In addition to research papers, essay exams are among the more common college writing assignments. These exams not only call on most of your writing skills, they also test your ability to read carefully, understand the question, and write purposively within a limited time. Weak essay exam answers are caused not so much by ignorance of the subject matter but by a lack of planning and strategy.
Many students complain that they perform their worst on essay exams, and the pressure of this forced and timed writing doesn't encourage a polished and well-thought out product. The difficulty for the student lies not with grammatical awkwardness, but with lack of attention to the writing. Often, students believe they must sacrifice planning time to a "data dump" to demonstrate what they know.
Too often students begin writing without first thinking about what they want to say and then developing their intentions into an adequate answer. They write without clear purpose. The results are answers that are inadequate, unclear, often illogical, and irrelevant.
Successful essay exam responses depend on your ability to develop and use the critical thinking skills with the writing processes described in this guide. Now is a good time to review table 3.1. Notice the specific key words in your teacher's assignments to identify a thinking strategy that will then suggest a writing strategy. Understanding how these two ideas—(1) thinking about the topic and (2) the writing strategy—are related can help you understand the question and plan for purposive writing.
The following three sections offer some suggestions for improving your essay exam responses.