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How to Write a Good Answer to Essay Questions on Exams
  • Sep 2022
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How to Write a Good Answer to Essay Questions on Exams

26th September 2022

If you're not a freak like me, then you probably despise essay questions on examinations.

Exams are already a major cause of stress...but essays?

This means you must think; you cannot simply circle "B" for each answer and hope for the best.

The truth is that, while you may need to sound more formal for school, writing an essay for an exam is the same as writing for any other reason:

You aim to persuade your readers of your thoughts straightforwardly and concisely.

Every line should entice the reader to read the following one.

This implies that, while it's not as difficult as we make it out to be, precise and succinct writing is nevertheless difficult in practice.

This post will discuss how to make essay questions more manageable – as well as how to achieve a decent mark on an essay answer.

Before we begin, keep in mind that I developed this piece with the idea that you must write a series of essays for an exam rather than simply one.

The reason for this is that an exam with a succession of small essays is more difficult than a single big essay: you must manage your time while making sure you cover all of the information required by each question.

In any case, the rules in this article are completely transferable to a lengthier, single-essay test.

So, without further ado, let us get started.

Rule 1: Understand What Makes an A+ Essay

Before we get into the specifics of essay writing, keep in mind that academics want to see the following:

  • You understood the course material.

  • You synthesize the material in your unique way.

  • You have generated your insights.

These three criteria constitute an A+ essay. As you can see,

  • If you simply give your opinion without utilizing facts, people will know you did not pay attention to the content or did not study it well.

  • If you simply regurgitate the facts without weaving them into an argument with a distinct, personal viewpoint, all you're proving is that you memorized specific data points rather than understanding how they relate to the wider picture.

Finally, your essay's structure must be logical, detailed, and succinct. Here's a beautiful statement from William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style: A Manual of Style.

“Vigorous writing is concise. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tells.”

Let's get started with these thoughts…

Rule 2: Create a Plan Before You Write

Resist the impulse to start writing as soon as you open your exam booklet or receive the question sheet. Set your pen down, take up the sheet, and carefully read each prompt. If the question is lengthy, you may wish to highlight or underline key elements.

Determine how long you'll spend on each question based on how many points it has and how tough it is for you to answer it. You can record those minutes on your sheet as a reminder. Allow 10 minutes, in the end, to tie up any loose ends and go over your responses.

Pick up your pen and make a list of 2-3 bullet points for each prompt after you've chosen how to approach the test as a whole. These do not have to be filled out concepts, just a few key aspects for each essay. Feel free to add to each prompt's list as you begin writing and recall responses to other prompts.

Rule 3: Use a Time-Tested Essay Format

“Instructors don’t have time to treat each essay as a puzzle in need of a solution. Take the guesswork out of your essay.” – Walter Pauk

After you've created a list of bullet points, you must ensure that the sequence of the points in your essay makes sense. (As a pro suggestion, number them so you don't forget.)

To aid in organization, compose your essay in the 5-Paragraph Essay style. This includes:

In addition to this format, there are two primary approaches for writing the body of the essay:

  • The decreasing-importance pattern, in which your first body paragraph covers your strongest argument and your final body paragraph covers the weakest or least important one.

  • The chronological pattern in which paragraphs follow the chronological order of events

The approach you use is entirely determined by the prompt.

  • Use the decreasing-importance pattern if the prompt is about how espionage impacted the result of World War II.

  • If the challenge asks you to trace the events that led to World War II's result, you should follow the chronological sequence.

However, in general, I like the decreasing-importance pattern.

This is because the decreasing-importance pattern corresponds to how journalists write: they begin with the most essential item of news to capture the reader's attention so that even if the reader does not read to the bottom, they still get the idea of things.

Similarly, you should begin your essay with the most crucial ideas because the person grading the work will most likely be looking for keywords and phrases and will not read the entire thing.

Rule 4: Get to the Point Quickly

You've undoubtedly read an article in which the arguments went in circles and the same handful of concepts were rehashed again and over with new phrases. Maybe you've written something similar yourself!

The problem is that this strategy does not work well on a timed test graded by a TA who has to evaluate a hundred more.

Instead, use the Argument-Evidence approach to write plainly and simply (or, as I like to call it, the Sandwich Method). In this style, the evidence is sandwiched between the arguments, as follows:

  • Make your argument or point.

  • Explain your point of view, ideally using actual instances, quotations, or course material.

  • Relate your evidence to your starting point.

For example, if I'm writing an article about how pancakes are the healthiest morning meal, one of my arguments may be:

“Pancakes are the healthiest food you can eat for breakfast because they are a historically significant food that has powered America for generations.

One excellent example of this is how lumberjacks of old would eat pancakes before going out into the cold to chop down trees.

They would douse their pancakes in maple syrup, stab through a stack of three pancakes, devour them in one go, and work hard for the rest of the day.

If pancakes for breakfast are enough to power people who chop down and lug heavy trees around for a living, then they are sufficient for the average American student.”

Notice how the first and last lines mirror each other, but the middle two sentences add context?

Sandwiching your examples between the points makes it easier for your readers to visualize the lesson you're attempting to deliver.

Rule 5: Go Through a 2-Stage Editing Process

You may or may not have time to properly revise your responses once you've written them. Here's an effective method for cleaning up your essay before moving on to the next one.

Stage 1: Assess the Arguments

Scan over each phrase, then each paragraph, to ensure that the sequence is correct and that each point is connected. If you follow Rule 3 carefully, there should be no gaps or problematic arguments, but it's always good to double-check.

Note: Fixing poor logic in a paper essay generally takes too long since you have to mark things out and recreate them, but computers allow you to cut and paste paragraphs and phrases. As a result, I frequently skip this step in written tests and go to Stage 2.

Stage 2: Do an “Out-Loud” Check

After finishing an essay and double-checking the sequence of the points, I prefer to read it quietly, mouthing every word. This aids in detecting grammatical faults and difficult phrases that I would have missed otherwise.


You may recall from the previous section of this article that essay writing is similar to any other type of writing:

  • You aim to persuade your readers of your thoughts straightforwardly and concisely.

  • Every line should entice the reader to read the following one.

Once you grasp these two fundamental principles of successful writing, the rest of the guidelines - planning before writing, getting to the point, revising, and synthesizing - will make more sense. They simply facilitate clean, succinct, and readable writing.

Best wishes for your next essay exam, and enjoy writing!



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