Hi All! Need Writing Help? It’s midterm season, so I am writing about exam essays.
The exam essay is a completely different beast than any other essay. Whereas normally I would instruct students to think creatively about writing – to be free! – for exam essays, I generally advise students to adopt a policy of constraint.
Herewith are some tips for writing exam essays for your midterms:
- Come to essay armed with knowledge and a handful of arguments you can use in the time that you’re writing. The moment of creativity needs to come while you are studying, not during the exam.
- Prepare a time scheme. If the essay is meant to take 30 minutes, break it up into parts: thesis + outline (5 minutes), introduction (5 minutes), body (10 minutes), conclusion (5 minutes), proofread (5 minutes).
- Read the prompt and identify the component parts. What are you being asked? Is there a passage? If so, what are the different parts of the passage that you should be looking at carefully while you read? Underline the prompt; underline the relevant passage. Jot down some notes.
- Look over your underlining and notes. What are the major patterns in your observations? Jot down the key ideas that have emerged for you to this point. What are your key points and what evidence can you use to support them? Consider what it is you want to tell the reader.
- Outline the essay. Make sure you write down what each paragraph will be about (the topic sentence) and what the essay as whole will be about (the thesis statement). Make a plan for your essay. You should include an even amount of time per paragraph as well as time at the end for copy editing and proofreading.
- Write. Remember that the topic sentence must come first in any paragraph. The paragraph functions to support the topic sentence with evidence. The last sentence of the paragraph serves as a mini-conclusion to the point of the paragraph.
- Spend a little time on your conclusion, so that it effectively summarizes what you’ve written. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. In an exam essay, repetition can be very clarifying.
- Once you have drafted the essay, go back and refine the introduction/thesis statement as well as each topic sentence. These are the most important elements of the essay. Proofread the essay.
The most important aspect of an exam essay is to realize that the real work happens before you actually come into the exam room (see tip #1). So, even if you are crushed with studying, try to prepare a thesis statement for your exam essay in advance. This can often be a more efficient use of your time than cramming in hundreds of pages of reading.
Above all, keep a cool head and write what you know. Don’t grasp a straws; make the most of the knowledge you have, even if it’s slimmer than you hoped when you started the semester. Writing from your knowledge, however limited, will lend your written voice confidence.
~ The Expository Writer.
So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. This is, after all, your last chance to persuade your readers to your point of view, to impress yourself upon them as a writer and thinker. And the impression you create in your conclusion will shape the impression that stays with your readers after they've finished the essay.
The end of an essay should therefore convey a sense of completeness and closure as well as a sense of the lingering possibilities of the topic, its larger meaning, its implications: the final paragraph should close the discussion without closing it off.
To establish a sense of closure, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude by linking the last paragraph to the first, perhaps by reiterating a word or phrase you used at the beginning.
- Conclude with a sentence composed mainly of one-syllable words. Simple language can help create an effect of understated drama.
- Conclude with a sentence that's compound or parallel in structure; such sentences can establish a sense of balance or order that may feel just right at the end of a complex discussion.
To close the discussion without closing it off, you might do one or more of the following:
- Conclude with a quotation from or reference to a primary or secondary source, one that amplifies your main point or puts it in a different perspective. A quotation from, say, the novel or poem you're writing about can add texture and specificity to your discussion; a critic or scholar can help confirm or complicate your final point. For example, you might conclude an essay on the idea of home in James Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, with information about Joyce's own complex feelings towards Dublin, his home. Or you might end with a biographer's statement about Joyce's attitude toward Dublin, which could illuminate his characters' responses to the city. Just be cautious, especially about using secondary material: make sure that you get the last word.
- Conclude by setting your discussion into a different, perhaps larger, context. For example, you might end an essay on nineteenth-century muckraking journalism by linking it to a current news magazine program like 60 Minutes.
- Conclude by redefining one of the key terms of your argument. For example, an essay on Marx's treatment of the conflict between wage labor and capital might begin with Marx's claim that the "capitalist economy is . . . a gigantic enterprise ofdehumanization"; the essay might end by suggesting that Marxist analysis is itself dehumanizing because it construes everything in economic -- rather than moral or ethical-- terms.
- Conclude by considering the implications of your argument (or analysis or discussion). What does your argument imply, or involve, or suggest? For example, an essay on the novel Ambiguous Adventure, by the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, might open with the idea that the protagonist's development suggests Kane's belief in the need to integrate Western materialism and Sufi spirituality in modern Senegal. The conclusion might make the new but related point that the novel on the whole suggests that such an integration is (or isn't) possible.
Finally, some advice on how not to end an essay:
- Don't simply summarize your essay. A brief summary of your argument may be useful, especially if your essay is long--more than ten pages or so. But shorter essays tend not to require a restatement of your main ideas.
- Avoid phrases like "in conclusion," "to conclude," "in summary," and "to sum up." These phrases can be useful--even welcome--in oral presentations. But readers can see, by the tell-tale compression of the pages, when an essay is about to end. You'll irritate your audience if you belabor the obvious.
- Resist the urge to apologize. If you've immersed yourself in your subject, you now know a good deal more about it than you can possibly include in a five- or ten- or 20-page essay. As a result, by the time you've finished writing, you may be having some doubts about what you've produced. (And if you haven't immersed yourself in your subject, you may be feeling even more doubtful about your essay as you approach the conclusion.) Repress those doubts. Don't undercut your authority by saying things like, "this is just one approach to the subject; there may be other, better approaches. . ."
Copyright 1998, Pat Bellanca, for the Writing Center at Harvard University