How to Pass an Essay Test in History Class

Three Parts:Preparing for the ExamWriting Your EssaysAvoiding Common Mistakes

Essay exams can be more challenging than other types of tests because they require you to understand and explain the relationship between multiple pieces of information. Not only do you have to remember key actors, places, and dates, you also have to know the reasons they’re important and how they relate to one another. Ultimately, doing well on an essay exam requires preparing for the exam ahead of time and managing your time carefully during the exam.[1]

Part 1
Preparing for the Exam

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    Do your homework. The best way to score well on an essay exam is to do the coursework. Read everything assigned, attend lectures, and participating in discussion. Ask your teacher or professor about anything you’ve read or heard in class that you don’t understand or are curious about.[2]
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    Read the exam description. You know you’re facing an essay an exam, but what are the specifics? Often, educators will provide a list of possible essay questions, or may even let you know of the questions beforehand. If these are not provided, ask your teacher or professor for examples of the type of question that will be on the test.[3]
    • Acquire all the information you can about what type of essays you’ll have to write. At the least, make sure you know the rough length of the essays and the broader topic or topics they will likely cover.
    • For instance, preparing for a 300 word essay on Robert E. Lee’s role in a failed American rebellion is different than a 600 word essay on the reasons several southern U.S. states waged war upon their own country.
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    Practice writing probable essays. Based on what you know about the most likely types of questions and the content you’ve covered in class, practice writing essays that meet the essay requirements you’re aware of. In particular, if you know you’re going to have a certain amount of time to write a certain length essay, set a timer and try to write an essay of the appropriate length about some of the course material you think will be on the exam.[4]
    • If only a few specifics about the essays are provided, ask your teacher what type of essay you should prepare for.
    • For instance, ask “Should we prepare to provide a synopsis of a historical event, compare and contrast theories or argue on behalf of a certain perspective?”
    • Make sure you practice writing a brief synopsis of all the major events you’ve studied in your class, as well as summaries of major theories.
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    Commit key points to memory. You need to make sure you will be able to mention specific events, facts, and names of historical figures in your essays. Accordingly, study your material enough to ensure that a lot of this information is committed to your memory.[5]
    • Use acronyms, rhymes, or visual images to help remember key information.
    • For instance, pause to mentally picture key historical events while you’re reading about them. In your mind, watch JFK’s convertible approach a grassy knoll, with Jackie smiling beside him in the back seat. Hear a gunshot ring and watch a man who appears to be Lee Harvey Oswald being chased through the streets of Dallas. Committing these images to memory will help you remember the names as well.
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    Emphasize chronological order. Aside from what occurred and who did it, be sure to pay particular attention to when certain things happened, and in what order. Remembering the correct order of events of emergence of ideas will help the rest fall into place. [6]
    • Keep this is mind while studying. For each major event, write a brief description, two different theories about why it occurred (including specific events that might have prompted it), and two other major events that followed.

Part 2
Writing Your Essays

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    Make a timeline on the test. As soon as you are given the test, write down a list of all the dates and events that you remember from the material. This will get the important years and names down on the page, and allow you to focus on formulating your essay instead of trying to remember a bunch of specifics.[7]
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    Read every question. You may have multiple questions to choose from. Or, you may have to respond to multiple essays. To know what you have to do and how much time you’ll have for each task, read over all of the questions and instructions provided on your exam.[8]
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    Give yourself a schedule. Planning a schedule for how you will approach the exam can be extremely helpful. For instance, if you have to write two essays of equal length and point value and you have 90 minutes, decide to dedicate 45 minutes to each.[9]
    • Plan specific amounts of time for each essay that include planning, writing, and reviewing slots. For instance, If you have 45 minutes to write one essay, spend 10 minutes planning, 25 writing, and 10 minutes reviewing.
    • Start by writing the essay you know you will be able to finish more easily. This might give you extra time to work on essays you’ll need to think through more extensively.
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    Decide on a thesis. For each essay you write, no matter the length, you should have a clear thesis. Your thesis should essentially be a one sentence answer to the essay question. You should even borrow key words from the question to use in your thesis. [10]
    • You should also take a position with your thesis statement. For instance, consider the essay prompt: “Explain in detail how the behavior of an individual of your choosing contributed to the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.” Your thesis might be: “The Civil Rights Act was passed in part because of the behavior of Sheriff Jim Clark.”
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    Write an outline. Once you’ve decided on your thesis, write a quick list of the supporting points you’ll make in your essay. If the essay question has multiple parts, make sure each part is specifically answered. Your outline should include the clear point you’re hoping to convey, the evidence you’ll use to support this point, and the logical order in which you will present the evidence.[11]
    • If you have the space, plan to write double-spaced, as this will make any revisions easier.
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    Adapt your outline into an introduction. A strong introduction is extremely important, as it will help get your teacher or professor interested. Further, a good introduction will tell them what they are about to read, and clearly convey the logic of everything you include in the rest of the essay.[12]
    • Essentially, write your outline out in full sentences, culminating in your thesis. Write in short, clear sentences that briefly acknowledge each point your essay makes.
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    Include a topic sentence in each paragraph. Follow your introductory paragraph with a paragraph for each piece of supporting evidence. Include a topic sentence summarizing the point in each paragraph. Think of these sentences as the introductions to each paragraph. Topic sentences should always be clear and straightforward.[13]
    • For instance, a topic sentence for a paragraph arguing that Jim Clark's violent behavior brought increased attention to the illegal and abusive treatment of African Americans might read "Jim Clark brought more attention to the Civil Rights Movement by causing greater media coverage of several key Civil Rights Marches."
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    Close with a convincing conclusion. Your conclusion is significant because it offers the chance to neatly tie up all the points you've made and reiterate your essay's main arguments. Keep if concise, but make sure you reference your thesis again, and briefly mention the most convincing pieces of evidence you included in your essay.[14]

Part 3
Avoiding Common Mistakes

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    Review and edit your essay. When re-reading your essay, look for sentences that can be edited for greater clarity. Short, clear sentences are best. Make sure the writing is legible, and check again to make sure each part of a question has been answered. When comparing or contrasting perspectives, emphasize your understanding of the differences by stating each separately, and then stating how they compare, as well as how they differ.[15]
    • Re-reading also ensures that you catch unintended grammatical errors that could hurt your score.
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    Watch the clock. In order to keep on top of your time schedule, periodically check your clock. You should make sure you give the essays that are worth the most the most time. If you are struggling with a particular essay and beginning to cut into time you may need for another, adjust your approach. Write down quick notes as guided by your outline, to show you know the material, and to quickly come back to the essay if you have extra time after answering the remaining questions.[16]
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    Don’t write fluff. Avoid simply writing down everything you know that’s relevant to the essay prompt. Only include points that contribute to your thesis. In other words, include as much information as you can, but only do so if you’re also able to say why it is relevant to the argument you’re making.[17]
    • Similarly, don’t waste time repeating or elaborating on points you’ve already clearly made.

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Categories: Essays | History | Tests and Exams