Last modified on 24 May 2009, at 19:45

Writing Better University Essays/Exam essays

Exam EssaysEdit

Exam essays are essays like others. They differ mostly by the constraints of time and therefore space. For these reasons, it’s even more important to follow a clearly structured approach to writing. The time constraints mean that you need to remain very focused in order to make most of what is available to you.

Very important in the setting of the exam is that you delimit the scope of your answer. Often a question is to a certain extent tied with a particular module or even a single lecture. Whilst this helps you in terms of deciding what goes in your essay and what does not, you should always leave some clues to the markers. By being explicit about the content and theories used in the essay, you demonstrate that you have put thought into the question. As a result, the answer will be more focused.

Because of the time/space constraints it’s advisable to reduce many sections, but don’t leave them out. One or two sentences can delimit the scope of the answer. One or two sentences can outline the answer, giving the marker an idea where you’re going to take him or her. The time constraints also mean that you may be better of with choosing a few key arguments and develop them properly. Don’t, however, focus on one side of the argument only: the overall structure of your essay answer should be essentially the same as if you were writing a full length version. What is different is that you may only include one example, or only consider two schools of thought in detail.

It’s usually worth drawing up a quick timetable for the exam. Say there are three questions in three hours, you should spend one hour on each (assuming the same number of points to be gained). You may need 10 or even 15 minutes for a good essay plan, leaving you with about 45 minutes to write up the essay. Ideally, you should allow a few minutes to check what you have written, too.

An exam plan should be clear about the priorities should you run out of time. For example, spending 15 minutes on the introduction will waste time you better spend on the main argument—no matter how brilliant the introduction turns out to be. Make sure you know what your main argument is going to be before starting writing. It’s better to cut short a minor point than missing the key argument. Similarly, never use time allocated for another question to finish off the one you’re working on. You’ll almost certainly lose more points than you gain.

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