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Learning Skills

In-Class Essay

When you have only a short time to write an essay exam, the idea of spending precious minutes preparing to write may seem impractical. However, a few minutes of preparation may save you from wasting many minutes on exam panic, side tracks, or even a whole essay that doesn't answer the question.

Analyzing the Question

The first step in preparing to write is to analyze the question, that is, to break it down into its main parts. The typical question is not a question at all but actually a command - "do this". The question usually consists of three basic parts:

  1. The command word (discuss, analyze, evaluate, compare, etc.)
  2. The object of the command word, i.e., the word or phrase that indicates what you are supposed to discuss, analyze, etc.
  3. The limits of the discussion.

In other words, an exam question usually falls into the basic form "Do X to Y in relation to Z." For example: 

Describe Nixon's communication objectives in this speech and analyze the non-verbal and verbal strategies he employs to establish and enhance his ethos.

Professors usually construct their questions carefully in hopes of evoking what they will consider meaningful responses. By analyzing a question, you can discover guidelines and even clues that will point you towards an appropriate answer. 

Many students have found the following method of analyzing questions very helpful. You may practice it on the sample question above. 

  1. Identify and underline, circle, bracket, or otherwise indicate the three main elements of the question.
  2. What does the command word tell you to do? ( For example, to analyze you would show how parts (in this case, "strategies") work to create a larger unit ("ethos").
  3. Look carefully at:
    1. the objective of the command word and
    2. the limits of the discussion. 

      Do these parts include terms that were emphasized in the course? If so, how were these concepts presented? For example, how were "communication objectives" and "ethos" defined and analyzed in the course? How will you be expected to use these concepts in answering the question? 
  4. In other words, what general concepts, problems, and issues in the class does the question seem to relate to?

Some exam questions are actual questions, rather than commands. For example: 

What attitudes does Nixon want the American people to adopt concerning himself, Watergate, and the Whitehouse tapes, and how does he use language and logic in this speech to influence their opinion? 

You may find it helpful to rephrase such questions as commands. For example: 

Summarize the attitudes that Nixon wants the American people to adopt concerning himself, Watergate, and the Whitehouse tapes, and analyze the way he uses language and logic in this speech to influence their opinion. 

You can now analyze the question in the way suggested above.

Getting Ready To Write

Analyzing the exam question will start you thinking about what material you will have to cover, how you might organize it, what your thesis or main point might be, and what statements of general significance you might make in your introduction and conclusion. Allow yourself five to ten minutes (depending on the time allotted for the question) to prepare your answer.

  1. Use your analysis of the question to brainstorm. Jot down rough notes, perhaps in the form of a map of list.
  2. On the basis of your jottings, formulate a thesis -- a single statement that will answer the question. The purpose of your essay will be to support this thesis.
  3. Mentally organize your jottings in support of your thesis and make a brief outline sketching the following: 
    1. Introductory paragraph - include at least a statement of thesis and how you are going to support it.
    2. Body - this is the supporting evidence for your thesis meaningfully arranged. Some useful patterns of organization are: 
    • Categorical - topics, sometimes arranged in increasing or decreasing order of importance.
    • Sequential - stages of a process.
    • Chronological - facts presented as they occurred in time.
    • Logical - steps in an argument or links in a chain of cause and effect.

Conclusion - Here you can emphasize your main points and their significance.

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