Tools for TAs and Instructors
Back to Helpful HandoutsoWriting Center Home PageBefore the Exam: Prepare and Practice
Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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I. What to Look For
The first step in the successful writing of a history essay examination is to make certain that you read the question carefully and understand what in essence is being asked. Many writers spend their time writing "around" a question because, by failing to grasp immediately the meaning of a question, they fail to perceive what the teacher wants discussed.
Some questions are easy comprehend -- for example: "Trace the course by which the Thirteen Colonies came to declare their independence from Great Britain": or "Write a history of the gradual slippage of the United States toward involvement in World War I."
Other questions, however, may intimidate a reader simply because of the language in which they are written. The result in such cases is usually an aimless rambling in an essay filled with words and memorized facts (sometimes lists of memorized facts), void of ideas and understanding.
Example: "Without the contributions of George Washington, the rebelling Colonials would
never have won the Revolutionary War. Discuss."
In this query you are not being asked to recite a memorized factual summary of the contributions
of George Washington to the revolutionary effort, nor are you being asked to spit back the
major battles of the War. Rather, and here is where the word meaning is applicable, you are
being asked for an evaluation of George's contributions-- a critical assessment made by yourself
and based upon the knowledge which you have acquired, not memorized, from the lectures and
readings -- with references as to why his contributions were important.
II. Types of Questions
Depending upon the teacher, you may be called upon to "discuss," "trace," "compare and contrast," "write an essay," "evaluate," etc., etc., etc. Do not be taken off guard by the wording or the verbs
used in the question; the verb within the questions is the teacher's method of channeling your answer
in a certain direction. Note the following example questions, all treating a single problem, yet each a little different because of the imperative verb:
a. "Discuss the role of sea power in gaining the eventual victory over the British in the
b. "Compare and contrast American and British sea power accomplishments during the
c. "Trace the development of American sea power showing how it proved decisive during the
d. "Write an essay on the effectiveness of American sea power during the Revolutionary War."
e. "Evaluate American sea power during the Revolutionary War."
A second type of query is that which utilizes the interrogative words such as "what," "why," "how,"
etc. This type is the easiest to comprehend because it is the type of question which is used most frequently in everyday life.
Example: "How are you this morning?", and "How did American sea power facilitate the victory
over the British in the Revolutionary War?", and "What are you doing this weekend?", and
"What accounts for the effectiveness of American sea power during the Revolutionary War?"
A third type of question, the "What if you were," or "Let's pretend" type, is less frequently used
Example: "If you were John Paul Jones writing during the Revolutionary War, how would you
phrase a note to the Continental Congress re-questing appropriations for further naval supplies?"
This kind of question calls for an under-standing of the historical period, an imaginative mind, and a
good deal of empathy
III. Method of Answering
To the historian (and that means you simply because you are enrolled in a history course) the most important part of his writing, be it an examination or a book, is the thesis. To the ordinary world (non historians) what the historian calls a thesis is nothing more than "the point he's trying to
make." But to us of the in-group a thesis is a thesis. For instance, in answering the question about
George Washington's contributions to the War effort, you may have contended that he was
not indispensable. To you, that was a statement of your opinion, interpretation, point of view, etc.
But to the historian that was your thesis! Consequently, from now on you will not write an opinion in
an examination; you will write a thesis in your examination.
Every examination essay should have a thesis, a consistent and logical arrangement which runs
throughout your entire essay. Some questions lend themselves more readily to theses. Nevertheless,
if your essay is going to say anything worth reading, there should be a thesis consistently developed within. Most of you are familiar with the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but if
you listen closely to the Symphony, and the First Movement in particular, you will notice that
Beethoven continually returns with those original four notes as if to remind his listeners of the
boldness of the introduction. You too, in writing an essay, must present a bold first four notes, in this case your thesis, and develop throughout the essay the proof of those four notes (thesis).
In presenting your answer to an examination question, there is a general format which, if mastered
early in your academic career, will prove useful not only in history, but in any non science course in which essay tests and term papers are assigned. This format is:
I) The introduction to your essay should be bold, direct, and assertive -- it should present in
general (or specific) terms the point that you intend to prove in your essay. This, to the
historian (and you), is the presentation of the thesis. (Remember Beethoven's first four notes!)
An example of such a presentation in answer to the George Washington query is:
"Throughout the Revolutionary War period George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief of
the Continental Army, waged a war against great odds in attempting to evict from North
America the legions of British troops intent upon quashing a pesky colonial uprising.
From 1776 until eventual victory in 1783, Washington played a decisive role in prosecuting
the war, a role which, in the long run, appears to have been indispensable."
"No man is ever indispensable, least of all George Washington in his role as Commander-
in-Chief of the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. Certainly Washington made
contributions to the Colonial effort, but in the long run, others in the Army could have
performed at least equally as well as the Father of his Country."
II) The Body of your essay is the place in which the facts which you have learned can be put to
use; however, you have already drawn from that reservoir to some extent simply by taking a
stand -- presenting a thesis -- in the Introduction. Here in the Body you must prove the validity
of your opening position -- your thesis.
III)The Conclusion of your essay examination can be a time to prove your thesis or a time for
simple reiteration of the points presented in the Introduction and proven in the Body.
Whatever it is, the Conclusion will baffle you only if you do not know what you have been
writing. In general, the Conclusion need be nothing more than a space in which you say
in so many words: "I said such-and-such in the beginning, I have proven this with the facts
of my assessment, therefore what I have contended is correct."
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University of California, Berkeley J. Frederick MacDonald
Edited for K-12