How to Write Good Essays in Exams (And Reduce Stress)

An essay is a piece of writing that presents a focused argument or explores a specific topic in a structured and coherent manner. Students often write essays in exams to assess 1) their understanding of a subject matter. 2) Their ability to analyse and interpret information, and 3) their skills in constructing coherent arguments. However, acing essays for exams requires careful planning, effective time management, and strong writing skills. With that, here is my list of top ten strategies (and additional tips) to help you write good essays in exams (and reduce stress).

How to Write Good Essays in Exams (And Avoid Stress)

Writing good essays during exams can be daunting for students, but less so with the right strategies. With ten years of experience setting exam questions and marking essays, here are my top ten strategies to help you write good essays in exams and reduce stress.

Top Ten Strategies for Writing Good Essays in Exams

1. Read Instructions Carefully

First, check you understand any restrictions or limitations mentioned in the instructions, such as word count, time limit, and how many questions to answer.

2. Decipher What’s Asked

Next, read through the exam paper once and then re-read each question. You might think a topic you’ve revised hasn’t come up when it is there, but the wording is unusual. Moreover, the question might be obtuse, and you do not understand it.

3. Pick Your Questions Wisely

Mark any questions you might answer, and then check that you fully understand them. Ask yourself, “Do I have relevant knowledge, ideas, and evidence for the essays you plan to write?”

4. Grasp the Gist

Before you start writing, take time to read and understand the question. Underline or highlight the key points and requirements. Additionally, look for any keywords or phrases that indicate what you need to do, such as “explain,” “compare,” “contrast,” “define,” or “justify.”

5. Decide Your Question Order

Some people like to start answering the question they know best to give them a good start. Others prefer to answer their best question second because, with one essay written, they can relax, expand on their best ideas and hopefully gain a higher grade. Therefore, choose a strategy that’s best for you.

6. Plan Your Essay

Remember, the stress of writing good essays for exams can make all your preparation disappear. So, take a few minutes to brainstorm and organise your thoughts. Identify the main topic and discussion areas. Choose a few points or arguments about which you can write. Then, make a mini-plan that puts your points/arguments in order before you start writing. Overall, a plan will serve as a roadmap for your writing and help you stay focused.

7. Manage Your Time

Good time management is necessary when writing good essays under timed conditions. Thus, ensure you allocate enough time for answering each essay and stick to the time limit. Achieve this by dividing your time according to the number of essays or sections left to write. Then, allocate time for each essay/section, including planning, writing, and proofreading. Sticking to this schedule will ensure enough time for all the necessary tasks.

8. Write With Impact

When writing time-constrained essays for exams, express your ideas clearly and concisely. So, avoid long, rambling sentences and focus on making your points clearly and concisely. Avoid using overly complex language or jargon that might confuse the reader. Additionally, use specific and descriptive language to convey your ideas effectively.

9. Proofread and Edit

Near the end of the exam, take a few minutes to review your work. Check for any grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. Ensure you present ideas clearly and logically. If time permits, read your work and identify any awkward phrasing or unclear sentences. Equally important, take a few minutes to edit your work. Check for spelling and grammar mistakes, and make sure your essay flows logically.

10. Stay Calm and Focused

Stay relaxed and focused during the exam by reading the instructions/questions carefully, managing your time wisely, and answering the questions to the best of your ability.

Write Good Essays in Exams: Structure Your Work

A well-structured essay will make it easier for the reader to follow your arguments and understand the ideas presented. Therefore, students should follow some basic guidelines to write good essays by ensuring they are concise and effectively convey their knowledge and understanding of the subject/topic.

Here are some tips to help you structure your essay:

  • Start with a Strong Introduction: To write good essays in exams, begin your essay with a compelling introduction that grabs the reader’s attention. Clearly state your thesis or main argument. Additionally, provide a brief overview of the points you will discuss. A strong introduction shows the reader how you understand the question and how you will answer it.
  • Develop Coherent Body Paragraphs: Each body paragraph should focus on a single main idea that supports your thesis. Start each section with a sentence that introduces the main point and provides evidence or an example to support it. Use clear and logical transitions between paragraphs to maintain a smooth flow of ideas. Importantly, develop your story!
  • Provide Evidence: Support your claims with relevant evidence such as examples, statistics, or references to authoritative sources. Make sure your evidence is accurate and supports your arguments effectively. This strategy is evident in a good essay, helping students achieve a higher grade.
  • Address Counterarguments: Acknowledge and address counterarguments or opposing viewpoints by considering different perspectives (with evidence). Evidencing counterarguments will make a good essay.
  • Conclude Effectively: Summarise your main points in the conclusion and restate your thesis. Avoid introducing new information, and end with a strong closing statement that leaves a lasting impression.

How to Write Good Essays in Exams if Your Mind Goes Blank

Most students fear this happening. If it does—put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back, and relax for a moment. If you’re in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far—what happens next? Lastly, if you can’t progress with your writing, then leave a gap! Your thoughts will probably return once you are less anxious.

What to Do if You Are Running Out of Time

Don’t panic! Look at the questions left to answer (or essay sections left to write) and divide your remaining time to cover all the outstanding parts. Write economically by making your point, support it with evidence, and then move on to the next one. However, if you can’t finish on time, briefly list the points you want to make—they could pick up a few marks.

Write Good Essays in Exams: Include Citations

Including in-text citations in essays demonstrates current knowledge, understanding, and evidence of reading. So, refer by name to the theorists and researchers, also giving the year of their major works—the best you can given the time you have!

Note. A reference list is not necessary for in-person exams because they are typically shorter in duration than open-book assessments. This requirement helps students focus on writing when time is at a premium.

Key Points – How to Write Good Essays in Exams

  1. Knowledge & Understanding: Provide insightful analysis, draw relevant connections, and make your points effectively. Strong knowledge and understanding of the subject is the foundation of a good essay.
  2. Analysis: Evaluate evidence, consider various perspectives, and offer original insights. Demonstrating critical thinking skills is essential for writing a good essay.
  3. Reading & Referencing: Good essays are well-informed and credible. Thus, show thorough reading and support your arguments with evidence by proper referencing.
  4. Essay structure: Guide readers through your essay by including an introduction that sets the stage for the discussion, body paragraphs that develop main points with supporting evidence, and a conclusion that summarises the main arguments and highlights their significance. Good essays are clear and well-organised, making it easier for readers to follow and understand.
  5. Use correct language: Use correct language to ensure your ideas are conveyed accurately and professionally. A good essay uses proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary.

Summary

In brief, writing a good essay under exam conditions can be daunting and stressful. However, you can write good essays in exams by analysing, interpreting, and synthesising the information you have learned, thus demonstrating your understanding of the subject matter.

Good luck with your exams!

Want to get the most out of your degree? Then check out my other pedagogy articles!

Did you find this study guide helpful? Spread the word. Thank you!

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