Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | July 20, 2008

How to Study: Answering Essay Questions

Monday.  8am.  The beloved essay question—one of several you must answer within the next 50-minutes—greets you at the door.  What to do?


Fortunately, you come prepared.  You know exactly what you must do to that essay question to get the reaction you want from your teacher.  Your preparation started with developing a good strategy for answering essay questions.  Next, you actually learned the material your teacher taught.  Finally, you practiced writing essay answers, checking your essays for organization, clarity and succinctness.  All of this was done long before 8am, Monday. 


Okay, so you didn’t do that.  Plan B; 3pm on that same Monday you begin to correct some of those deficiencies by taking notes on what you learn from these ten websites: 


First stop is this Liberty High School website, where you learn  the four things a teacher expects in an answer to his or her essay question.  A teacher wants to see that you:

1.                understand the material of the course or work

2.                organize the material intelligently

3.                select the most important events for discussion, and

4.                demonstrate factual knowledge.


Great advice, but you want more help, so you head over to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.  Here, you get some ‘How to’ advice on writing the essay under exam conditions.  You also learn that keywords in the question—such as definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process, and thesis-support—are prompts for how to pattern the organization of your essay.


Next, you go to this University of Wisconsin—La Crosse website for some examples of: ‘Good Strategies to Always Employ’, ‘Mistakes to Always Avoid’, and how to ‘Interpret Keywords’.


From Wisconsin you head down to Texas and this Texas Woman’s University website.  It emphasizes the need to ‘Know your instructor’ so that you are better able to guess what questions he or she might ask and also make your essay match the instructor’s style.  There’s a great section in it titled ‘Other Tips for Taking the Exam’.  And, don’t forget to read the ‘Other hints’ section, especially the part about flippant answers and commenting on the quality of the exam.


Joseph Travis of Florida State University offers some great advice on writing effective answers to essay questions at his website .  He gives you four examples of essay questions in biology along with critiques of answers to those questions.


John Friedlander of Southwest Tennessee Community College provides an example of writing a good answer to an essay question from an English course.  He gives excellent detailed advice on all aspects of writing exam essays—including long-term preparation, short-term preparation, and performance (preview, plan, outline, write, and review)—here.  [Hint: his comments about long-term preparation are especially insightful.]


This Indiana University Southeast website, covers many of the points raised in the previous websites.  However, it also includes a helpful section of what to do after you have written the essay. 


Of course, you don’t want to end your study of essay writing strategy without knowing what the College Board (they put out the SAT and AP exams) thinks about essays:


If you really want to ace essay questions, then you should try to put yourself in your teacher’s place and ‘think like he or she does’.  Brigham Young University has a guide for teaching instructors how to create good essay questions (see especially page 22 in that guide).  You can access it here—


So, you have spent the last 1½ hours taking notes on ‘How to Answer Essay Questions’.  What’s next?  Answer an essay question, of course! 



Using your notes taken from the above websites, write an essay on How to Answer an Essay question.  (Remember that points mentioned in more than one website are especially important.)  Be sure to include the following in your essay:  a) preparation for writing an essay, b) how to go about writing an essay, and c) what to do after you have written an essay.  Keep this essay in a safe place.  You should read it each night before you take an essay test, and revise it periodically.

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