Student prepping for an exam
April 4, 2022
4 mins read

How to tackle essay-based exams

Regardless of whether they exhilarate you or exhaust you, essay-based exams are the backbone of testing in some faculties.

I used to think that just flipping through my notes was enough to study for essay-based exams—I would just write about what I remembered from the class, right?

Not so much. This type of exam does give you some flexibility in what you choose to write about, but it also requires careful studying beforehand and adjustments to how you approach essay-writing during the exam—not to mention a healthy dose of stamina to get you through.

Essay-based exams are challenging, and, as an undergrad, I often came out of them feeling like somebody had rearranged my brain with an electric mixer. However, having to prepare for and write one usually helped me understand the big picture of the course better.

You don’t have to learn to love them, but figuring out how to approach these kinds of exams can make them more manageable.

Strategically prepare with case studies and theory

Studying for an essay-based exam isn’t quite like studying for a multiple choice test. While both have their challenges, writing essays when you have a limited amount of time requires you to do a lot of active preparation beforehand. 

1. Use the review sheets to study efficiently

Most courses I’ve taken with essay-based exams have also provided a review sheet with topics and information about the exam beforehand.

This means that you often don’t have to review the entire course in depth to do well. If the professor gives you a list of say, 15 topics, and you know that there’s going to be 5 essay questions on the test, and you only need to write 3 essays in total, you can do a bit of math to figure out how many topics you’ll need to study to be prepared. 

Each essay question will probably require knowledge of more than just one topic in the course, but strategically focusing your studying can make you better prepared for the questions you’ll actually answer on the exam. 

2. Focus on flexible case studies

In courses like political science and history, I liked to spend a good portion of my prep time reviewing case studies that can be adapted for a number of essay topics. Prepare at least 3 or 4 case studies for each essay, with some backup. 

You can use these in different combinations depending on the essay question—you won’t have time to go extremely in-depth in the essay, but make sure you know the main points and how the case study relates to the theory of the course.  

3. Find links between examples and theory

Don’t neglect studying the theory—what have your course readings been arguing? Do you agree or disagree with them? It’s okay to have opinions that differ from the readings, but make sure you can back your arguments up with evidence. 

Consider what the overall themes of the course have been—how do all the topics link together? How can you link case studies together with course themes and theory?

Additionally, check out these tips if you're preparing for an English exam specifically!

Maintain a good pace while writing the exam

Once your preparation is done and you’re writing the exam itself, make sure you keep track of the time. If you have 2 hours to write 3 short essays, don’t spend 90 minutes perfecting your first essay only to realize you have half an hour to write both the second and third. 

Give yourself a few minutes at the beginning to read through the questions and plan your essays. Space out the essays so you have some time at the end as well—this gives you a bit of breathing room if you end up spending longer on a section or want to do some minor edits at the end. 

Commit to your thesis 

Whenever I wrote essays for assignments, I inevitably ended up readjusting my entire paper after I got further in my research and figured out what I actually wanted to focus on. While that freedom is nice when the due date is a week or two away, you won’t have the flexibility to change your thesis after a bit of writing in an exam scenario.

If you get halfway through your essay and feel you should've picked a different argument, you likely won’t have time to go back and restart. Whatever you end up writing, commit to it and be confident in your arguments—you’ve studied hard, so sell what you know!

Adjust your writing

The TA or professor marking your exam isn’t expecting a hyper-polished, publishable result here—they want to see that you can craft a solid argument and that you have a perspective on the course material. 

Of course, syntax, grammar, and punctuation are still important, but keep your writing simple and to the point. Getting the information across is more important than showcasing your most eloquent writing. Focus on writing clear, straightforward sentences that reflect your understanding of the course, and save straining for colourful synonyms for your papers.

Lastly, don’t sweat the introduction and conclusion. All you need are a few sentences—the marks are in the discussion.

Writing essay-based exams takes practice, but with the right preparation you’ll find they’re a great way to cap off your understanding of the course!

Header photo credit: Paul Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing