The Essay Type Examination

The Essay-type examination is one of the most practical of all composition assignments. By requiring a student to compose in one or more paragraphs an answer to a specific problem, it calls forth most of the skills which the composition course tries to develop. It tests the student's ability to read accurately and to write purposefully within a rigid time limit. It is thus as much a test of thinking and writing ability as of knowledge.

Failure to recognize this fact usually leads to unsatisfactory answers and poor grades. Instructors frequently complain that the worst student writing is done on essay-type examinations. Of course the pressure under which examinations are written is not conductive to stylistic finish. But the chief weaknesses of examination answers is not that they are ungrammatical or awkward but that they are not composed at all. The student does not first plan what he wants to say and then develop his intention into an adequate answer; too often he begins to write without any clear purpose and assumes that as long an answer which is irrelevant, inadequate, unclear, and even self-contradictory.

Recommended Procedure



Listed below are ten recommendations for taking an essay-type examination. There is one other that may be considered a prerequisite for these ten: that is, that a satisfactory answer must first of all be legible. Anything that seriously interferes with ease of reading -- careless or crowded handwriting, excessive scoring-out, failure to indicate which question is being answered, or penciled writing which is too faint to read -- is bound to affect an instructor's evaluation of the answer. College instructors do no grade on neatness. An occasional erasure or revision between the lines is not objectionable. But an instructor to see that your paper is reasonably easy to read.

  1. Come Prepared. The best preparation for an essay-type examination is conscientious attention to the daily assignments followed by a general review before the examination. This review should focus on the major emphases in the course. An essay-type examination is not suited to testing knowledge of a large number of details. Essentially it tests the student's ability to grasp main ideas, form generalizations of his own from the facts, and select and relate details to develop the generalization. It tests thinking, not simply memory. For this reason, a grasp of the major points is more useful than memorizing a host of isolated facts. Indeed, a student who attempts to prepare himself by cramming his mind with detailed information is likely to find himself in the state traditionally described as being unable to see the forest for the trees.

  2. Come Relaxed. The essay-type examination requires more sustained concentration than does an objective test. A three-hour essay examination is a strenuous intellectual exercise. All things being equal, a student who is fresh and relaxed will do better work than one who is tired and tense; yet the practice of going short on sleep the night before a final examination in order to allow the time for a final review is still a traditional means of preparation. Such a practice is sometimes worse than useless, especially for a student who has a reasonable grasp of the course content. The final preparation for an essay-type examination should be eight hours of sleep.

  3. Before beginning to answer any part of the examination, read it through, paying special attention to the directions. If it serves no other purpose, this act will at least encourage a more deliberate attitude toward the examination. In their eagerness to start writing, some students ignore important directions or confuse the number of questions they are to answer. It is a wise discipline to survey any task before beginning it, and this habit is especially useful when some questions are marked as counting more toward the total grade than others.

  4. If you are given a choice of questions, make your choice carefully but quickly, and then stick to it. Procrastination steals confidence as well as time. A student who shifts from one choice to another as soon as he strikes a snag is likely to have just as much trouble with his second choice. If any one of a choice of questions is definitely easier, that advantage should be obvious on first inspection.

  5. Determine how much time is available for each question. This advise is often more necessary for good students than for poor ones. The student who knows the subject well and is eager to demonstrate his knowledge sometimes cannot resist the temptation to let himself go on the first questions and to write four pages where only one was expected. Such a student should remember that examination questions are not opportunities to write all that can be said on the topic; they are invitations to write the best answer possible within the time limit. Usually each question receives a prescribed number of points so that no more can be given no matter how thorough or brilliant the answer. Therefore it is not possible to pile up on some questions extra credit to be used on others. If you feel that you want to say more on a question than time permits, leave a space at the end of your answer. Then, if you have time to spare after finishing all questions, you can make additional comment.

  6. Read each question carefully before starting to answer it. Unwillingness to head this advice is probably the greatest single cause to failure. We shall see later in this chapter examples of answers that failed because their authors began to write before they had learned what the question required. You should recognize that if you misinterpret the question your whole answer may be off the point. For that reason it is wise to ask before you begin to write: "What does this question requires me to do?" Notice, especially, whether the question asks you to explain, summarize, evaluate, or compare. These are often key words in an essay-type question and each of them requires a different approach to the answer. Failure to recognize the implications of such key words could cause you to misinterpret the questions.

  7. Think out your general answer before you begin to develop it. Since there is almost no opportunity for rewriting in an essay examination, your answer must be satisfactory as it is put on paper. If a student has the purpose or topic sentence of his answer clearly in mind, explanatory and illustrative details will suggest themselves as he writes. But a student who has not determined what he wants to say before he begins may fall into either of two errors; he may unconsciously veer away from the question or he may write a series of unrelated sentences which do not add up to a unified answer. On some questions, it may be advisable to jot down on the back of the blue book or the mimeographed examination sheet the information you want to work into your answer; on others, framing the topic sentence will be preparation enough.

  8. Remember that nothing so annoys a grader as a series of unsupported, unexplained generalizations. Next to irrelevance, vagueness is the chief sin of examination answers, and an answer which is too general is sure to be vague. So far as time permits, give the details which support your generalizations and, if possible, cite or suggest the textual sources for your observations. You will see this procedure repeatedly illustrated in the examination answer presented later.

  9. When you have finish your answer, read it over critically to see if you have done what you intended to do. Even though extensive revision is impracticable, this re-reading may suggest specific changes or a comment or illustration which you can insert between the lines or in the margin. It will also give you a chance to correct any obvious errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation.

  10. Above all, remember that an essay-type question requires an essay-type answer. If your instructor wanted an answer that could be given in a single sentence, he could have saved himself both time and effort by setting up the question as a completion-type or short-answer question.