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Tips for Finals Studying and Writing In-Class Essays

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Do Essay Exams Frighten You?

Ever worry you'll "freeze up" and not know what to write next during an exam? In graduate school, I had that happen to me! Now as an English professor for over 20 years, I've helped several thousand students make it through their first college in-class essays. Below are my best tips for preparing, writing, and making sure you get the best possible grade!


4 Studying Tips

  1. Think like the professor: Imagine you are the professor and want to give a comprehensive exam: What were the most important points the class covered?
  2. Make up your own questions: What questions could you ask to get the students to remember and write about those points?
  3. Be strategic in studying: If your professor seems especially interested in one part of the course, be sure you pay attention and write questions about that.
  4. Ask for Direction: You can also ask the professor what sort of questions to expect, whether they want to synthesize, analyze or compare and contrast (see the list below of types of questions).

How to Study for In-Class Essay With Friends

The technique of making up questions works even better when you are studying with a friend or in a group. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have everyone write questions they think will be on the exam.
  • Take turns asking each other the questions you have written down. You can either answer out loud, write an outline of your answers to share with each other or write a short essay.
  • Another way to practice is to exchange questions and have everyone write a full essay. Then exchange your essays so that you can respond to one another and give suggestions on how the essay could be improved.
  • Can't meet in person? You can meet together using your favorite virtual app, or email your questions and essays back and forth.

Especially when you are writing an essay, you will find this technique makes you much more prepared. Don't have time to do a full essay? Just write an outline or a brief paragraph that gives the main ideas you would write in a full essay.

How to Do a Practice Exam

You can look at your notes all night, but if you don't actually practice writing, you may still feel unprepared when you get to the exam. That is why I strongly suggest you practice writing by yourself or with some friends. Here is the best way to write a practice exam:

  1. Make a list of sample questions (or if the professor has a test bank of old questions, you can choose from that).
  2. Find a good quiet place to write and get all the supplies you need.
  3. Set a time limit on your phone alarm.
  4. Pick a question.
  5. Write a short outline of your essay.
  6. Use your outline as you write the essay.
  7. Stop when the time is up and re-read your essay. If you are studying with a friend, read each other's essays.
  8. Evaluate your essay using the following questions:
  • Did you answer the question?
  • Do you have a single clear thesis sentence that tells the main point of your essay?
  • Did you have at least 3 main reasons to back up your main point?
  • Do you have evidence and examples to back up those reasons?
  • Does your introduction interest the reader and present the question and answer (your thesis) clearly?
  • Does your conclusion sum up the argument and leave the reader with one final, interesting point?

How to Make Sure You Answer Correctly

The most common reason why students get points off on an essay or short answer exam is that they did not answer the question correctly. Often, I find the student just did not read the question carefully. Be sure to read the question several times and underline the important words. Here are some of the most typical kinds of essays:

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  1. Argue: An argument question wants you to state a position on a topic and give reasons for agreeing with that position. Generally, you will also tell what the opposing position is and explain why your position is better.
  2. Compare and Contrast: Compare means to show how things are the same. Contrast means to show differences. Sometimes you are asked to do one of these. Other times you may need to do both. Usually, you are asked to give examples too.
  3. Explain, Define: Tell what something is and give examples.You usually will take it apart to show parts, describe what it is vs. what it is not, and compare it to similar things.
  4. Discuss: This is a very general question which is more open-ended and is seeking to see what you have learned about a topic. Be sure to look for other words in the question which may focus your answer more.If there aren’t any, then be sure your answer does give specific examples to back up your general statements.
  5. Analyze: Means to divide the topic into parts and tell how the parts are related to each other and the general topic.
  6. Synthesize: In this case, you will have several parts and you need to show how these are related to each other.You may have to analyze first before you synthesize.
  7. Illustrate: In this question type, you are to give clear examples to explain.
  8. Trace or Give the History: This question asks you to explain the sequence of events or processes in a chronological order.
  9. Solve: This is a problem-solving question which asks you to give a solution and explain why that solution solves the problem and is better than other possible solutions. You should also explain how it is feasible to implement.
  10. Interpret: This question asks you to give your own ideas about why something happened or what it means. You need to make sure you give concrete and specific reasons and examples to support your interpretation.

Step-by-Step Instructions for In-Class Essay Writing

  1. Step One: Read the instructions on the test carefully. Notice how many of the questions you need to answer and quickly calculate how much time you have for each one.
  2. Step Two: Read each question and circle the key question terms.
  3. Step Three: Before you answer each question, write a brief outline of what you want to say. For longer essays, you may want to also jot down examples you plan to use. You should also write in one sentence a specific answer to the question which will be your thesis.
  4. Step Four: As you write, remember that specific examples count more than general, rambling thoughts. Look back at the question as you start each new paragraph and ask yourself, have I answered the question? Keep track of the time and keep moving rather than spending too much time perfecting any paragraph or sentence.
  5. Step Five: Re-read your essay once to check for spelling and word errors. If you have time, you may want to underline and re-read the thesis and topic sentences to see if your argument flows smoothly.
  6. Step Six: If you run out of time, then go back to your outline and briefly explain what you were planning to write in the rest of your paper. This is where a good sketch outline before you begin can help you. You can refer your professor back to the outline (and maybe even expand it a little) to show what you know.
  7. Relax!
Enjoy a snack after your exam!

Enjoy a snack after your exam!

Final Thoughts

In-class essays are sometimes stressful for students, but actually, these tests often give you the best chance for showing what you really learned in a course. With multiple choice tests, you are not always able to use the information that you studied. On an essay test, you can often bring out the information you did learn.

Your professor wants to know that you were paying attention and that you studied. If you keep that in mind, you will do well on your in-class essay.

Reward yourself afterward with a cup of coffee with a friend, or maybe a nap! Good luck!


ErikInsec on July 03, 2015:

When I have an exam, I like to plan something exciting afterwards. If I fail I will not be happy and soI would not have a lot of fun afterwards, but when I feel like I succeeded, then I can go on with the beautiful rest of my day. To get into "writing mode" I like to listen to calming music like this one before entering the classroom.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on October 18, 2011:

You are so right, JGoul. Every year I have some excellent writers who just get too stressed out about exams and stay up all night or are unable to concentrate because they are worrying about not doing it perfectly. One of my best students almost dropped my class last year because of stress. We worked out a plan for her and I just saw her recently and she's doing much better this year. Having had babies, been in several job and taken care of Alzheimer's in-laws, I can testify to the fact that no exam is worth too much stress! There are plenty of life events ahead which will test you too. So learning to forgive yourself for mistakes is a very important skill.

JGoul on October 18, 2011:

The tip about relaxing during the exam was great. I am a recent graduate, with seven years of post-high school education, and I can say from experience that the biggest difference between the student who works hard for average grades and the student who coasts through to a superior GPA is test taking mindset. There's a time and a place to beat yourself up for not spending enough time studying or for missing a key concept as you reviewed, but that time and place is not on the exam. You have to get every last point you can, using every piece of knowledge you have, working through every second you're allotted if necessary.

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