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Pointers for Taking Essay Tests

by Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

English Department, Ferrum College

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

  1. Read all material to be covered on the test when it is assigned.
  2. 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 test.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 sample essay.
  6. 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 better.

Beginning the Test

  1. Come to the test well-prepared, well-rested, and calm, with appropriate writing tools.
  2. 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.  Don’t spend too much time on short-answer sections or any parts that are not worth as much credit as other sections.
  3. 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 contrast—not just separate paragraphs on the topics you are comparing.  (See The Little, Brown Handbook for examples on responding to key words in essay questions—p. 896 in the 8th ed.)
  4. Take a few minutes to plan your answer before writing.  Make a quick outline of points you will cover in your answer.

Writing your Answer

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Don’t ramble.  You have to use your short time efficiently and get right to the main point(s).
  4. 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.

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