How to Answer an Essay Question on an Exam: A Quick Guide

  1. Read the question. Read it carefully. Yes, Read it more than once.
  2. Think about the question. Does it have several parts? In that case you need to answer all of them. Does it ask for critical evaluation? If so you should express and support an opinion. Does it request specific information from particular readings? Then you must provide that information, with references. And does it ask you to compare and contrast? In that case you need to do both.
  3. Think about your answer. Make a list of all the points you need to cover (see 2). Ask yourself what your opinion is. Even if the question does not directly demand it, knowing what you think helps to clarify your writing. (Important note: when you have the questions in advance, you can do all of this in advance, and are expected to be fully prepared)
  4. Now start to write. The simplest method is to follow the format of the question in framing your response. Answer the first part first, the second part second and so on. Check yourself to make sure that you include everything on your list. When you have said all you can, conclude. The simplest conclusion is to summarize your response to the main question in a sentence. If you have time left over (you often won't) use it to look back over what you have written and make corrections.
  5. Important Do's: Use evidence and be specific. Argument involves more than opinion, and you should support all your statements. Write simple, clear, concise sentences, and pay attention to your grammar.
  6. Important Don'ts: Never try to write about readings you haven't read or understood. Avoid substituting what you think your professor wants for what you believe. Do not put sentences about very different things in the same paragraph.
  7. Only break the first 4 rules when you feel confident about writing and very comfortable with the material.