How to Answer Essay Questions in Exams

If you are looking for tips and a comprehensive guide on answering and writing essay questions in exams and tests in college and university, this printable has some perfect tips to help you ace the essay-type exam and finals (including tips on sketching the outline and structuring your introduction and paragraphs)! Download it now on StudentsToolbox.com!

Many students are afraid of essay-type questions. They may worry about not being able to write anything, or they may think that they can’t answer the questions well. In the previous posts, I have covered a bit on how to write a good essay (which is helpful for essay writing in exams as well), but here I am going to dig a little bit deeper and talk about how you can answer essay questions well in exam.

I am going to talk about:

  • Why preparation is important for answering essay questions.
  • How you can analyze the question well and avoid answering in a wrong direction
  • A good way to draft your essay and sketch your outline
  • How to write a good introduction

If you are looking for tips and a comprehensive guide on answering and writing essay questions in exams and tests, this printable has some perfect tips to help you ace the essay-type exam and finals! Download it now on StudentsToolbox.com!

If you are looking for tips and a comprehensive guide on answering and writing essay questions in exams and tests in college and university, this printable has some perfect tips to help you ace the essay-type exam and finals (including tips on sketching the outline and structuring your introduction and paragraphs)! Download it now on StudentsToolbox.com!

Preparation before writing is the key.

Now when you first receive your paper, the thing that pops up in your mind might be “oh no. I won’t be able to finish within the time limit”. Then you immediately start writing whatever that is in your mind.

But after writing everything, you then realize how messy and incoherent everything looks.

So, you shouldn’t start writing until you have a plan in mind.

How should I read my essay questions?

The first step you will need to do is to read the question carefully. Very carefully. This determines how well you answer the question.

Remember, if you misread a tiny bit of the question, you may end up having your entire essay pointing to a wrong direction.

And that’s definitely not what you want to have.

Now in order to read the question carefully, I was once taught a method – color-code the question.

Before you all go confused about the idea of it, let me explain it here!

How should I color-code the essay question?

Let’s take a past paper question of me as an example.

Do you think autonomy is important in teaching? Discuss the key challenges for teachers in managing their teaching in today’s education reform.

It is clear that this question is composed of two important parts.

  1. Do you think autonomy is important in teaching?
  2. Discuss the key challenges for teachers in managing their teaching in today’s education reform.

1. Look at the question word/clue

First, you should find out the question word of the essay. What type of question is this? Highlight the question word in orange. There are different types of question words, like:

Recalling facts

  • Summarize
  • Outline
  • List
  • State: summarize the information in an organized and concise manner

Analysis and Explanation

  • Discuss (as in this case): Consider, evaluate, or find out a solution for the problem through arguments and elaborations.
  • Explain: Make a certain issue or object clear and understandable.

Applying concepts you have learned

  • Compare and contrast: observe two (or more) items, thoughts, or person, and analyze their similarities and differences.
  • Justify/prove/show

Opinion

State your opinion and prove it with examples and arguments or supporting points with reference to your learning materials.

  • What do you think
  • In your opinion
  • Do you think

Going back to the example I mentioned, for the first part, it is an opinion-type question with “do you think“. The second part is an analysis question with the word “discuss“.

2. The context of the question

Every question should revolve around a context. It may require you to answer a certain aspect of a particular background. In my example, the context would be following:

  1. Do you think autonomy is important in teaching?
  2. Discuss the key challenges for teachers in managing their teaching in today’s education reform.

I will highlight them in blue.

3. The problem that the question wants you to tackle (the focus of the question)

So now what exactly is the question trying to make you show? What exactly does it want you to answer? Again, going back to my example,

1. Do you think autonomy is important in teaching?

This first part wants me to show the importance of autonomy in the context of teaching. The words “importance of autonomy” here, is what I have to answer.

2. Discuss the key challenges for teachers in managing their teaching in today’s education reform.

The second part wants me to look at the key challenges for teachers in managing their teaching in the background I just highlighted. Again, this is what I have to answer.

This is the most important part of the question. Highlight them in red.

After going through the process…

Now, your essay question should be clearly color-coded like mine:

  1. Do you think autonomy is important in teaching?
  2. Discuss the key challenges for teachers in managing their teaching in today’s education reform.

With that, you can now clearly understand your question and be able to tackle it well. You will know exactly:

  • How you should answer the question (the orange part – the question word)
  • What you should answer (the red part)
  • What context your answer should be based on (the blue part)

With that, you won’t misread your question anymore, and you can stop worrying about not analyzing the question well!

Of course, as you are more used to reading questions like this, you won’t have to highlight the question like that every single time, You will gradually grasp the gist of analyzing a question.

ACTION POINT: color-code you essay question and separate them by their question word, key focus, and background/context of the question.

How Can I Quickly Draft My Essay Plan

Timing is the key in the exam. At the same time, in order to write a good essay with such a limited time, you will need a good plan to follow so that you won’t get lost in the middle of writing. That’s the reason why I highly recommend drafting a plan before starting to write.

How should you draft a plan?

First, you can brainstorm some ideas and just write them down in some empty spaces.

You may write down a list of things about the key focus of the question, and another list in the context of the question. Then, you can figure out how you can link the two together.

Alternatively, you can think about the two together at the same time.

Next, you can work on putting that idea in a good structure.

There is, of course, no an absolute perfect format to answering a question. Although I do have a structure that I commonly use in my essay, I don’t recommend everyone to use such structure in every type of question. They may work for some question types, like analyses and discussion or opinion type question. You can try using it if you find it applicable to your exam.

This is how I structure my paragraph.

  • Topic sentence (my argument)
  • Elaboration
  • Concepts and theories learned in the course
  • Examples supporting my arguments and elaboration
  • A short conclusion summarizing my paragraph

For an essay, I like to have a structure similar to the following:

  • Introduction
  • 3 points supporting my main argument
  • 1 counter-argument
  • 1 paragraph responding to the counter-argument
  • Conclusion

Again, this may or may not be helpful for you. But what I recommend is to have a structure in your mind when drafting your essay.

Then, sketch your outline by drawing a mind map with your structure and ideas

The mind map doesn’t have to be pretty at all. In fact, it shouldn’t be pretty. You just have to quickly draft it to make sure the structure and ideas are clear for you. The following is an example.

Having this mind map, you can now start writing the essay according to your plan. Just put the structure in the mind map into your essay, and link your keywords, ideas, examples together in the paragraphs.

ACTION POINT: Write down your ideas for the essay, and think about the structure of your answer. Then, quickly draft a mind map on the empty space of the question paper for your own reference.

You may ask how much time does all these preparation takes? It really depends on how you manage your time. Generally, I take no more than 10% of my time for answering that question. Let’s say I have a 3-hour exam that I have to answer 2 essay question, then I will use around 9-10 minutes for preparing a question.

Writing the Introduction

Another advantage of having a mind map is that it helps you write your introduction and conclusion. Since you won’t have a lot of time on your exam, it’s usually not required to have a perfect and fancy introduction and conclusion.

Instead, you can just go straight into

  • A brief background of the context (1-2 sentences)
  • If there is a keyword that requires you to define in the focus of the question, define it in your own words (1-2 sentences)
  • Your main argument
  • An outline of your arguments (the argument 1,2,3)

 –

Finally, some writing tips…

The marker of your paper usually won’t have the time to read carefully your entire essay. Because, as you can imagine, he/she is responsible for reading so many exam papers from the students. Here are some final tips on answering essay questions.

Make sure your argument stands out in your topic sentence of each paragraph. Let the person reading your paper know what you want to talk about in each of your paragraphs by summarizing it in the first sentence. This is also the reason why you need a mind map and a structure before you start. Otherwise, you are just going to write down whatever you can think of, and your content may be unclear because of the lack of topic sentence.

I know you may not have enough time, but try to write neatly. Messy handwriting makes the essay extremely difficult to read, no matter how well-written it is.

Writing headings may be helpful. If you feel the need to write down headings for each of your argument. Feel free to do so. A good structure in an exam essay is always beneficial.

For more tips on how you can manage your time in the exam, read Test-Taking Tips and Strategies to Succeed in Exams. If you would like to know more about writing essays, the post on How To Write a Good Essay in 7 Steps is perfect for you!

That’s it for now!

If you are looking for tips and a comprehensive guide on answering and writing essay questions in exams and tests in college and university, this printable has some perfect tips to help you ace the essay-type exam and finals (including tips on sketching the outline and structuring your introduction and paragraphs)! Download it now on StudentsToolbox.com!Here is a quick summary to conclude things we have covered in this post!

  • Color-coding your essay question can help you better understand it! Try separating the question word, the focus on the question and the context of it. This will help you better tackle the question.
  • Write down your ideas. Then, think about a structure that can connect them together. Next, draw a mind map to make clear of the structure.
  • Finally, you can start writing! The above steps will definitely make your writing process much smoother. For the introduction, go straight into a brief explanation of the background and the key concept of the question, then your central argument and your supporting reasons!

I hope you find this post and the free printable on how to answer essay questions helpful! if you are preparing for your finals, or you would like to have some great study tips sent straight to your mailbox, this course Free 7-Day Course: How to Study for Exams Effectively is for you! Sign up down below for all the awesome tips!

And don’t forget to grab your free summary/checklist printable in the ST Resource Library!

1 Comment

  • Aashna
    Really helpful! Hoping to use them for my GRE Prep!

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