Exam essays, part II

Class, Essays

Test time and other nightmares

Almost all writing has a beginning (introduction), middle (body), and an end (the conclusion). Even when writing under a deadline, you should try to create all three components. Ignore the temptation to just start writing and hope you will make all the correct split-second decisions about what to say and where to include it. I know, I know – you’ve done it this way in the past and it has turned out okay. Trust me, a little time spent planning will more than pay you back in reduced test frenzy.


Before you read the test’s essay question, scribble (not doodle!) on the inside cover of your blue book or on a scrap piece of paper. Write down everything you have crammed into your short-term memory but aren’t sure will still be there halfway into the test. Don’t try to guess whether you’ll need the information during the exam. Unless pieces go together, don’t worry about organizing it yet. Definitely skip making it pretty to look at. Get it down on paper—quickly!—and move on.

Now look at the test. Take the essay question word by word and resume scribbling. This time you are doing a brain dump of all the information from your text, lecture notes, discussion postings, and your own thoughts on the subject. Your scribbled words and phrases will help you when you are ready to write sentences.

Here’s an example of an essay question:  Argue a psychological underpinning to the youthful mantra of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.” Possible scribbling notes include:

  • the various psychological theories mentioned in the text applicable to youth culture in regards to sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll
  • published objections to one or more of the theories
  • sociological associations to rebellion, isolation, thrill-seeking, and so on (gangs, emo, etc.)
  • appropriate examples from the textbook or external sources (the local news, a biography, etc.)

Don’t mistake scribbling for a useless skill:  businessmen pay their marketing departments very well to do this (but they call it “fuzzy front end” thinking).


Your instructor is grading while reading, so a clear structure helps move the grading along quickly. The longer it takes your instructor to find your information and/or follow your thinking, the more likely you won’t be pleased with the resulting grade. Look over your scribbles and mark their destination:  the introduction provides necessary background and a hook to grab readers’ attention; the body informs and persuades; and the conclusion summarizes and adds a final, key piece of information.

Look over your scribbles. Does most of your information provide or support one major point? Grab that revelation for your conclusion. Can you see a logical organizational scheme? (Hint: look at the essay question again and mimic its structure. In this case: (1) psychology, (2) youth, (3a) sex, (3b) drugs, and (3c) rock-n-roll.) Draw some circles and join them with lines or use large, bold numbering to help you identify what to put where once you begin writing.


You have a finite time to write, and I’ve asked you to relinquish some of it for scribbling. With the time you have remaining, how can you write well enough to charm the teacher into dropping that red pen? Answer:  a reasonable thesis and a strong start to each paragraph.

A reasonable thesis (1) shows where the essay is going and (2) takes a stand. For example: While the mantra “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” sounds like rebellious risk taking, it also signals a form of peer cooperation and the transformational process to adulthood.

This thesis provides a road map through the essay, which begins with the “risks” view of “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” then moves on to two related topics, peer cooperation and transformation. It is possible that not everyone holds the view that the “sex, drugs, rock-n-roll” mantra signals anything beyond rebellious risk taking, so the thesis also meets the requirement of making an arguable claim.

Topic sentences also give direction to the reader, but only for the individual paragraph they begin and not the entire essay. [Note: Topic sentences do not have to be the first sentence in each paragraph. However, for the purposes of an essay exam, it is probably better to keep your points moving along at a brisk pace.]

Examples of topic sentences for the mantra essay could be

  • Although the mantra “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” may frighten parents, two-thirds of the equation are not necessarily risky behaviors. (Now, the rest of the paragraph should discuss types and levels of risk.)
  • Rebellion is as much about learning cooperation with peers as it is differentiating from adults. (And the rest of the paragraph should justify that statement.)
  • “Frank Sulloway claims that rebellious children are “growing in nontraditional ways.” (The rest of the paragraph should be why he says that and whatever you and your text have to say about his conclusions.)

Remember: teachers design exam questions to measure your understanding of the subject material. A convincing thesis and appropriate topic sentences will give the instructor clear reasons to believe you prepared well.

Circling back:  studying for the test

Attempt a trial run of your scribble sheet while you study. It reinforces learning for kinetic learners (who will move a pencil around as part of the studying) and for visual learners (who receive visual “proof” of their study progress). As for everyone else – it’s good practice for the upcoming test.  Good luck!