Pointers for Taking Essay Tests
Tina L. Hanlon
These guidelines apply to almost any test with essay
questions. Ask your professor if you have questions about
the format and requirements of a particular test. Many writing
textbooks also have guidelines for essay tests with sample
questions on different subjects. If you need additional
help, go to the
Writing Center in Stanley Library.
Preparing for the Test
- Read all material to be covered on the test when it is
- While reading make whatever kinds of notes or outlines
work best for you and for the kind of material you are
studying. Put notes into a convenient form that
will be easy to review for the test. If you own the
books you are studying, underline or highlight key
passages so you can skim through the readings before the
- Take good notes on class discussion. Test questions
will most likely be based on material or points of view
discussed in class, unless you have been told you are
responsible for readings not discussed in class.
- Be clear about the format and requirements for the test.
If these are not explained in class, ask the
professor exactly what will be expected, how many
questions will be on the test, etc. He or she may
have sample questions or answers you can review.
- If you need to improve your test-taking skills, or you
have test anxiety, practice writing sample
questions (ask the professor for some or make up some
yourself). Practice answering the questions with a
time limit like the one you will have on the test.
Ask a professor or another good reader to read your
- Begin reviewing your notes and skimming over the readings
(if necessary) close to the test time but early enough
that you will have time to review everything.
Studying with someone else and asking each other
questions out loud can help you remember the material
Beginning the Test
- Come to the test well-prepared, well-rested, and calm,
with appropriate writing tools.
- When you receive the test, read through all the
instructions. Pay close attention to the time you
must allot for each question and to choices of questions
you may have. One of the most foolish and fatal
mistakes people sometimes make on tests is trying to
answer more questions than required, and then not having
time to finish the test. Dont spend too much
time on short-answer sections or any parts that are not
worth as much credit as other sections.
- Look for key words in the essay questions. Be sure
you are following the directions given and covering all
parts of the question. For example, if you are
asked to compare, be sure you have precise points of
comparison or contrastnot just separate paragraphs
on the topics you are comparing. (See The Little,
Brown Handbook for examples on responding to key
words in essay questionsp. 896 in the 8th ed.)
- Take a few minutes to plan your answer before writing.
Make a quick outline of points you will cover in
Writing your Answer
- Give your essay the structure any good essay would have:
an introduction which gives a direct, precise
answer to the main question asked, a body which provides
details and examples to back up each of your ideas, and a
concluding statement that ties together your ideas and
stresses their significance.
- Write legibly in complete sentences and standard English.
Leave enough space on the page so you could make
quick corrections or additions. One reason for
making the most of composition courses to polish your
writing skills is the necessity for writing quickly and
competently on essay tests (and other writing tasks with
short time limits).
- Dont ramble. You have to use your short time
efficiently and get right to the main point(s).
- Leave enough time to review and proofread your answer.
Remember that clear and precise language is
necessary if the reader is to understand your answer.
You may know that you know the material well, but
the professor cannot read your mind; your answer will be
evaluated based on what you write down on the page.
Writing Center Home Page