, be sure to pay attention to point values and spend the bulk
of your time writing on those questions that have the highest point value. If the point
values are equal or not identified, then select the sequence in which you will answer the
questions by answering those questions you find the easiest or the ones you are best
prepared to answer.
What graders want to know by reading an essay answer is whether or not you
grasp the essential facets of the question and how well you can think through the subject.
Do not try to “snow” your instructor with a lot of verbiage that does not make sense or
with aimless and pointless meanderings. When writing essay answers, cogent, logical,
and well-organized responses are best and obtain the higher grade. Attention to these
learning/study skills will make you a better student and will enhance your learning. The
best students know how to use all of these skills to varying degrees in any learning
situation. We encourage you to begin today to practice these skills so that your learning
experience is a profitable and enjoyable one.
Have you ever noticed what you do when you get in a car you have never driven
before? Maybe it is a new car or a rental or one you are borrowing from a friend or
family member. You begin to adjust the seat, the inside mirror, outside mirrors, set the
radio to a station you like, adjust the temperature controls, and generally make driving the
car comfortable for yourself. Do you do the same thing when you enter a new learning
environment? If you have the proper skills, you can. One of the reasons why adults
often struggle in graduate theological programs is because they do not know how to
adjust the new learning environment to their own learning preferences and needs. This
course is designed to help you make these learning adjustments so that you can maximize
your learning and your academic success.