Writing essays in exams

The best way to do well in essay exams is to prepare and practice. This resource provides tips and strategies to help you revise, organise your thoughts and write clearly.

How should I prepare?

Find out what you will be expected to do in the exam.

  • How many essays will you have to write?
  • How many marks will each one be worth?
  • Will you have some choice or will you have to write on any and all topics covered by the subject?
  • Will you be able to refer to notes or materials (open book)?
  • Where will you sit the exam (at home or in an exam hall)?
  • How long will you have to complete the exam?

Review your notes

Systematically review your notes and course material. As with any revision, your aim is to identify key topics, concepts and major theories or approaches.

Essays often ask you to integrate concepts from different topics and weeks, so try to take a holistic view and make connections as you review.

Review old exam papers

You can use past exam papers to:

  • test yourself and monitor your progress.
  • increase your knowledge and understanding of certain topics.
  • help you to practise the types of questions you are going to encounter.
  • familiarise yourself with the format of the exam itself.

Analyse the kinds of questions asked. Note the ‘direction’ words used, such as, ‘compare and contrast’, ‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’, ‘illustrate’.

Draft responses for the question you would find easiest and then the question you would find most difficult. This will help you to identify where your knowledge is satisfactory, incomplete or inadequate.

Look at the marks allocated to a question. How many points might you need to make to earn that many marks? Is broad coverage or depth expected?

Example of question requiring breadth:

‘Discuss the ten factors that contribute to heart disease’ - 30 marks.

Example of question requiring depth:

‘Discuss in detail two of the causes of greenhouse gas production and how they might be eliminated’ - 30 marks.

Identify possible exam topics

Looking at both your notes from this year and the past exam papers, try to anticipate the topics you will be asked to write on and possible questions.

This is a great activity to do with peers in study groups – together you’ll come up with a broader range of questions and approaches. If you work with others, don’t write out full answers and memorise them (your examiners will notice identical responses), instead jot down key points or ideas in your own words.

It won’t matter if you don’t guess exactly the question that appears in the exam. This gives your mind practice at imagining how the material could be organised in different ways to answer different questions.

What should I do during the exam?

Read all the questions carefully

If you have a choice, identify the ones you might attempt. Re-read those and make a final selection.

Make some brief notes next to each of the questions you will attempt. Consider how you will respond to the question, the subject area/s you will be dealing with, and any main points or initial thoughts. This will give you something to start from, or build on, later in the exam when you are getting tired.

Calculate how much time you can spend on a question, relative to its mark value.

Start with the easiest task

If you have to write a few essays do the easiest one first.  If it’s just one essay, then begin with a section you’re comfortable with. This will help you to settle into the exam and develop your confidence.

Write a brief essay plan

Taing time to write a plan helps you to organise your thoughts and write efficiently. You don't have time for significant editing in an exam, so you want to get it right first time. Consider the following:

  • What’s your argument regarding the essay question?
  • How many paragraphs do you expect to write?
  • What will be the topic of each paragraph?
  • What supporting evidence or information will you provide for each major point you make?
  • What is the most logical order in which to make your points so they develop and support your argument?

Write clearly

If you need to write your essay by hand, practice writing for extended periods of time. Handwriting for more than a few minutes can become uncomfortable if you’re used to typing everything and this might mean you can’t write everything you want, or worse, your examiner can’t read your writing.

Remember that the examiner will have just a few minutes to read and mark your response; don’t make their job harder.

Try to use the wording of the question in your first sentence

This helps you to stay on task and answer the question directly.

Use transition or connecting words

This will help organise your ideas and to make it easier for the examiner to follow your arguments.

For example: Firstly, … Secondly, …; In contrast to…; In addition…; As a result…

For example:

Question: ‘Compare the main features of orthogonal and oblique cutting processes’.

Response: ‘The main features of orthogonal and oblique cutting processes [topic] differ in three main ways. First, [connecting] …’

Include an introduction and conclusion

While introductions and conclusions can be quite basic in exam essays, they are worth including for the guidance they can provide you as a writer and especially for the examiner. Make them as clear and succinct as possible.

Include clear signal language: ‘This essay will argue that …’; ‘In conclusion, …’; ‘To sum up…’

Leave time to check your work

Check the logical flow, clarity of ideas and, most importantly, re-read the question and check that you have answered all parts of it. If you haven’t answered the question directly, you won't get the marks!

Final tip

Thinking critically by connecting and evaluating ideas as you revise will help you to prepare for essay exams. While examiners do expect you to demonstrate your knowledge of the subject in your essay, they are more interested in your ability to produce a succinct response to the question in the form of a reasoned and well-organised argument.

Explore all resources

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an individual appointment, or get quick advice from one of our Academic Writing Tutors in our online drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice