Essay questions often strike the greatest dread in the hearts of students. Some fear that they "don't write well enough to ace this kind of test." Others are afraid because "essay tests are so open-ended! I never feel sure I have the right answer or approach."
But students who have prepared properly have little to fear—so long as they tackle these questions systematically. Here is a basic plan:
Step 1. Know and identify the key "action" or "clue" words that characterize essay tests. When you see one of these words, underline it and start your mind working in the appropriate direction. The key words include the following:
• "Explain." The teacher wants you to answer the question by telling what a particular principle or process is, how it operates and how it works.
• "Describe." The teacher expects you to give a word picture of the appearance of an item or concept, its nature or some process identified in the question.
• "Discuss." You must describe the arguments for and against the issue or point described in the question.
• "Define." The teacher wants the exact meaning of the term or word. A one-line or one-word definition usually won't do.
• "Compare." Your instructor wants you to describe the stated ideas, people or events briefly and then show how they are alike and how they are different. When you're organizing your answer, it should be acceptable to divide it into these three parts: 1. the basic descriptions of the items; 2. the ways they are alike; 3. the ways they are different.
• "Enumerate." The teacher wants you to list every point as though you were counting them. Generally speaking, unless the instructions say otherwise, you should just list your points without giving details.
• "Prove." This word calls on you to give evidence, facts or figures to show that what you say in the essay is true.
• "Outline." The teacher wants you to list only the important ideas, and to group the less important, supportive ideas under them.
• "Evaluate." You're required to give the points for and against a stated position or situation. Then, you should state your own personal opinion or conclusion.
• "Summarize." The teacher wants you to write a brief statement of the main points, but you're not to go into detail.
Step 2. Preview each of the essay questions.
Assume, for example, that there are seven questions, and you're to answer four of them in an allotted time of two hours.
Using your fast previewing techniques, you should go over each question with an S or question-mark hand motion. Then, after you complete your preview of each question, draw a brief slash recall pattern and fill in the main relevant points you'll need to answer the question. The pattern might be drawn in the margin or on a separate sheet of paper. Do this for all the questions, even though you'll eventually only select four.
How long should it take to complete this process of previewing and drawing brief slash recalls on all the questions? I generally recommend that you devote about one-fourth to one-sixth of the total time for the test. So in our example, with a total test time of two hours, you should spend about twenty to thirty minutes on this preview. Why do a slash recall for all the questions? First, it's difficult if not impossible to evaluate your knowledge of a question without doing some serious thinking about it—and that usually necessitates putting something down on paper.
Assume that you just glance over the questions and make your selection too soon. You may find later that you actually had much more information on one of the questions that you initially discarded, simply because at first glance it seemed too tough. Second, a seemingly easy question may turn out not to be easy because you don't have any solid information to back up your opinions and conclusions.
So it's best, in effect, to take the whole test—albeit rather quickly! This will be time well spent because you'll be in a position to evaluate all the questions and select the ones that are really best for you.
Step 3. Using your recall patterns as a guide, select the four questions that you think you can answer best.
Step 4. Establish a time schedule for the rest of your test.
Let's carry the above example a little further. You have two hours to do your essay exam, and you've already spent about a half hour getting settled and doing your slash recall patterns on all seven of the questions. Also, you've selected the four questions you're actually going to answer.
What do you do with the remaining hour and a half? First, determine the total number of minutes remaining, a figure which you'll quickly calculate to be ninety minutes.
Now, set aside twenty minutes to postview your answers, or check them over for spelling, style and general sense at the end of the test period.
That leaves you with seventy minutes to write your essays. So divide that seventy minutes by four (the number of questions you have to answer), and you'll find that you have just under eighteen minutes for each question.
Step 5. Begin to write, using your recall pattern as a guide.
You may find that you'll have to add a few points to your recall patterns as you start to draft your answers, but only spend a second or two making a notation on the pattern as a reminder. Your main purpose now is to get that essay down on paper.
As you write, organize your answer as simply as possible.
It's usually best to divide the essay into three parts: a brief introduction; a body, containing all the major points and supporting facts; and a brief conclusion, which may consist of a summary of the major points and a final statement of your personal opinion.
It's very important at this stage to stay within the time limits you've set for yourself. Most students who fail to establish a time schedule spend more time on the first question or two than they do on the others. As a result, they run out of time at the end—and get lower grades.
It's all right to exceed by a minute or two the time limit you've set on a question. You may want to finish an important thought, and you do have some leeway because you've built in a twenty-minute time cushion at the end of the test. But don't encroach too much on your schedule. Otherwise, you may find you don't have any time at the end to revise, edit and postview your answers.
Think about it this way: If you write five minutes too long on each of your four questions, that will take up twenty minutes, or the entire time you had set aside for your post-viewing. Or if, as many students do, you really neglect your time discipline and run over by ten to twelve minutes on each of the first three essays, you won't have any time at all to write the final essay.
Some students, on hearing this advice about the time management of essay tests, object, "But why organize things so that you have less than eighteen minutes to write each of the four questions? After all, the test lasts for two hours— why not spend a half hour on each question?"
Again, think about the entire procedure we've just been through:
First, you've actually spent more than eighteen minutes on each question because you've devoted the first half hour to thinking about each of the questions and writing recall patterns. Also, by doing an in-depth evaluation of each of the questions, you've put yourself in the strongest position to pick the best four.
Imagine how deflating and frustrating it can be to write four essays and be completely out of time—but then to realize that you should have picked one of the other questions. Sometimes, students come to this depressing realization after they've left the exam hall, and they spend hours or even days in self-recrimination: "Why didn't I think in that exam? Why didn't I read all those questions carefully?"
The approach I'm suggesting will greatly reduce the possibility that you'll be plagued by such second thoughts.
During the final twenty minutes you've set aside, proofread each essay for correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. Incomplete sentences, omitted words and misspellings will detract from your grade.
Also, during this phase you may discover you've omitted a key point. But there's no reason to panic. You have plenty of time, so just go ahead and insert the missing item.
These suggested guidelines for taking tests aren't by any means intended to be the last word on this subject. There are a tremendous number of helpful resources on the market that explain how to take all sorts of exams, from those in the classroom to standardized tests like the SAT.
The main point I've tried to get across here is this: The very same tools and techniques that you've been learning for more effective reading and study can also be applied to taking tests.
After all, you have to read all your examinations, even those on technical or scientific topics. Also, you frequently have to draft outlines for your answers, as when facing essay questions, and recall patterns are made to order for this task.
Much of this book has focused on setting objectives, establishing basic strategies and employing practical techniques for study. If you can carry the same mind-set into a test situation, you should be pleasantly impressed with the final results.
J. Avoid cramming at all costs.
2. Manage pre-exam anxiety.
3. Operate at the test site as you have when studying.
4. Overview the test.
6. Select appropriate techniques for each of the different types of tests: true/false, multiple choice, matching, direct answer or completion, and essay.
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