How to prepare for writing exams

Here’s what we cover in this blog post on essay exam preparation:
A week before
The night before
Assembling all the right tools
Getting enough sleep
Eating well
Exam day
Getting started
Reading (and understanding) the question
Creating a mind map or outline
Timing it right
Writing each paragraph
Reviewing, editing and proofreading
Final tips

It is coming to that time of year when everyone is thinking about exams. This year, which might be different from what you have experienced in previous years, there is an increasing number of essay-based exams.

This post is going to take you through the process leading up to the essay exam. It will highlight the preparation as well as a useful strategy to follow as you begin to write. While there is undoubtedly a whole lot of stress associated with essay-based exams, by creating a plan and implementing it on exam day, you will be on the road to success.

A week before

Creating a study plan and sticking to it

Studying for your exams is an essential part of the process, but essay exams are often difficult to prepare for because there is a lot of revision notes and information to review and only one (or two) essays to write.

There are a number of essay exam strategies that could be asked of you as final exams approach. Your instructor could give you a list of possible exam questions, and then choose one for the essay based exam. They could provide you with a list of themes, and then provide the essay question on the day, or they could provide you with no information (other than your course syllabus) and wish you good luck. You are going to approach your studying dependent on what information you have, but for all the cases, you are going to start studying at least a week before the exam date.

In your essay exam preparation, remember that sitting down for 8 hours a day to study is an unrealistic goal. Your brain is going to get distracted, and you won’t be making the best use of your time.

Instead, set reasonable time periods that you think you can study in. Make sure these times are not too early or too late, but fall within what you think is your most focused time of day, i.e. if you’re an early riser, set your study hours for first thing in the morning. Study in chunks of about 20-30 minutes, taking a break in-between each chunk. In this way, you will train your brain to remain focused, while avoiding certain distractions, like social media.

Once you have your essay exam plan in place, try to follow it each day for optimum success.

The night before

Assembling all the right tools

When preparing for your exam, your instructor will have told you the tools that are (and are not) permitted during a written exam. Rather than trying to find all the pieces on exam day, try and assemble them the day before so this is one less thing that you are worried about. At a minimum, having a pencil, pen, highlighter, and some scrap paper is essential. We would also encourage you to have something to drink available, and ensure that you stay hydrated.

In some exams, you will be permitted to use your notes, textbook, lecture notes, or other sources of information. If this is the case, make sure you have those handy as well and that they are organised in a way that makes sense to you. Hopefully you will have studied these course materials in preparation for the test. If you highlight or underline core pieces of information in advance, these indications will help you to find the details you need quickly and efficiently.

Getting enough sleep

The night before an exam can be a stressful one and you may find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Some people worry that they will sleep through their test, while others find it difficult to detach from all the information that is undoubtedly swirling around in their brains.

Getting enough sleep and being well rested for exam day is important, so make sure that you do something to relax before you hit the sack. This might include a bath, an outdoor walk, or watching your favourite movie.

It is probably best to avoid chatting with friends on your course, as you do not want their anxiety rubbing off on you! Instead, take some time to yourself and go to sleep knowing that you have prepared well and are on track to success.

Eating well

Along with sleeping, it is important to make sure that you are eating well. There is nothing worse than feeling all bloated during an exam. Also, drinking copious amounts of coffee before the exam can make you jittery and can affect your concentration. Coffee and tea are also well-known diuretics… so yes, visit the toilet before the exam starts!

If your exam is early in the morning, try and have a light breakfast. If it is later in the afternoon, try to avoid having a huge meal that will make you feel sleepy. Choosing healthy options and staying away from excess sugar and caffeine will provide a positive outcome.

Exam day

Getting started

OK, so you have had that good night’s sleep, eaten a healthy breakfast and now you are ready to go.

Sometimes you have to wait several hours before the beginning of the exam. Studying during these hours may stress you out, so if you have done ample studying before, you may just be able to relax.

If you are finding that you are really stressed, take yourself out of the situation. Go for a walk, do some yoga, catch up on an episode of your favourite sitcom.

When you finally log into your exam, take a deep breath, read the exam instructions carefully, noting how much time you have, what the formatting requirements are, how you are supposed to name/save your file, and how to submit.

Reading (and understanding) the question

Sometimes we can get so nervous in an exam that we start to write without reading the entire question. Don’t fall prey to this. It is important that you read the question from beginning to end and to look for clues as to what the course instructor actually wants. Your instructor will probably use some keywords in the essay question, and if you understand what they mean by these words, you are in a better position to fully address the question.

Here are some of the essay question words they might use (and what they mean):

  • Describe: probably the easiest one to write about, this is about creating a list of characteristics, qualities, or parts.
  • Compare: this requires you to take two things and look at the similarities and differences (and usually the similarities are the most important) between them.
  • Contrast: for a contrast, you take two things and look at them in opposition (so you are highlighting the differences).
  • Discuss: this one requires you to create a debate (essentially a compare AND contrast).
  • Evaluate: Here, the instructor is asking you to give your opinion, to use the opinions of others to justify your argument, and to include evidence to support your position.
  • Analyse: for an analysis, you require an argument/position. From there, break this argument down into smaller parts and discuss or interpret each one. Your instructor may also write ‘critically analyse’ which means that you need to provide evidence from scholarly sources.
  • Summarise: in this case you would need to take a bigger argument and narrow it down, excluding many of the details. You might also include important conclusions that have been documented.
  • Interpret: you need to explain the meaning. This is done by giving examples and describing relationships.

As you can see, the words that an instructor uses can signal to you, as the student, what you are supposed to do. If you miss these keywords or phrases because you did not read the full instructions, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. So be diligent and remain focused while reading.

Creating a mind map or outline

Once you understand the question, jumping straight into writing might be appealing, but this isn’t necessarily best approach.

Try to spend at least a few minutes planning what you want to write. This will actually speed up your writing process once you start to write your exam essay. While you certainly don’t want to spend a whole bunch of time planning every last detail, writing a brief but focused essay plan will save you time thinking once you’ve started writing, and will also make sure, right from the beginning, that all your paragraphs are answering the exam question.

There are two main essay exam strategies for brainstorming. One involves a ‘mind map’, also called a spider web, and it looks something like this:

In the mind map process, you put your main idea (thesis statement, argument, position) in the centre of the diagram. The branches that extend from this main idea become your paragraph topics and then the furthest branches become some examples or evidence that you might like to include. This creates a very visual image of how your writing fits together.

Another option is to create a linear outline. In this strategy, you create a skeleton for what will become your essay. It looks something like this:

In the above example, the bolded text is the headings for your paragraphs, the pieces of information below are examples that you might like to use in each paragraph. This is a useful structure because it simply allows you to fill in the blanks as you go along.

Remember that when you begin to write, there is no rule that says you have to start at the beginning. One essay exam strategy is to start with the paragraphs that you think are the easiest (which might be somewhere in the middle). Just because the reader will read the introduction first, does not mean that you have to write it first. Sometimes writing the introduction and the conclusion last means that you can go back and make sure that they ‘match each other’ and that they fully address the question being asked.

Timing it right

There is nothing worse than realising halfway through the exam that you are running short on time, and so you may be asking yourself how to write essays faster in exams. The easiest answer is to have a plan for how to answer essay questions in an exam setting!

By this point, you will have created a brief mind map or outline as one of your essay exam strategies. Now, set yourself a realistic goal for each paragraph. If you know that you have allotted yourself 10 minutes per paragraph, try your best to stick to this model.

Remember, it is better to write organised paragraphs that are easy to read, rather than to input a whole bunch of information in an illogical way. There is likely a clock on your computer (or in your study area), so make sure that you can easily glance at the time and remain on track.

In addition, while time is important, it is also worth practicing your typing skills. If you can improve your accuracy and speed, you are going to have more time to get your ideas written out. This, however, should be seen as a long term goal, and something you can work on over the course of your degree.

Writing each paragraph

A paragraph is a series of moves. Following the same format for each paragraph not only makes it easy for you to create, but it simplifies the reading process for the marker. This is a win-win situation!

Now, you might be thinking, ‘there are many ways to write an essay’, and you would be correct. But, taking the time to be really creative in your essay writing is probably not the best strategy because it will take too much time.

A typical paragraph structure looks like this:

1. Topic sentence – make sure that your first sentence introduces the topic for discussion and relates back to your argument in your introduction.
2. Explain your topic sentence – if there are any complicated terms in your topic, use this sentence to define them.
3. Introduce your evidence – use this sentence to make the connection between your topic and your data/research/example.
4. Provide some details – use the next 2-3 sentences to explain your evidence to the reader.
5. Critical thought – do not end with the details! Bring the reader back to your topic. Use this sentence to explain why the evidence you have provided is important.
6. Give a concluding or transitional sentence – link your paragraphs together by giving the reader a hint about what is coming next.

As you can see from the above list, your paragraph is going to need about 6-8 sentences to be complete. If you follow this model, it makes it easy to go back and check that all your ideas have all the right elements included within them.

Reviewing, editing and proofreading

It may be tempting to write the last word of the conclusion and hit the submit button. You have worked hard up to this point and you likely just want to be done with the test. Resisting that urge, however, is a wise decision. If you happen to have leftover time at the end of your essay exam, spend that time reviewing what you have written and making sure that you are not losing marks for silly mistakes.

First, go back to the instructions and identify areas of your essay that directly match up with the question prompts – this will ensure that you have met the assignment instructions.

The next step is proofreading for silly errors. One of the nice things about having an essay-based exam at home is that you can read out loud and no one around you will judge you (except maybe your cat, but that’s okay). Reading aloud will help you to identify run-on sentences and any places that need a comma or full-stop. If you are out of breath and you have not finished reading your sentence, it is probably too long.

Reading out loud will also help you to identify awkward phrases, and places where you have used the same word multiple times in a row. Taking the time to do this may grant you an extra one or two marks, which can be the difference between an upper second and a first.

Final tips

We know that it can be difficult to figure out how best to prepare and revise for essay-based exams, but if you put in the work, you can be sure that come exam day you are ready and able to achieve success.

It may seem overwhelming on the day, but the reality is that the exam will be over in no time and you will be ready to move on to bigger and better things. Remember, ten years from now, you are unlikely to remember this event, so try not to stress about it in the present.

After the exam is finished, take some time to breathe. Step away from the computer and spend some time doing something that you enjoy. You worked hard in the essay exam preparation, and now you get to relax! Give yourself a pat on the back, and credit for all that you have achieved.

Maintaining a positive attitude is a key component of essay writing and for college/university in general. Be confident, you are ready!