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2.4 Taking the Exam

So, you've spent all that time studying for that exam. With any luck you have studied to the point where you feel most confident about your grasp of the material. You may not know everything but you still feel sure that you can field most any question the instructor might throw at you.

If you are about to take an objective exam, your only task is to parrot back everything your instructor told you was important (whether it is or not is a different story). The only thing I can say about this type of exam is that you either know the material or you don't. Hopefully, you fall into the former category. But what if your enlightened instructor gives you an essay exam. How do you proceed?

First of all, remain calm and confident. Your instructor has given you an essay question or questions in order to examine how well you can synthesize the information which has been presented in class. So, you need to look at the big picture as well as the smaller ones which are contained within it. You must write quickly but clearly. Spending twenty minutes thinking for a thirty minute essay will not do. Then again, jumping right in after reading the question once will not do either. There must be some kind of happy medium.

When you are given the exam, read every question carefully. Unless your instructor has given you anticipated times for each part, you will have to decide how long to spend on each question. Begin with the easiest questions first, ie., the ones you know the most about. Try to let your ideas flow from your brain to your pen. Trust your confidence. You know the answer. Now write your answer as if you were explaining it to someone who was educated but who did not know that much about the topic at hand.

You should avoid padding your answer with verbiage. Get to the point. Back up your position. In general, your best tactic is to answer the question! I know that sounds simplistic but as a college history instructor, that's the kind of answer I like to see. Here are some other tips worth considering:

  1. Don't write the first thing that comes to your mind. Read the question carefully. Take a few notes. Think.

  2. Think organization. How will your answer be organized? Here it is helpful to jot down a short outline, even if it's only something like 1, 2, 3. Even that will help.

  3. Your answer must be specific or general as the question suggests. Never wander away from the topic. If the question says, "compare," then that is what you must do. If it asks you to "describe," then describe. "Identify and discuss the significance of..." means just that.

  4. Please don't repeat yourself. Instructors tire of this "technique" quickly. It may add words to your essay but it takes away from the final grade.

  5. When necessary, refer to the facts. After all, it's the facts that will give evidence to your main points.

  6. Refer to concrete points of historical time. There's nothing quite so frustrating for an instructor than to read an essay in which five centuries of human endeavor have been jumbled together as if all history took place yesterday. If you know specific dates, use them.

  7. You should re-read your answers whenever possible. It's not that necessary to edit but do make sure that what you say is clearly stated. Your instructor will appreciate it too.

  8. You should make every effort to write legibly.

  9. No smiley faces, cute remarks, or plaintive gestures. Just answer the questions.

You've heard it before and I hate to say it again, but grades are not everything. Some people are better writers than others hence their essays may "read" better. A student may have excellent comprehension of the subject matter but draw a blank when it comes to expressing themselves on paper. Some people just don't "test" very well. They freeze. Others write page after page of nonsense and think they have mastery over their subject. What they really have is a penchant for writing too much. Try to balance your response with economy and comprehension. I much prefer a direct, well-argued response to some lengthy "essay" which never really goes anywhere.

Finally, regarding take-home exams, you should proceed in the following way. Take the question(s) home and sit on them for a day or two. Then read the questions very carefully. Refer to your notes, your books, and your power of memory. Treat the information like a film you have just seen. Now is the time to discuss that "film." Set aside two hours, perhaps three hours of uninterrupted time and write. Do nothing but write. Write as much as possible. You can always go back over your work and edit away. This is especially the case if you use a word processor. If you get stuck, my only advice comes from the ad people at Nike---JUST DO IT!

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Copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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