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Essay Tests

Key Words On Essay Exams

Watch out for these words on essay tests. They're the most important part of the question. Know what they mean, and you'll be sure you know what kind of answer to write before you write it.

Analyze: To analyze is to look at something closely, to break it down into its components. If you are asked to analyze, chances are the question requires you to give reasons, interpret, compare, contrast, define, evaluate, and/or explain the topic.

Compare: Examine the similarities between two or more related things.

Contrast: Examine the differences between two or more related things.

Criticize: Express your informed judgment of the merits of the topic in question. Point out both good points and weaknesses. Give logical reasons; do not simply spout your opinion.

Define: To what class does the item belong? How does it differ from other items in that class? What is the item not?

Discuss: This type of question calls for a complete, detailed analysis of the item in question. Use any strategies (comparison, contrast, definition) that will help you explore the topic.

Enumerate: Concisely list all the points required by the question. (See "list.")

Evaluate: See "criticize."

Explain: Here, the aim is to clarify the conditions which gave rise to something-the "how" and "why." Focus on causes.

Illustrate: Explain your answer by providing concrete examples.

Interpret: Explain the meaning of something, based on your own informed judgment.

Justify: Present convincing evidence to prove or show grounds for your answer.

List: Do not write an essay in response to a "list" question; just concisely list the items requested in the question.

Outline: Present main points in a concise, systematic arrangement.

Relate: Emphasize connections and associations between two or more items.

State: Express the points in a brief, concise form.

Summarize: Give all the main points in a condensed form. Omit less important details and do not elaborate.

Trace: Give a description of progress, historical sequence or development from the point of origin.

Try this question for practice:

Critically trace the statement of the analyzed comparison / contrast definition. In outline form list all enumerations and interpretations of the discussed illustrations and evaluative justifications.

Good luck on test day!

Preparation for Essay Exams

Don't worry. Here's some tips on how to prepare for test day.

1. Throughout the semester, take good notes in class. Don't try to write down every word your professor says. Instead, concentrate on the information that your professor emphasizes. Pay attention to clues: Does the professor take care to repeat certain information? Does he make a point of saying, some things especially loudly and slowly? Does he write certain terms on the board? Does he say things like "You will need to know this" or "This is very important"? Do not ignore these clues; make special note of them.

2. Pay close attention when your professor gives you specific information about an upcoming exam. Often, professors will knowingly or unknowingly drop important clues. Don't be shy about asking questions about the content or format of the exam. If your professor doesn't want to divulge certain information, he won't. There's no harm in asking though.

3. Try to anticipate the exam questions and share your predictions with classmates, so that you can benefit from each other's insights. Often, if you have paid attention during class, you will have an excellent idea of what the exam will cover. Trust your instincts. While you study, concentrate on the material that you expect the exam to emphasize. Touch on everything, because your predictions might be wrong. More often though, you'll be surprised by how accurate they are.

4. Go over the information in your lecture notes, the assigned readings, and any other course materials. It's best if you make your studying active; don not just read your notes until your eyes glaze over, your mind numbs, and you fall asleep. For example, sit at the computer and type an organized outline of the course material. This active process forces you to analyze and understand your notes, instead of just skimming them. (Also, you end up with some good study notes.) Other active study techniques include talking (explain the course's most important concepts to a friend) and writing (practice writing essays about topics that will probably be on the exam).

5. Don't try to cram. Allow yourself plenty of time to study. You will be more relaxed and the information will sink in more thoroughly. Cramming usually leads to exam-day panic.

For more help with essay exams, check out the handouts KEY WORDS ON ESSAY EXAMS and ESSAY EXAMS: TEST DAY.

Essay Exams: Test Day

What do I do?

Here's some hints that will help you get to the end of test day.

1. When you get your exam, look over the entire thing first. Don not panic if you see a question that looks especially difficult. An answer will eventually come to you.

2. Remember that you do not have to write your answers in order. Use strategy. For example, start with the easiest question (so you can build up your confidence) or the one that's worth the most points (so you will be sure to have enough time for it). You are in control.

3. Wear a watch and budget your time. Devote more time to the more heavily weighted essays. You don't want to leave yourself with just five minutes to answer a 50-point question.

4. Read the essay question carefully. If you're asked to analyze, don't just summarize. If you're asked to compare and contrast, be sure to do both. If you're asked for your options don't just give the facts. Reread the question often to be sure you're covering everything.

5. After you first read the question, do not immediately start writing your essay. (Huge mistake!) Before you start writing, make notes on scratch paper. Quickly write down everything you can remember about the topic. Next, think about how you should organize the information. Next, you should decide what you should cover in each paragraph and sketch a good plan.

6. Professors will not expect flawless writing in essay exams, but this is college, and students are expected to know how to write. Include an introductory paragraph with a thesis statement indicating what information your essay will cover and what "angle" you're taking on that information. It's a good idea to repeat some or all of the question in your introduction: this helps guide your essay. Also, make sure that you connect your ideas logically, and develop )your ideas as fully as you can and give lots of specific examples, details, and reasons. Remember that if your essay is unclear or vague, your professor can only assume that you don't have a firm grasp of the course material. (See the example below.)

7. If you have time, look back over your essays. Fix any grammar mistakes that you see; make sure that you have spelled any names or terms correctly. Rewrite anything that is illegible. Neatly make insertions if you have left out important information. (For example, you could write the information in the margin or in the form of a footnote.) You might even have time to rewrite the essay entirely, so that you can improve its content and appearance. Neatness counts: your professor can't give a good grade to an essay that he cannot read.

Sample Essay Question and First Paragraph

(Prentice Hall Handbook. 11th ed.. p. 572)

Q: What were the four major political and social developments in Europe during the period of 1815-1848?

A: Although there were no major conflicts among the European powers between the Congress of Vienna and the Revolutions of 1848, important developments were taking place that would affect the future history of Europe. Four of these developments were the rise of nationalism, the conflict between the conservatives and the liberals, the conflict between the lower and middle classes, and the expansion of industry.