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Succeed at Exams

How do I plan my time during an essay exam?

  • Wear a watch to your exam to keep track of time.
  • Read the instructions carefully, noting how many questions you need to answer in each section.
  • Consider the mark distribution for each question to determine how you should divide your time.
  • Don’t forget to budget time to review your answers before you turn in the exam. 

How do I make the best use of my time during an essay exam?

  • Read all the questions on an exam before you begin writing. Pay close attention to the wording of each question.
  • Ask yourself what you are being asked to do and how you are required to do that. See the section below for more information on answering questions effectively.
  • Make a brief outline for the questions you plan to answer, and choose the evidence and examples that you will use to support your points.
  • Stick to your time plan. It’s usually better to have something written for each question, even if the answer is incomplete, than to provide nothing at all.
  • Your instructor may give you partial credit for your ideas. Leave yourself time to check your spelling and grammar before you turn in your exam.
  • Remember that instructors are aware that you are writing under time constraints. They know that the writing you produce during an exam setting will look different from the writing that you produce on your own time.

What are some effective writing strategies for exam settings?

  • Place your thesis in your introduction so that your argument is clear even if you run out of time.
  • Use transitional words and phrases such as “first,” “however,” or “lastly,” to help readers navigate your document and identify your main points.
  • Write a conclusion to your essay, even if it is brief. Use this space to bring your ideas together and suggest the broader implications of your major points.
  • If your handwriting isn’t legible, print instead, so your instructors and TAs don’t have trouble deciphering your answers.
  • If you have access to multiple exam booklets, double space your answers to make your work easier for instructors and TAs to mark.
  • Review your answers to make sure they include the required components.

How do I answer an essay exam question effectively?

After you’ve read the question carefully, consider the type of answer required and the amount of evidence needed. There are six categories of key terms used in both short-answer and essay questions:

  1. Define:
    • Requires a detailed definition of the term you are given, sometimes with the use of examples
  2. Identify:
    • Requires an answer that provides the who, what, when, where, and why of a term
    • May require labelling the parts of a diagram or describing the process that it depicts
  3. Describe (i.e. illustrate, discuss):  
    • Requires a written representation of the concept or question, sometimes with detailed examples
    • May require you to look at the question from different points of view
  4. Relate (i.e. analyze, compare and contrast):
    • Requires you to identify similarities, differences, and/or associations between concepts
  5. Demonstrate (i.e. argue, explain, justify, prove, defend)
    • Requires logical evidence or arguments to support a specific statement or conclusion
    • May require the use of formulae, processes, methodologies, or diagrams learned in class to solve a problem
  6. Evaluate (i.e. criticize, interpret):
    • Requires you to comment on a concept, theory, or event, criticizing and/or explaining the meaning or significance of the question

What if I’m writing a take-home exam?

  • Some of the strategies explained above will apply.  You may also want to look at the LibGuide on Write a University Essay for more ideas for how to write an essay effectively.

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