Essay Exam Tips

Essay Exam Tips

Anne Reith, Ph.D.
Learning Disabilities Specialist

Budget Your Time

  • Look at the weighting and budget time accordingly

Really Look At The Question
Key words:

  • underline the verbs
  • don't describe when asked to compare & contrast
  • don't explain when asked to argue

Think Before You Write
One approach:

  • Write down all the facts, ideas, concepts, etc., that you feel need to be included
  • Organize them in order (number them, outline)
  • Compose your first paragraph (should summarize and introduce key points). This is where superior papers and essay answers are make or unmade
  • Write essay has legibly as possible
  • End with paragraph that offers more than just a summation
  • Re-read your essay and proof, edit, add, delete as appropriate

Additional Tips

  • Few teachers will be impressed by length
    Well-organized, well-constructed, specific answers will always get a better grade than "shotgunning"
  • Be smart about space
    Leave room in margins or use every other line
    Don't write so small itís difficult to read
  • Don't write and run
    Sit with the essay for a few minutes and just think to make sure you've included everything; make absolutely sure you canít add anything more to your essay
  • If you run out of time:
    Quickly do Steps #1 & #2 above and most teachers will give you partial credit
  • If the question is very broad:
    The teacher is testing your ability to "edit yourself, to organize, and summarize the important points"

Common Instructional Verbs on Essay Tests

Compare Examine two or more objects, ideas, people, etc., and not similarities and differences.
Contrast Compare to highlight differences.
Synonyms: Differentiate, distinguish
Criticize Judge and discuss merits and faults.
Synonyms: Critique
Define Explain the nature or essential qualities.
Describe Convey the appearance, nature, attributes, etc.
Discuss Consider or examine by argument, comment, etc.
Synonyms: Debate, explore solutions
Enumerate List various events, things, descriptions, ideas, etc.
Evaluate Appraise the worth of an idea, comment, etc., and justify your conclusions.
Explain Make the meaning of something clear, plain, intelligible and/or understandable.
Illustrate Use specific examples or analogies to explain.
Interpret Give the meaning of something by paraphrase, by translation, or by an explanation based on personal opinion.
Justify Defend a statement or conclusion.
Synonym: Support
Narrate Recount the occurrence of something, usually by giving details of events in the order in which they occurred.
Synonym: Describe (but only applicable to something that happens in time)
Outline Do a general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features of a book, subject, or project.
Prove Establish the truth or genuineness by evidence or argument. In math, verify validity by mathematical demonstration.
Synonyms: Show, explain why, demonstrate
Relate Give an account of events and/or circumstances, usually to establish associations, connections, or relationships.
Review Survey a topic, occurrence, or idea, generally but critically.
Synonyms: Describe, discuss, illustrate, outline, summarize, trace (some test makers may use these words virtually interchangeably, although one can find subtle differences in each)
State Present the facts concisely.
Synonyms: Name, list, indicate, identify, enumerate, cite
Summarize State in concise form, omitting examples and details.
Trace Follow the course or history of an occurrence, idea, etc.

Based on: Fry, R. (1996). "Ace" any test (3rd ed.). Career Press: Franklin Lakes, NJ.