Writing An Essay Under Exam Conditions
This article was written by Ed.
My name is Edward and I am a Geography Tutor who teaches up to Degree Level. One thing my students often struggle with is how to write an essay under exam conditions. This can often be a daunting process, but if done correctly using a tried and tested technique; nothing can stand in your way on your journey to exam success!
The aim of this article is to give students one potential strategy for how to tackle an exam essay. I have developed this strategy over many years of teaching and it is primarily aimed at those doing humanities subjects or social sciences.
So…. here we go!
3 minutes– Exam essays are time pressured! It’s the nature of the beast. So the best way to make effective use of that time is to spend approximately 2-3 minutes planning and thinking.
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Critically examine the question– This is where students slip up! Questions do not often say ‘tell me everything you know about A and B’, they ask specific questions about specific content. Mentally note this fact. Next step after this is to brainstorm relevant knowledge and put it into the plan. Depending on time allowances, some plans can be detailed, others simply 5 key words relating to individual paragraphs.
More about this ‘plan’ thing– Now we know what the question is asking us, and we’ve had that all important ‘think’. Let’s organise this mess of genius into a plan! Is the question asking for a chronological or thematic approach? Thematic is often what is required for A level, but chronological works just fine most of the time for GCSE. Look for command words such as discuss, evaluate, to what extent etc…. These determine whether you need to have a narrative style essay, or balance two sides of an argument coming to a judgement at the end. Group your ideas together and put them into topic paragraphs. Then order your paragraphs in a logical way which will aid the overall flow of your essay. The ultimate aim is for the essay to flow beautifully, allowing the examiner to see the evolution of your thoughts. Doing a good plan is an important way to achieve this.
What should this ‘plan thing’ look like?
Introduction- this will introduce your understanding of the question, how you plan to take it on, a bit about the content and perhaps what your line of argument is. Introductions are not easy and some students prefer to do them last. It is a matter of personal preference.
Between 4 and 6 paragraphs- Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence instructing the examiner what the paragraph is going to be about. The examiner should have a decent idea of what the paragraph is trying to achieve by two sentences in. Don’t hold back! Each paragraph should discuss ideas in a succinct, clear manner. Then the crucial bit…. Sign-post your paragraphs. By this, I mean allude to what the next paragraph is going to say before you move on. This adds fluidity to your essay and makes the examiner aware that you have considered structure heavily in your answer. (Note: If you look at most levelled mark schemes for all exam boards, the first thing they say relates to structure. Topic paragraphs and sign-posting serves to tick their box on that crucial mark scheme).
Conclusion- Summarise what you have said in your essay briefly, the main arguments and end with your main overarching argument.
How to catch Mr/Mrs Examiner’s eye– Think about this. Your essay will be one of possibly hundreds that Mr/Mrs Examiner has to mark. Think about what that pile of paperwork even looks like! Obviously, examiners are very conscientious people and take the time to read each essay they receive carefully, but it won’t hurt you to give them a cheeky ‘step up’ and make it a bit easier, and more interesting for them to mark. Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to give you more marks! But how can you do this effectively?
-Have a really good introduction. I call this a ‘boom-wow’ intro. It’s about having a catchy first sentence that shows you have a good understanding of the question and a solid main argument. This tells the examiner where you are going and what to look out for!
-Plan plan plan plan plan…..yeh, so plan! If each paragraph deals with factors, impacts, issues, and points you have raised in the introduction then it is clear that you are in control and not just writing to fill the time!
-Sign-posting- link paragraphs to one another and to the overall essay title throughout! This reassures the examiner that the essay is focused!
–Make the essay easy to read. This means watch out for those annoying spelling and grammar errors that can often disproportionately affect your overall mark. If you have bad handwriting (like me), write on alternate lines to make your letters clear and easy to read!
-Have a ‘boom-wow’ ending too! Keep it snappy, making sure you have summarised your key points and related it all back to the main essay question. It will remind the examiner that your essay was focused and controlled at all times.
Know your stuff– Writing an excellent exam answer requires the writer to know what to write. When you brainstorm, yes, it’s a storm. But when you write the essay you need clear arguments, to know the issues, and be able to back up your point with case-study evidence/ views from geographers, historians or authors. It is about appropriately selecting information from your wider body of knowledge and to do this effectively you need to know your stuff, worked hard in your studies, listened closely to your teacher’s (and tutors) advice and done some effective revision!
But look on the bright side– A good essay strategy helps you make the most of what you know. If you know only a bit about a topic, a good essay strategy and style can hide some of the gaps in your knowledge. If you know your stuff really well however, you should end up writing an absolutely amazing exam essay rather than just a good one!
So, what have I been talking about?
– Study that all important exam question.
– Answer the question.
– Catch the examiners eye.
– Know your stuff.
– A good style helps you make the most of what you know!
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1. Answer the Question.
This is the first and most important suggestion. Answering the wrong question is a common mistake made by students. Unfortunately, it can be a real disaster for the grade you get in an exam. Make sure you understand what the examiner wants; it is highly advisable to refer back to the question throughout the answer. This point may sound like stating the obvious; but, in my experience, answering the wrong question is the biggest cause of a disappointing exam result.
2. Good Introduction.
In an introduction to an essay you should offer a short, concise summary of the main points to be raised. If appropriate, you could clarify key concepts. Introductions go wrong when students go into too much detail, and then repeat their arguments in the main body of the text. Generally speaking, it is advisable to start off with short sentences, rather than complex sentences. This will help create a clarity of thought and purpose.
3. Essay Plan.
A plan can help to gather your thoughts, and make sure you do not forget to mention key arguments. It is an opportunity to brainstorm what you know about the topic. However, it is important not to get into too much detail – writing keywords and phrases are the best solution. I would suggest spending 5 -10 % of your allotted time on creating an introduction.
4. 3 Steps of an argument.
- The first step is the basic statement and argument; this part tests your knowledge.
- The second step is to explain your statement. Don’t forget you need to explain in relation to the question. Also, just because you think the explanation is obvious, doesn’t mean you can avoid putting it down.
- The third step is to look at the argument with critical distance. This is an opportunity to discuss why the basic premise may be wrong or limited. It is an opportunity to show you can think for yourself, rather than just memorise a list of points. This final step, called analysis or evaluation, is the most difficult part, but is required to get the highest mark.
I write this with Economics in mind, but, I’m sure it is relevant to others subjects as well.
In a conclusion you can weigh up the different arguments and decide which are the strongest and most relevant. A conclusion should try to add something new, and not just repeat previous points. For example, you can say why an argument is particularly strong and give justification.
6. How Much To Write?
I often get asked this question by students. So many students will write 1 side and then stop, almost in mid sentence, because they think this means they have finished. There is no right answer as to how much you should write. The important thing is to write as much as you can in the allotted time, but, only write what is relevant. Although it is true quality is more important than quantity, don’t try to do a minimalist style and write as little as possible. Generally speaking, if you write more you have a better chance of getting more points across.
7. Did you answer the Question?
Hopefully you didn’t leave it to the end of your answer to realise you answered the wrong question.
Tejvan Pettinger studied PPE at Oxford University and now works as an Economics teacher at a 6th form college in Oxford. He also marks A Level economics exam papers for Edexcel. Tejvan updates a blog on Economics at Economics Help. He writes about economic issues and also offers tips on writing essays, including: Tips for writing evaluative Essays. Photo: Radcliffe Camera Library, Oxford by: Tejvan