Forms And Uses Of Essay Questions

TIP Sheet
HOW TO TAKE ESSAY TESTS

There are basically two types of exams:

Objective - requires answers of a word or short phrase, or the selection of an answer from several available choices that are provided on the test.
Essay
- requires answers to be written out at some length. The student functions as the source of information.

An essay exam requires you to see the significance and meaning of what you know. It tests your knowledge and understanding of the subject and your skill in reading and writing. To be successful on an essay exam, you must:

  • Prove immediately that you know the material.
  • Make your meaning unmistakably clear.
  • Employ a reasonable organization and show sufficient thought development.
  • Make every word count.
  • Be specific.
  • Use your own voice and style.

When you are writing an essay as part of an exam, all this must be done within what amounts to a first draft written in a very limited amount of time. As with all writing, if you think of your essay as being produced in three stages, you can tackle the test in an organized fashion. The three stages are pre-writing, writing, and revision. Suggestions for each of these stages follow.

The last section addresses preparation for essay exams.

PRE-WRITING

Your first impulse in a writing exam is probably to read the question and start writing immediately, especially when you see those seconds ticking away on the clock. RESIST THAT IMPULSE! You can't successfully address the subject until you know precisely what you're required to do, you understand and have thought about the subject, and you are organized in how you approach the specific points you wish to make in your answer.

1.  Understanding what to do:

  • When you get your copy of the exam, read through to make sure you understand what is expected of you. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS EXACTLY!
  • Underline or circle key words that direct the approach your answer should take. Some of the most common key words are:

Agree/Disagree: State your position and support it with facts
Comment or Evaluate: State your position and support it with facts, discussing the issue and its merits.
Analyze: Break down into all the parts or divisions looking at the relationships between them.
Compare/Contrast: Show differences and similarities.
Describe/Discuss: Examine in detail.
Explain: Tell why something is as it is.
Illustrate: Give examples and relate them to the statement in question. Prove/Defend: Demonstrate why something is true.
Interpret: Explain the significance or meaning of something.
List/State: Make a list of points or facts.
Summarize: Hit the high points.

2.  Understanding the subject

  • When you are confident that you understand the instructions, direct your attention to the topic.
  • Collect your ideas.
  • Formulate a thesis. Make sure it is a strong, concise statement that specifically addresses the question.
  • Think of as many specific details and facts as you can that support the thesis.

3.  Getting organized

  • Jot your ideas down on paper, in very brief format.
  • Evaluate your ideas in light of the question. Ask yourself repeatedly: "Does this apply to the question I'm supposed to answer?" Select only those ideas most relevant to your purpose.
  • Number your ideas in order of appropriate sequence (first step to last step, most important to least important, etc.)

WRITING

1.  Remember your thesis. Now stick to it, referring back to it periodically throughout your essay. This gives your essay unity and coherence, and helps insure that you are not digressing.

2.  Write in an orderly fashion. If you suddenly think of a new point, jot it down in a margin or on scratch paper until you find an appropriate place for it. Don't just put it into the middle of what you were writing.

3. Avoid:

  • Repeating, in other words, what you have already said.
  • Digressing into material that does not answer the question.
  • Language that is too broad or general. Be specific.
  • Bluffing. This far too common practice of using elegant but empty language to conceal ignorance or lack of effort rarely works, and often irritates the reader(s).
  • Write as legibly as you can. If you want, write on every other line so you have room to add later. When you want to cross something off, simply draw a straight line through it. This is much better than scribbling out an entire passage.
  • If you run out of time, simply write "Ran out of time" at the close of the essay. This is much better than adding a hurriedly tacked on, and possibly incoherent, conclusion.

REVISION

Essay examinations are difficult because of the time pressures, yet you should always try to leave a few minutes at the end to proofread your essay.

1.  Ask yourself, before you hand in the essay:

  • Did I provide the information requested? That is, did I "explain" or "define" as the directions asked?
  • Is the answer simply, clearly, and logically organized?
  • Do I stick to my thesis statement? Is there unnecessary information in here?
  • Did I proofread to check content and/or mechanical errors?

2.  Proofreading:

  • Gives you a chance to catch and correct errors in content.
  • Gives you a chance to correct your mechanical errors.
  • Allows you to add material that may have occurred to you after writing the essay.

3.  You should proofread for:

  • Complete sentences (watch for fragments, comma-splices, and run-ons).
  • Words omitted, or one word used when you meant another.
  • Logical transitions between sentences and paragraphs.
  • Unnecessary repetition of words or ideas.
  • Spelling errors.

3.  Essay type tests depend a great deal on your basic writing skills - organization, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. If your answer is not clearly written, your instructor won't be able to find it! Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind as you take an essay test:

  • Read the directions carefully! Read every part of the directions!
  • Give yourself time to answer each question. Quickly look over the entire exam and budget your time per question accordingly.
  • Above all, stay calm. You are being asked to show competence, not perfection.
  • If you are not too sure about one question, leave it and go back.
  • When given a choice, answer the questions you know best.
  • State your points and support ideas clearly - don't make the instructor have to look for them.
  • Go back to check and proofread all of your answers.

PREPARING FOR ESSAY EXAMS

WRITING A SUCCESSFUL ESSAY EXAM BEGINS ON DAY ONE

1.  Study regularly as you go along.

  • Take careful lecture notes.
  • Read all material when assigned.
  • Become familiar with vocabulary.
  • Keep a study list of all main ideas.

2.  Final preparation

  • Review lecture notes and reading material.
  • Find a classmate or friend willing to talk over key ideas and implications.
  • Try to anticipate questions. This is very important!  Use your lecture notes to zero in on points that the instructor emphasized.
  • Think through the material and write up the best possible essay questions you can.
  • Then answer those questions.
  • Pinpoint key points that you would like to make when answering each question.
  • Put your answer into outline form or write it out completely.
  • For each potential test question, use mnemonics or other memory techniques to move the information to your long-term memory for the exam.
  • Create a list of the clue words for each point you wish to make.
  • Create a mnemonic device to memorize those points.

3.  Come to the exam confident that you have something specific to say on all possible topics.

KEY WORDS COMMONLY FOUND ON ESSAY EXAMS

Compare: Look for qualities or characteristics that resemble each other. Emphasize similarities among them, but in some cases also mention differences.

Contrast: Stress the dissimilarities, differences, or unlikenesses of things, qualities, events, or problems.

Criticize: Express your judgement about the merit or truth of the factors or views mentioned. Give the results of your analysis of these factors, discussing their limitations and good points.

Define: Give concise, clear, and authoritative meanings. Don't give details, but make sure to give the limits of the definitions. Show how the thing you are defining differs from things in other classes.

Describe: Recount, characterize, sketch, or relate in sequence or story form.

Diagram: Give a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic answer. Usually you should label a diagram. In some cases, add a brief explanation or description.

Discuss: Examine, analyze carefully, and give reasons pro and con. Be complete, and give details.

Enumerate: Write in list or outline form, giving points concisely one by one.

Evaluate: Carefully appraise the problem, citing both advantages and limitations. Emphasize the appraisal of authorities and, to lesser degree, your personal evaluation.

Explain: Clarify, interpret, and spell out the material you present. Give reasons for differences of opinion or of results, and try to analyze causes.

Illustrate: Use a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example to explain or clarify a problem.

Interpret: Translate, give examples of, solve, or comment on, a subject, usually giving your judgment about it.

Justify: Prove or give reasons for decisions or conclusions, taking pains to be convincing.

List: As in "enumerate," write an itemized series of concise statements.

Outline: Organize a description under main points and subordinate points, omitting minor details and stressing the arrangement or classification of things.

Prove: Establish that something is true by citing factual evidence or giving clear logical reasons.

Relate: Show how things are related to, or connected with, each other or how one causes another, or is like another.

Review: Examine a subject critically, analyzing and commenting on the important statements to be made about it.

Sketch: means "break down into its component parts."

State: Present the main points in brief, clear sequence, usually omitting details, illustrations, or examples.

Summarize: Give the main points or facts in condensed form, like the summary of a chapter, omitting details and illustrations.

Trace: In narrative form describe progress, development, or historical events from some point of origin.

Identify or characterize: means "distinguish this term, or this person from all others that are similar." Both are clear injunctions to be as specific as possible.

Illustrate or exemplify: means "giving examples," showing thereby, rather than by definition, that you understand the concept.

TRANSITIONAL WORDS AND PHRASES

To achieve unity and coherence, writers use transitional words and phrases. Transitional expressions clarify the relationships between clauses, sentences, and paragraphs, helping guide the readers along. The following is a partial list of transitional expressions.

To Add or Show Sequence: again, also, and, and then, besides, equally important, finally, first, further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, last, moreover, next, second, still, too

To Compare: also, in the same way, likewise, similarly

To Contrast: although, and yet, but, but at the same time, despite, even so, even though, for all that, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, notwithstanding, on the contrary, on the other hand, regardless, sill, though, whereas, yet

To Give Examples or Intensify: after all, an illustration of, even, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, it is true, of course, specifically, that is, to illustrate, truly

To Indicate Place: above, adjacent to, below, elsewhere, farther on, here, near, nearby, on the other side, opposite to, there, to the east, to the left

To Indicate Time: after a while, afterward, as long as, as soon as, at last, at length, at that time, before, earlier, formerly, immediately, in the meantime, in the past, lately, later, meanwhile, now, presently, shortly, simultaneously, since, so far, soon, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, until now, when

To Repeat Summarize or Conclude: all in all, altogether, as has been said, in brief, in conclusion in other words, in particular, in short, in simpler terms, in summary, on the whole,that is, therefore, to put it differently, to summarize

To Show Cause or Effect: accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this purpose, hence, otherwise, since, then, therefore, thereupon, this, to this end, with this object.

Writing and testing series

Directives for essays, reports, tests..

"Directives" ask you to answer, or present information, in a particular way.
Review these, and most of all note that there are different ways
of answering a question or writing a paper!

Compare:
Examine qualities, or characteristics, to discover resemblances. "Compare" is usually stated as "compare with": you are to emphasize similarities, although differences may be mentioned.

Contrast:
Stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.

Criticize:
Express your judgment or correctness or merit. Discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the plan or work in question.

Define:
Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings. Details are not required but limitations of the definition should be briefly cited. You must keep in mind the class to which a thing belongs and whatever differentiates the particular object from all others in the class.

Describe:
In a descriptive answer you should recount, characterize, sketch or relate in narrative form.

Diagram:
For a question which specifies a diagram you should present a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic representation in your answer. Generally you are expected to label the diagram and in some cases add a brief explanation or description.

Discuss:
The term discuss, which appears often in essay questions, directs you to examine, analyze carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. This type of question calls for a complete and entailed answer.

Enumerate:
The word enumerate specifies a list or outline form of reply. In such questions you should recount, one by one, in concise form, the points required.

Evaluate:
In an evaluation question you are expected to present a careful appraisal of the problem stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.

Explain:
In explanatory answers it is imperative that you clarify and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the "how or why," reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and, where possible, state causes. The aim is to make plain the conditions which give rise to whatever you are examining.

Illustrate:
A question which asks you to illustrate usually requires you to explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example.

Interpret:
An interpretation question is similar to one requiring explanation. You are expected to translate, exemplify, solve, or comment upon the subject and usually to give your judgment or reaction to the problem.

Justify:
When you are instructed to justify your answer you must prove or show grounds for decisions. In such an answer, evidence should be presented in convincing form.

List:
Listing is similar to enumeration. You are expected in such questions to present an itemized series or tabulation. Such answers should always be given in concise form.

Outline:
An outline answer is organized description. You should give main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement or classification.

Prove:
A question which requires proof is one which demands confirmation or verification. In such discussions you should establish something with certainty by evaluating and citing experimental evidence or by logical reasoning.

Relate:
In a question which asks you to show the relationship or to relate, your answer should emphasize connections and associations in descriptive form.

Review:
A review specifies a critical examination. You should analyze and comment briefly in organized sequence upon the major points of the problem.

State:
In questions which direct you to specify, give, state, or present, you are called upon to express the high points in brief, clear narrative form. Details, and usually illustrations or examples, may be omitted.

Summarize:
When you are asked to summarize or present a summarization, you should give in condensed form the main points or facts. All details, illustrations and elaboration are to be omitted.

Trace:
When a question asks you to trace a course of events, you are to give a description of progress, historical sequence, or development from the point of origin. Such narratives may call for probing or for deduction.


Vocabulary and spelling guides

Transitional words & phrases | More transitions | Transitional word game | 
Essay terms and directives | Modifiers & commas |
Spelling strategies | Spelling rules & exercises | Common misspelled words |
There - They're - Their | Too - Two - To | "Y" with suffixes |
Prefixes and root words | Suffixes and silent "e" |
Mapping vocabulary | Picturing vocabulary | American alphabet recited

Modified and adapted from: Communication Skills Development Center, Division of Student Affairs, University of South Carolina as found at http://www.history.ohio-state.edu/essayexm.htm January 2002

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *