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Essay Exams

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Words of Wisdom

Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.

— Robert McKee

This handout discusses how to write a timed essay exam in a class. The first step is to study the material. It might also help to ask your instructor if you can see sample essay exams from a past class to get an idea of the level of detail he or she prefers.

Select and analyze your question

Note carefully any choices among questions or topics, and write only on the number of topics requested. Pick something you feel you know about or something that allows you to discuss what you have learned. The UWC handout Understanding Your Writing Assignment will help. Pay attention to verbs like analyze, evaluate, or describe. If you are asked to evaluate, don’t analyze.

Manage your time

Estimate the time you have to work and figure out how to divide it; don’t forget to budget time for brainstorming, planning, and proofreading. For example, for a 30-minute exam, spend 8 minutes to read the prompt, brainstorm, and plan; 15 to write; and 7 to edit/proofread. If you have word limits, don’t waste time counting words. Know how many words you usually write per line or page of a blue book and estimate.

Brainstorming and organizing

Turn to the last two pages of the blue book and sketch out your main idea and supporting points. Look for a central question in the prompt, and make sure the answer is clear in your thesis or main idea. Support that idea with information from the course such as names, dates, or facts, or use quotes.


Start with the main idea or thesis, then preview what you plan to include. Imagine you’ve been asked to write a persuasive essay to defend keeping a novel on a high school reading list. The example introduction below sets up the thesis (underlined) and gives arguments to support it: that it is relatable and that it will entice students to read.

Ex introduction. Censorship of high school reading lists is never a good idea, but some school districts have gone too far by forbidding students to read the American classic, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The story about growing up is one that adolescents can relate to, making them far more likely to read it and enjoy the experience and maybe contributing to a lifelong habit of reading.

Use only as much space as you need to answer the question thoroughly, and include plenty of evidence and specific examples (such as how teens relate to the main character’s alienation and sense of adult hypocrisy). End with a sentence or two to re-state the main idea, in a new way if possible.

Ex conclusion. Teens have been reading Catcher in the Rye since the 1940s. A few good hours with Holden have helped many to realize that a good read is more enjoyable and more satisfying than watching a sit-com. Let’s encourage that attitude by keeping Catcher in the Rye in our high schools.

Editing and proofreading

Besides looking for errors, make sure you’ve fully answered the prompt and included a clear thesis, sub-points that explain that it, and adequate evidence, examples, or illustration for each one. Check that your ideas flow logically with transitions to show the relationship between them (however, thus, next, etc.). Insert correction or changes in the margins, making it clear where they go. Be sure that everything is legible.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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