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Tips for Essay Exam

Essay exams are designed to test your ability to synthesise information and to organise your thoughts on paper. The following points are designed to help you prepare for essay style examinations.

Be familiar with the terminology used

Make sure you understand the question and are clear about what you are being asked to do. Terms like compare ,  trace ,  illustrate and  evaluate  all have different meanings and require a different style of answer.

Take time to read the exam paper thoroughly

Not reading questions properly is a common mistake made in essay exams. Therefore, make sure you read each question carefully and ensure you understand exactly what the question is asking.

If the question is ambiguous, unclear or too broad, clearly write your interpretation of the question before answering.

Plan before you write

Don't write your essay off the top of your head—the results will be disorganised and incoherent. Before you start writing, jot down your ideas and organise them into an essay plan.

  • You can write a plan on the exam paper itself or on any spare paper you have with you.
  • Begin by thinking about how you will answer the question.
  • Note the main information in point form. Doing this will also help you think about your answer.

Number your answers

If you have to write more than one essay, always indicate the number of the essay so it is clear which question you are answering.

Time yourself on each question

  • Allocate a set time to complete each question, for example, two essays in two hours = 1 hour per question.
  • Start with the easiest question and leave the hardest until last. This approach reduces anxiety and helps you think more clearly.

Answer in the first sentence and use the language of the question

Always answer the question in the introduction. To clearly signal your answer, use the language of the question.

For example:

Question: "How do the goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ?"

 You could begin your essay with:

 "The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways . . ."

This approach ensures you answer the question and makes the exam easier to mark. 

Make sure you structure your essay 

It should follow basic essay structure and include an introduction, body and conclusion.


An introduction should explicitly state your answer and the organisation of the essay. For example:

"The goals of liberal and socialist feminism differ in three main ways. The first is that . . . The second is . . . and the third main area of difference lies in the . . . This essay will argue that although these differences exist in approaches, the practices of liberal and socialist feminism have become very similar".

The body of your essay should include:

  • supporting material
  • appropriate details for your answer.

Make sure you structure the body of the essay as you indicated in your introduction. Use transitions to tie your ideas together. This will make your essay flow. If you feel you are losing the plot, go back and reread the question and your introduction. 


In your conclusion, re-answer the question and refer briefly to the main points in the body. Show HOW you have answered the question. For example: 

"In conclusion, it is clear that although liberal and socialist feminism originally held differing views on how to attain their goals, a realistic assessment now shows that their practice has become very similar. This is most clearly illustrated by . . . (give your best example and end the essay).

If you run out of time, answer in point form

Markers will often give you some marks for this.

Write as legibly as possible

  • Print your answers instead of using cursive writing.
  • Be aware of grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  • If you are using exam booklets, write on every second line.
  • If you have time at the end of the exam, proofread your essay for grammatical and spelling errors.
  • Leave space in between answers in case you have time to add any information you didn't include in your essays.

Exam Preparation Study Tips

  • Studying for exams
  • Multiple-choice exams
  • Essay exams
  • Open-book and take-home exams
  • Surviving exams
  • Past exam papers
  • ^ More support

News and notices

UNSW's Education Festival 2023 Published:  6 Nov 2023

Term 3, 2023 - Exam Period (T3) 24 Nov – 7 Dec 2023

Term 3, 2023 - Release of Results 14 Dec 2023, 12:00pm

  • Academic Skills

Writing essays in exams

The best way to do well in essay exams is to prepare and practice. This resource provides tips and strategies to help you revise, organise your thoughts and write clearly.

How should I prepare?

Find out what you will be expected to do in the exam..

  • How many essays will you have to write?
  • How many marks will each one be worth?
  • Will you have some choice or will you have to write on any and all topics covered by the subject?
  • Will you be able to refer to notes or materials (open book)?
  • Where will you sit the exam (at home or in an exam hall)?
  • How long will you have to complete the exam?

Review your notes

Systematically review your notes and course material. As with any revision, your aim is to identify key topics, concepts and major theories or approaches.

Essays often ask you to integrate concepts from different topics and weeks, so try to take a holistic view and make connections as you review.

Review old exam papers

You can use past exam papers to:

  • test yourself and monitor your progress.
  • increase your knowledge and understanding of certain topics.
  • help you to practise the types of questions you are going to encounter.
  • familiarise yourself with the format of the exam itself.

Analyse the kinds of questions asked. Note the ‘direction’ words used, such as, ‘compare and contrast’, ‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’, ‘illustrate’.

Draft responses for the question you would find easiest and then the question you would find most difficult. This will help you to identify where your knowledge is satisfactory, incomplete or inadequate.

Look at the marks allocated to a question. How many points might you need to make to earn that many marks? Is broad coverage or depth expected?

Example of question requiring breadth :

‘Discuss the ten factors that contribute to heart disease’ - 30 marks.

Example of question requiring depth :

‘Discuss in detail two of the causes of greenhouse gas production and how they might be eliminated’ - 30 marks.

Identify possible exam topics

Looking at both your notes from this year and the past exam papers, try to anticipate the topics you will be asked to write on and possible questions.

This is a great activity to do with peers in study groups – together you’ll come up with a broader range of questions and approaches. If you work with others, don’t write out full answers and memorise them (your examiners will notice identical responses), instead jot down key points or ideas in your own words.

It won’t matter if you don’t guess exactly the question that appears in the exam. This gives your mind practice at imagining how the material could be organised in different ways to answer different questions.

What should I do during the exam?

Read all the questions carefully.

If you have a choice, identify the ones you might attempt. Re-read those and make a final selection.

Make some brief notes next to each of the questions you will attempt. Consider how you will respond to the question, the subject area/s you will be dealing with, and any main points or initial thoughts. This will give you something to start from, or build on, later in the exam when you are getting tired.

Calculate how much time you can spend on a question, relative to its mark value.

Start with the easiest task

If you have to write a few essays do the easiest one first.  If it’s just one essay, then begin with a section you’re comfortable with. This will help you to settle into the exam and develop your confidence.

Write a brief essay plan

Taing time to write a plan helps you to organise your thoughts and write efficiently. You don't have time for significant editing in an exam, so you want to get it right first time. Consider the following:

  • What’s your argument regarding the essay question?
  • How many paragraphs do you expect to write?
  • What will be the topic of each paragraph?
  • What supporting evidence or information will you provide for each major point you make?
  • What is the most logical order in which to make your points so they develop and support your argument?

Write clearly

If you need to write your essay by hand, practice writing for extended periods of time. Handwriting for more than a few minutes can become uncomfortable if you’re used to typing everything and this might mean you can’t write everything you want, or worse, your examiner can’t read your writing.

Remember that the examiner will have just a few minutes to read and mark your response; don’t make their job harder.

Try to use the wording of the question in your first sentence

This helps you to stay on task and answer the question directly.

Use transition or connecting words

This will help organise your ideas and to make it easier for the examiner to follow your arguments.

For example: Firstly, … Secondly, …; In contrast to…; In addition…; As a result…

For example:

Question: ‘Compare the main features of orthogonal and oblique cutting processes ’.

Response : ‘ The main features of orthogonal and oblique cutting processes [topic] differ in three main ways. First , [connecting] …’

Include an introduction and conclusion

While introductions and conclusions can be quite basic in exam essays, they are worth including for the guidance they can provide you as a writer and especially for the examiner. Make them as clear and succinct as possible.

Include clear signal language: ‘This essay will argue that …’; ‘In conclusion, …’; ‘To sum up…’

Leave time to check your work

Check the logical flow, clarity of ideas and, most importantly, re-read the question and check that you have answered all parts of it . If you haven’t answered the question directly, you won't get the marks!

Thinking critically by connecting and evaluating ideas as you revise will help you to prepare for essay exams. While examiners do expect you to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject in your essay, they are more interested in your ability to produce a succinct response to the question in the form of a reasoned and well-organised argument.

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Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts

Writing Essays for Exams

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While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.

What is a well written answer to an essay question?

Well Focused

Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.

Well Organized

Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.

Well Supported

Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.

Well Packaged

People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab

How do you write an effective essay exam?

  • Read through all the questions carefully.
  • Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
  • Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
  • Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
  • Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
  • Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
  • Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
  • Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.

Specific organizational patterns and "key words"

Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.

Typical questions

  • "Define X."
  • "What is an X?"
  • "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."

Q: "What is a fanzine?"

A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.

Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."

  • State the term to be defined.
  • State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
  • Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.

Tools you can use

  • Details which describe the term
  • Examples and incidents
  • Comparisons to familiar terms
  • Negation to state what the term is not
  • Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
  • Examination of origins or causes
  • Examination of results, effects, or uses

Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.

  • "Analyze X."
  • "What are the components of X?"
  • "What are the five different kinds of X?"
  • "Discuss the different types of X."

Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."

A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.

Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:

  • Vocational education
  • Continuing education
  • Personal development

Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:

  • first, second, third, etc.
  • in addition

Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).

Typical questions:

  • "What are the causes of X?"
  • "What led to X?"
  • "Why did X occur?"
  • "Why does X happen?"
  • "What would be the effects of X?"

Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."

A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .

The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.

Useful transition words:

  • consequently
  • for this reason
  • as a result


  • "How does X differ from Y?"
  • "Compare X and Y."
  • "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"

Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"

A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .

Two patterns of development:

  • Full-sized car


  • Compact car

Useful transition words

  • on the other hand
  • unlike A, B ...
  • in the same way
  • while both A and B are ..., only B ..
  • nevertheless
  • on the contrary
  • while A is ..., B is ...
  • "Describe how X is accomplished."
  • "List the steps involved in X."
  • "Explain what happened in X."
  • "What is the procedure involved in X?"

Process (sometimes called process analysis)

This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.

Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"

A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .

The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.

  • following this
  • after, afterwards, after this
  • subsequently
  • simultaneously, concurrently

Thesis and Support

  • "Discuss X."
  • "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
  • "Defend or refute X."
  • "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."

Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.

Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."

A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .

The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.

  • it follows that

A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?

Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.

a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.

b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.

From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose , 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.

B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?

1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?

2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?

3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."

4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.

5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?

6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?

For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.

10 Tips for Writing Essay Exams


An essay exam is a type of examination that requires a respondent to write essays in response to exam questions. In some examinations, a single essay question or a set of essay questions will make up the entirety of an assessment.  In other instances, essay examinations may also feature multiple choice questions and short answer questions in addition to an essay. Essay exams are advantageous since they measure your knowledge synthesis and capacity to organise your thoughts on paper. They allow you to show your instructor or examiner how well you comprehend the fundamental ideas that form the course's foundation and your analytical and writing abilities. 

If you find writing essays in examinations difficult, look no further. In today’s post, we’ll be presenting you with 10 tips for writing essay exams. 

Preparing for the Exam

Become more proficient in grammar, spelling, and punctuation:.

Essays with good grammar, spelling, and punctuation are easier to grade since they are simpler to comprehend. Suppose an examiner reads student A's essay and is experiencing difficulty understanding what they are trying to convey because of poor grammar. Would they spend more time trying to understand student A's essay or move on to student B? It is essential that your grammar, spelling and punctuation are of an acceptable level to avoid being part of the “dreaded batch of papers”. Furthermore, your ability to master grammar will allow you to spend more time generating a compelling essay, reducing the amount of time you have to spend on proofreading.

Related : Colon or Semicolon? When to Use Them

Diction matters:

Your writing will be more captivating and convincing if you choose terms that are appropriate for the tone and aim of your essay. Avoid acronyms and colloquialisms, for instance, to retain a professional tone when writing a formal paper. To guarantee that you are utilising words appropriately, avoid employing words in your writing that you don't understand. A thesaurus or dictionary is an excellent tool for expanding your vocabulary and may help diversify your writing. 

If you are preparing to write an English essay writing exam, look at our 50 Words To Impress Your English Examiner post.

Revise and review:

There is a possibility that you won't get a scope for the exam, but whatever the case, one thing is for sure: the concepts and ideas you discussed throughout the course are essential. Therefore, it is necessary to review all course material. As previously discussed, essay exams require you to function as the source of information. So, for you to be able to carry out this function successfully, you need to have the knowledge and understanding to do so.

So, now that we realise that there is no way around it, you may be wondering how to go about it. Creating a study plan will help you to organise your schedule, allocating adequate amounts of time to different parts of the course. Here you’ll find a guide to creating a study timetable which is instrumental in covering most of your course content. You can improve your study skills by creating a revision timetable, which allows you to break down the fundamental task of acing your exam into smaller, more manageable tasks.

If you struggle with procrastination, the Pomodoro Technique is a game changer. Read more about this time management strategy in our previous post: The Pomodoro Technique: How To Study When You Don't Know Where To Start

Use past exam papers:

Using past exam papers is one practical way to improve your essay writing skills because they will give you a good understanding of the exam structure, the types of questions provided, and the nature of the information required to cover while studying and revising material. You can find past exam papers in your institution's archives if you're at a college or university.

Write under pressure:

Although take-home assignments present an excellent opportunity to sharpen your writing and analytical skills, they often are written on a computer. Therefore, we encourage you to practice writing longhand within mirrored time constraints of an essay writing examination to help you feel best prepared for your exam day. Pick a practice question (you will become accustomed to the conditions of a timed exam and be able to identify any gaps in your understanding of the course content), set a stopwatch, and write. Through simulation, you can boost your confidence in your knowledge synthesis and ability to convey your thoughts.

Writing for the exam

Pinpoint what the question is asking:.

To understand clearly what a question is asking, we recommend underlining the verbs in the question. Action words are always a part of essay exams, and these words largely determine the contents of your essay. Not only are you likely to misinterpret the question if you overlook the action word, but you are also likely to provide incorrect information.

Here are some examples of verbs found in essay writing exams:

  • Analyse the question in detail by breaking it down into various parts.
  • Argue either for or against the given point and use logical reasoning to support your position.
  • Assess the importance of something and weigh the positives and negatives.
  • Critique the given theory and describe its advantages or disadvantages, as well as provide evidence for your opinions.
  • Define and explain in significant detail what the phrase means; give it a precise definition or meaning.
  • Description and explanation in detail.
  • Discuss the question and provide a key argument; support this argument with reasoning to justify your position.
  • Explain in detail how something works or how it came about.
  • Identify key features of something.
  • Illustrate your point using relevant examples and a figure or diagram .
  • Outline the main features of a topic or event and how they relate. 
  • Prove that a given claim is true or accurate by providing evidence and logical statements.
  • Relate by describing how certain ideas relate or connect and why they are similar.
  • Summarise the key points by identifying them and describing each with only one sentence. 

4 steps for writing an essay outline:

Just pause for a moment when you are about to start writing your essay while seated at your exam table. Before you start writing your essay, we encourage you to carry out one simple but crucial task that will ensure the remainder of the writing process is smooth. 

An essay outline serves numerous purposes, including assisting you in organising your thoughts, serving as a roadmap for you to follow when writing the body paragraphs, and providing readers with a brief overview of your essay. 

To get started, follow these four steps:

  • Take a moment to consider your thesis statement. Even if you don't have the exact phrasing yet, you should have a general idea of the primary argument or claim you'll make and how you'll support it in your essay. Every argument you raise and every piece of evidence you give must connect back to your essay's ultimate objective.
  • Using your brainstorming notes, select the points that will most effectively achieve your essay's goal objective.  
  • Identify the key arguments you’ll make in your essay. These will make up your body sections.
  • With your key topics and supporting points clearly defined, it’s time to write your outline. 

Manage your time:

There are schedules for exam writing, just like there are schedules or timetables for assessment revision. In essence, it is paramount to approximate how long you will be spending on each body section of your essay. This task will become effortless if you know the number of paragraphs you’ll produce (use your drafted essay outline to determine this). To successfully schedule set times for every segment of your essay, you need to factor in the time allotted for the entire assessment and split it into reasonably-sized chunks, leaving some time at the end for proofreading and editing (if necessary). 

Always proofread your work:

When you're under time constraints, it's easy to make grammatical mistakes or write complex and challenging sentences; the final few minutes are your chance to fix such errors. Reading through your work also helps you to determine whether or not you've addressed the essay question thoroughly If you realise you didn't provide an example for a point you discussed, you can incorporate it before submitting it.

Things to avoid:

We understand that sitting down for an exam can be stressful and feeling stressed can often lead to you blanking out during the exam. You may run out of time or find that a large chunk of the exam is dedicated to a part of the course you didn't find time to revise. It is possible to avoid these negative experiences by planning and managing your time well. 

When writing your essay, keep the following things in mind:

  • Avoid excuses:

If you are unable to complete the exam or if you did not study adequately for the exam due to extenuating circumstances, do not put this on your exam response sheet. Your course coordinator is the best person to talk to if you have any concerns. However, it's important to stress that being underprepared for the assessment is not an acceptable justification. Always be accountable for your academic progress, which includes giving yourself adequate time to review course content in depth. 

  • Avoid the “kitchen sink” approach :

Students often summarise all their knowledge about a subject without relating it to the question. Each part of your response should support your thesis and aid in addressing the question. Don't leave it up to the examiner to find the related points; instead, explain what the material means or why it is pertinent.

  • Don’t “pad” your answer: 

Examiners will give no credit for irrelevant or exaggerated content. Therefore, if you get stuck, you can always elaborate on what you know and not focus on what you do not know, as long as it directly relates to the question.

Related: How To Ace Your Business Studies Essay  


  • Read the question and note what kind of information the question requires you to present. Remember that this first step is the most crucial, missing one part of a question or misunderstanding it can cost you a lot of marks.
  • Make a list of principal arguments or points you want to include in your answer, having an answer key like this can help you not to forget crucial points and enables you to mark off each time you cover points.
  • Use an essay answer key: introduction, body, and conclusion. (If you run out of time to write a full conclusion, writing your thoughts in point form can still help you gain marks.
  • Remember to add one concept to every paragraph to provide a coherent flow of ideas. 
  • Make sure that your handwriting is legible, instructors will only mark content they can read and understand so don’t forfeit these easy marks. Nothing is more frustrating for an examiner than spending longer reading over someone's essay exam because they are having trouble making sense of what is written. 
  • Although grammar, punctuation and spelling aren’t as significant in an essay as an assignment (unless you are writing an essay exam for English), you should still maintain a good writing standard. If you are preparing to write an English essay writing exam, look at our 50 Words To Impress Your English Examiner post .

We have various language tutors available and more specifically, English tutors in Johannesburg , English tutors in Pretoria , English tutors in Durban and English tutors in Cape Town

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Writing Tutorial Services

Taking an essay exam.

You may often be asked in college to take essay exams. In certain ways, the same principles for writing good out-of-class essays apply to writing good in-class essays as well. For example, both kinds of essays are more successful when you take into consideration your purpose, audience and information; when you develop a thesis with support; when you prove your assertions with evidence; when you guide your readers with transitions, etc.

However, there are some differences to keep in mind as you prepare to write. The most important one is the purpose for writing. Usually you write a research paper, for example, to learn more about your selected topic; however, you write essay exams to demonstrate your knowledge. You are not only conveying information, but also proving to your audience--the examiner--that you have mastered the information and can work with it. In other words, your purpose is both informative and persuasive. Keeping this purpose in mind will help you both prepare for and write the essay.


Study connections between ideas. Your instructor is not looking for a collection of unrelated pieces of information. Rather, he or she wants to see that you understand the whole picture, i.e., how the generalizations or concepts create the framework for the specific facts, and how the examples or details fill in the gaps. So, when you're studying, try to think about how the information fits together.

Prepare practice questions. Try to prepare for questions that are likely to be asked. If your instructor has given you the questions themselves or a study sheet in advance, practice answering those questions. Otherwise, try to anticipate questions your instructor is likely to ask and practice those. At the very least, outline how you would answer the test questions; however, it's better to actually write out the answers. That way, you will know where you need to study more.


Again, while you're taking the exam, remember that it's not simply what you say or how much you say, but HOW you say it that's important. You want to show your instructor that you have mastered the material.

Plan your time. Although you will be working under pressure, take a few minutes to plan your time. Determine how many minutes you can devote to each answer. You will want to devote most of your time to the questions that are worth the most points, perhaps answering those questions first. On the other hand, you might want to answer first the questions that you are best prepared for.

Read the questions thoroughly. Take a few minutes before writing your essay to read the question carefully in order to determine exactly what you are being asked to do. Most essay exam questions, or "prompts," are carefully worded and contain specific instructions about WHAT you are to write about as well as HOW you should organize your answer. The prompt may use one or more of the following terms. If you see one of these terms, try to organize your essay to respond to the question or questions indicated.

classify: Into what general category/categories does this idea belong? compare: What are the similarities among these ideas? What are the differences? contrast: What are the differences between these ideas? critique: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this idea? define: What does this word or phrase mean? describe: What are the important characteristics or features of this idea? evaluate: What are the arguments for and against this idea? Which arguments are stronger? explain: Why is this the case? identify: What is this idea? What is its name? interpret: What does this idea mean? Why is it important? justify: Why is this correct? Why is this true? outline: What are the main points and essential details? summarize: Briefly, what are the important ideas? trace: What is the sequence of ideas or order of events?

Plan your answer. Jot down the main points you intend to make as you think through your answer. Then, you can use your list to help you stick to the topic. In an exam situation, it's easy to forget points if you don't write them down.

Write out your essay, using good writing techniques. As was said earlier, essay exams are like other essays, so use the same good writing strategies you use for other kinds of writing. Keep in mind that your purpose is to persuade your reader—the examiner—that you know the material.

First, create a thesis for your essay that you can defend. Often, you can turn the questions stated or implied on the exam into an answer and use it as your thesis. This sentence also functions as an introduction.

For example, suppose you are given the following prompt in your psychology class:

Define "procedural knowledge" and describe its relationship to the results of studies of amnesic patients.

The implied question is:

What is "procedural knowledge" and how is it related to the results of studies of amnesic patients?

Note how you can turn the answer to that implied question into the thesis of your exam essay. This paragraph might serve as your introduction.

"Procedural knowledge" is knowing how to perform a task, such as tying a shoe or driving a car, and studies of amnesia have shown that this type of knowledge or memory is often retained by amnesic patients. Even in amnesic patients who have lost most of their declarative memory capacity, the ability to form new procedural memories is often intact...

Then, proceed immediately to explain, develop, and support your thesis, drawing upon materials from text(s), lectures, and class discussions. Be sure to support any and all generalizations with concrete evidence, relevant facts, and specific details that will convince your reader that your thesis is valid. Make your main points stand out by writing distinct paragraphs, and indicate the relationship between them with transitions.

For example, in response to this prompt from a social work class,

Identify and give an example of four alternative solutions available in cases of family conflict.

a student wrote the following paragraph. Note the transition phrase and the generalization supported by specific evidence.

. . . The fourth alternative open in cases of family conflict is violence, and this is not an uncommon response. 25% of all homicides in the U.S. involve one family member killing another; half of these are spouse homicides. Violence usually takes one of two forms: explosive or coercive. Explosive violence is not premeditated. When the son takes and crashes the family car, for instance, the father may explode and beat him. Coercive violence, on the other hand, is pointed and intentional; it has the goal of producing compliance or obedience. Thus, a blow delivered with a threat not to repeat certain behaviors would be coercive. . . .

Finally, sum up your argument with a brief conclusion that lends your essay a clear sense of closure.

Finishing the Exam

Proofread your answer. Reserve a few minutes after completing your essay to proofread it carefully. First, make sure you stick to the question. Always answer exactly the question asked without digressing. If you find you have digressed, neatly cross out the words or paragraphs. It's better to cross out a paragraph that is irrelevant (and to replace it with a relevant one if you have time) than to allow it to stand. In this context at least, quality is always preferable to quantity. Also check sentence structure, spelling and punctuation.

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9 tips for writing essays in exams

write essay english exam

Lauren Condon

Marketing Specialist at Atomi

write essay english exam

Essay writing is enough of a struggle when there isn’t any time pressure. Add in a 40 minute limit and that’s pretty much breaking point for a lot of us 🙃 . Well don't stress too much because we're going to help out here with some tricks and tips for writing exam essays* that will actually show the HSC marker all of our killer ideas and skills. This might end up being a pretty hefty post so let’s get cracking straightaway.

* This basically works for things like speeches and long responses as well...

1. Pinpoint the instructions in the question

Before you even start writing, you need to be reading each word of that essay question super carefully. Make sure you’re following instructions and paying attention to the little things that are actually... big things. Do they want you to write a speech or an essay? Do they specify that you need ONE, at least ONE or TWO or more related texts? No excuses for skipping this step because you can just do it during reading time.

2. Draft a quick plan of the structure

Always, always, always plan your essays in an exam. Like… always. The kick of pure fear adrenaline when you start an exam can make it pretty tempting to get writing asap but save yourself a world of pain and take a few minutes to plan. You want to basically write down your thesis (probably one you’ve prepared earlier but tailor it to the specific question) and the structure of your body paragraphs. We go into a bit more detail on planning over here if you’re keen 👍 .

3. Manage your time in writing the essay and the whole exam

Two tips here (lucky you) but basically you need to manage your time in writing the essay and manage your whole exam time. So firstly, you have to leave yourself enough of the exam time to do your essay. If the exam is something like English Paper 1, you know that a third of the (two hour long) exam is an essay so you should be starting that essay with at least 40mins to go.

Hot tip: a lot of top students try to move through the first two sections of that exam fairly quickly so they have more time for a banging essay 💯.

When it comes to writing the essay, the structure you planned out will let you know if you’re on track or not. 40 minutes to write an essay and you have an intro, conclusion and four body paragraphs? Sweet. Well then it’s pretty clear that you should get your intro and the first two paragraphs done in 20 minutes. If you kind of messed up the timing of the whole exam and you don’t have your full 40 minutes then pick up the pace and if you can’t do that, time to make some quick decisions about what to cut.

4. Write out your evidence first so you don’t forget it

This isn’t a must but can be seriously helpful. Every essay needs evidence. It might be quotes, it might be dates, it might be stats. Even though you’ve definitely memorised these perfectly by the HSC (lol), it’s worth having a strategy for making sure you put all your evidence in. My personal tactic was, before starting to write the essay, to scribble that evidence (or just a keyword to jog my memory) down at the top of my planning paper or scribble it under the plan I wrote. That way, if I had a total mind blank when I got to writing a certain paragraph, I didn’t have to leave the evidence out or waste time trying to remember it.

5. Keep it structured

This one is pretty closely related to the point about planning but hey, can’t push it enough. The pressure of writing essays in exams makes it sooooo easy to start rambling and just chucking idea after idea after idea onto the page. Make a structure during your planning and be really strict about sticking to it to keep your essay as clear and strong as possible. Keep your paragraphs to a regular structure like PEEL/PEAL (point, example, explanation/analysis, link) so you have a clear idea of when you’ve written enough in each paragraph and when it’s time to just move on.

6. Have some potential theses and essay structures prepared

Memorising essays gets a little controversial but I think we all agree that you need to, at least, have a few ideas and potential essay structures going into that exam room. Some of us will try to remember whole essays word-for-word which isn’t officially recommended but as long as you are prepared to ( and know how to ) adapt it to the question then it shouldn’t be too bad. It’s really about finding out what approach works best for you but having some possible essays structures and flexible thesis ideas up your sleeve will make sure that you can write an impressive essay in just 40 minutes.

7. If you get stuck, your best bet is to pause for a second

Having a mind blank during an exam is not a good feeling because the clock is literally ticking and there isn’t a way you can magically force yourself to remember a quote or come up with an idea. It will feel pretty stressful but your best bet here is actually to pause and think instead of continuing to waffle on.

write essay english exam

Waffling affects the clarity of your essay and the marking criteria about the ‘composing’ of your response. It also might affect how well the marker thinks you understand your argument so it’s always better to pause, give yourself a few seconds to try and reach a solution. If you can’t, either move on and try to come back later or just cut your losses, conclude that point and move on.

8. Don’t forget to anchor your essay with the keyword and source material

Not every essay will give you source material (a picture or quote that you have to refer to) but you will always have a verb or keyword in the question that tells you how to position your argument. When it comes to unexpected source material, here are some tricks and tips and when it comes to the keyword, let’s start by having a look at three questions pulled from the 2016 Advanced English Paper 2 .

write essay english exam

  • Discuss means you need to pinpoint the issues raised by that statement and provide examples and analysis for and/or against each of those issue.

write essay english exam

  • How means you need to be providing really solid examples of contrast in Yeats poetry and explaining what that contrast says about personal concerns, political concerns and the relationship between the two.

write essay english exam

  • To what extent means you need to making a judgement call about how much the themes and ideas in your texts support (or do not support) that statement. This doesn't have to be black and white, you can always say that the texts support that statement in some ways and challenge it in other ways as long as you provide good evidence and analysis to back it up.

All those instructing verbs and keywords came from just one paper so brush on up exactly what they mean and how to use them to anchor your essay . Addressing the keyword and source material really well will show your marker than you are actually answering the exam question, not just chucking out a pre-prepared response.

9. Remind yourself of what the markers are looking for

The overall best tip for writing essays in exams is to remind yourself what your markers are looking for. And no, that doesn't mean you just try to tell your mysterious, probably middle-aged NESA marker what you think they want to hear.

Instead, think about your essay sensibly. Your marker wants to see how well you understand the texts and how the authors communicated those ideas. They want to see how well you understand the concept of Discovery and all its nuances (hint: they’re written out here ). And they want to see how well you can bring all these ideas together and communicate them in a logical, cohesive manner. Don’t get too caught up in fancy language or insanely obscure techniques - you’ve got this.

Writing essays in exams really comes down to being as prepared as possible and having a good strategy for the exam itself. Make sure you’re managing your time and keeping calm enough to write the killer essay you’d be able to come up with outside of the exam room. Happy essay writing… 😬

Published on

October 5, 2017

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Writing an opinion essay – Tips, structure, examples, exercises

Check the ‘explanation’ tab above before doing these exercises. choose the correct option for each gap., are top sports players paid too much.

1 Nowadays In my opinion Firstly Secondly In addition To sum up , top sportspeople, such as football players or basketball players have huge salaries, and this promotes a lot of debate. But do they earn too much? 2 Firstly In addition In my opinion Secondly To sum up Nowadays , their salaries are fair.

3 In my opinion Nowadays Secondly In addition Firstly To sum up , the career of a professional sports player is short – they usually retire when they are in their thirties. 4 Nowadays To sum up Firstly In addition In my opinion , many of them have to retire earlier because they get injured and have to stop playing.

5 To sum up Firstly Secondly Nowadays I believe , sports stars are celebrities, and all celebrities lose their privacy. Journalists, paparazzi and fans follow them everywhere, and they want to get pictures or talk to them all the time. 6 To sum up Moreover I believe Secondly Nowadays Firstly , now anyone can take photos with their mobile phone and publish them at any moment on their social media accounts.

7 Secondly Nowadays Moreover Firstly To sum up I believe , 8 Nowadays Secondly To sum up Firstly I believe Moreover top professional sports players have the salaries they deserve because their careers are much shorter and because during those years, their personal lives are affected by their popularity.

Writing an opinion essay

When you write an opinion essay, you must say what you think about a topic and try to convince the reader of your point of view on that topic. To do that, you should first introduce the topic and state your opinion. Then, you should give three reasons that support your view, and finally, you should write a conclusion where you summarise your arguments and repeat your opinion using different words.  

Plan your ideas

The first thing you need to do is decide whether you agree with the question or statement and then make a list of two or three reasons that support your opinion, including some facts and/or examples. Here is an example:

Opinion: I disagree.

  • Fact 1:  their careers usually end in their 30’s.
  • Fact 2: sometimes, they are even shorter because of injuries.
  • Fact 1: Constantly followed by journalists and fans.
  • Fact 2: Now, everyone uses their phones to take photos and publish them.

Organise your text

An opinion essay has three parts:

  • Introduction
  • Arguments or reasons that support your view.

Introduction. Paragraph 1

Introduce the topic and give your opinion. Say whether you agree or disagree with the statement or question. It can be a good idea to use a question to grab the reader’s attention. Check the two examples below:

Nowadays, top sportspeople, such as football players or basketball players, have huge salaries, and this promotes a lot of debate. However,   I don’t think they earn too much. In my opinion, their salaries are fair.

How often have you heard a friend or a colleague complain about the excessive salaries of professional sports players? But do they really earn too much? I don’t think they earn too much. I truly believe  their salaries are fair. 

Arguments. Paragraph 2

Give the first argument to support your opinion. Include at least two facts or examples to show that your reason makes sense. Check this example:

Firstly, Despite all the money professional sports players earn every year, they work for only a few years – they usually retire when they are in their thirties. In addition, many of them have to retire earlier because they get injured and have to stop playing.

Arguments. Paragraph 3

Give more reasons and again provide examples, facts or supporting ideas. For example:

Secondly, sports stars are celebrities, and all celebrities lose their privacy. Journalists, paparazzi and fans follow them everywhere, and they want to get pictures or talk to them all the time. Moreover, now anyone can take photos with their mobile phone and publish them at any moment on their social media accounts.

Conclusion. Paragraph 4

Summarise your ideas and repeat your opinion.

To sum up, I believe top professional sports players have the salaries they deserve because their careers are short and because during those years, their personal lives are affected by their popularity.

Useful language

Sequencing your text.

Use connectors to sequence and structure your ideas:

  • Firstly/First of all, …
  • Secondly/Thirdly, …
  • Finally, …

Adding more points or ideas

Use connectors to introduce additional ideas:

  • In addition, …
  • Moreover, …

Giving your opinion

Expressions you can use to say what you think:

  • In my opinion, …
  • In my view, …
  • I think/feel that …
  • I (truly) believe that …
  • I am convinced that …
  • I agree that …
  • I disagree with/about …

Introducing examples

Use connectors to introduce examples:

  • For example, …
  • For instance, …

Expressing contrast, purpose and reason

You may also need or want to use some connectors of contrast, purpose and reason .

  • Contrast: although, however, despite, etc.
  • Purpose: to, in order to, so that, etc.
  • Reason: because (of), since, due to, etc.

Introducing your conclusion

Use connectors to introduce the conclusion:

  • In conclusion, …
  • To sum up, …

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