If only professors always gave multiple choice tests. What a wonderful world that would be.
However, as every student knows, that’s not the case. The further you go in your academic career, the more times you will run into the dreaded essay test. Just reading the phrase “essay test” can cause anxiety and outright panic for some.
That’s especially true for those uncomfortable with writing. Like all forms of communication, writing is a skill that can be mastered through education and practice. Not everyone’s skills will rise to the level of F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Danielle Steel, but it’s possible to hone your writing craft well enough to knock essay tests out of the ballpark.
Here are some tips on how to get the job done and put essay test fear behind you.
Participate and Take Notes
The quickest way to find out what material a professor is focusing on is to participate and take notes on lectures. These notes will prove invaluable as you study for the essay test, giving you a direct look into what the professor focused on in the days and weeks heading into the test. This also means reading all the material assigned.
Find a quiet place. Commit to as many hours as you need to review the material for the essay test. Preparation is the key component to success on tests (and pretty much everything else you will face in life).
Know What Your Professor Wants
The key is to understand what a professor wants out of your essay test answers. In general, it is to demonstrate knowledge of the subject matter. That can be easier said than done. Make sure to read the questions thoroughly. Essay questions are notorious for being long and asking for multiple sets of information. Take time to understand the question thoroughly before starting to write. Understand every aspect of the issue that the professor wants covered.
Check out examples of essays. All of them should have a brief introduction, a body of information where all the best stuff goes, and then a conclusion. Search online for examples.
Writing off topic, going off on tangents or suddenly inserting your opinion are red flags to professors. That sort of writing shows you probably don’t know the answer and are attempting to write around it. Stick with the facts and related information.
An essay test is not the time for a James Joyce-style stream of consciousness diatribe. Once you understand the question, think through what it is you want to say and how you can organize it in a way that is understandable and easy to follow. Understandable and easy to follow means a better grade. Jumping from topic to topic does not.
Support Your Ideas
Anyone can write anything. “Fake news” has proven that in recent years. That’s not going to work on an essay. If you write that George Washington declined a third term because he wanted to provide an example of peaceful transfer of power, have the facts to back it up. Use statistics and reliable sources, not opinion.
Manage Your Time
Before starting to write, look over the entire test briefly. This will give you some idea of how to manage your time on each question. The last thing you want is to spend 50% of your allotted time on the first question. No matter how good that answer, it won’t outweigh the blank spaces on the other questions. Also, it’s wise not to spend too much time making elaborate outlines.
Don’t Data Dump
This plays into staying focused. Keep your answers focused on the actual question. If the question is about the reparations and territorial realignments hammered out by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, don’t dump every fact you know about Germany during World War I into your answer. Professors will also consider this a form of padding, no matter how impressed they are about how much you know about Germany during that time.
This essentially means get right to the topic. Don’t waste time on elaborate introductions. Get right into the facts that will answer the questions.
Practice even if you hate to write. Despite literally centuries of data showing that practice pays off, it continues to be underrated by far too many people. If you’ve never tried to write an essay, how can you expect to do a great job on the test? The test ends up being the practice, and that’s not a great strategy. You can even check out how educators prepare essay questions to help you practice.
Follow the tips above and stay focused on success. It’s never going to be easy – not even for those who enjoy writing. But it can be successfully done with the right attitude, discipline, commitment of time and practice.