How to write a great exam essay

How to write an exam essay at university

Writing the perfect paper takes lots of preparation, hard work and creativity at the best of times. Add in the stress and panic of exam deadlines and it can easily become a recipe for disaster.

Here’s what to do:

Practice makes perfect: 

Don’t let nerves steal your exam thunder. Instead, try preparing as much as you possibly can before the big day. Know the material back to front, work out the key themes, check out past test papers and practice summarising arguments so you’ll be ready to spring into action.

Understand the question: 

Skimming through the topic and assuming you know what your examiner is asking can be disastrous. Instead, read the subject matter through at least twice to ensure you understand the content. The most common mistake people make in exam essays is answering the wrong question. Don’t be so anxious to get a quick start that you destroy your whole campaign before it’s even begun.

Write an outline: 

Think about how you’re going to answer the question, then, on a separate sheet of paper (or on the back of your test), write out as many quick key points as you can remember. As long as you keep it short, this will actually save you time by consolidating your thoughts.

A great introduction: 

Keep it short. This is your chance to outline the main arguments of your case, without getting dragged into too much detail. Leave that for the main crux (body) of your story.

The body: 

Waffle is your biggest enemy, so stick to the facts. Flesh out the points made in your introduction and provide counter arguments, or show limitations. The latter two prove your ability to think for yourself and not just regurgitate other people’s ideas.

How long is too long? 

While quality is more important than quantity, the length of the essay really depends on how long it takes you to work through all of your salient points without skimping.

Have you addressed the topic? 

It may seem stupid, but keep asking yourself this question at each and every step of the essay process. That way you’ll be sure to stay on track and you won’t be caught in that gut-punching moment of realisation where you’ve written the perfect paper on the wrong subject just moments before it’s due to be handed in.

The conclusion: 

Along with the introduction, this is one of the most important parts of your essay – so leave yourself enough time to get it right. Here you should weigh all the arguments, justifying how you came to your own final position. This is also your chance to put your stamp on the case and add a new interpretation to an often age-old discussion.

Don’t forget:

  • Practice makes perfect
  • Ensure you understand the topic
  • Write an outline
  • Be concise and back up your statements
  • Add something to the argument


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