How to Pass an Essay Test

Three Parts:Preparing for the TestPlanning to WriteWriting the Essay

Essay exams are used to determine whether or not you can sort through a lot of information, figure out what is important, and explain why it is important. Essay exams challenge you to recall main ideas from a class, put them into your own words, and to use the interpretive or analytical skills you’ve learned in the class. If you are accustomed to multiple-choice tests, preparing for this format presents a different kind of challenge.

Part 1
Preparing for the Test

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    Ask about the test well ahead of time. Talk to your instructor about the content of test, the format of the test, and how the test will be graded.[1]
    • Find out what material will be covered with this test. Will it pertain to a certain set of readings, cover everything from a specific unit, or draw upon what you’ve learned throughout the course?
    • Find out how much time you will have, how many questions there will be, and what you will need to bring to the test.
    • Find out how many points will be dedicated to mechanics, like grammar and spelling, as opposed to the content of your answers.
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    Review your notes. Read them all, making sure you understand all the material. Recall if there was anything that your teacher emphasized. Jot down any concepts you don't fully understand or vocabulary words you haven't yet memorized. Make sure you know all the vocabulary, as well as the trivial details (like names, dates, and events).[2]
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    Organize information by theme. Essay tests demand a thorough knowledge of concepts, not just simple facts. Don't just memorize aimlessly. Instead, categorize and arrange concepts from the class into thematic patterns.[3]
    • Look through your material and organize concepts into categories.
    • Look for important ideas and organize your notes into groups.
    • Brainstorm ways that these groups correspond to each other.
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    Review the mechanics of writing. Review any recent writing you've done for school, and see if you've made any common mistakes. Check your grammar, and review the spelling of any relevant words. Correct mechanics can earn you points, while poor grammar may hurt you.[4]
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    Prepare yourself physically. Making healthy choices on the night before the test and that morning can significantly improve your grade.
    • Get a good night's sleep.[5]
    • Eat a nutritious breakfast.[6]
    • Do something that helps you relax, such as playing a game or taking a bath.
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    Pack up your supplies. Having all the required and optional supplies will enable you to pass the exam. These may include items like pencils, blue books, a specific reading, or even a dictionary. Some instructors may allow you to bring your notes. You may also want to pack some water and a snack.

Part 2
Planning to Write

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    Budget your time. When you receive your prompt, note how long you have to write, and what time you will be required to stop.
    • Decide how much time you will spend planning your writing, writing the actual essay, and proofreading.
    • Consider using a 5-45-10 ratio (for an hour-long essay exam): 5 minutes to plan, 45 minutes to write, and 10 minutes to revise. You can adjust this ratio to fit your own time constraints. [7]
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    Read the prompt thoroughly and completely. Key words in the prompt will communicate exactly how you should go about answering each part. Circle these words and be sure you understand what each is asking. Here are some examples:
    • Define: Provide the subject’s meaning (or definition). Often you will be asked to provide one than perspective on the subject's meaning.
    • Explain why/how: describe the reasons why, or the steps leading up to how a particular thing occurred.
    • Compare or contrast: Show how two or more things are similar or dissimilar.
    • Prove: Give reasons or examples to demonstrate how or why something is the truth.
    • Analyze: Look closely at the components of something to figure out what it might mean, or why it is important.[8]
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    Craft the thesis of your essay. Your thesis is the center of your essay. It is the main idea that everything in your essay will work to support. Think about what the prompt is asking. Then craft a clear, declarative statement that provides your basic answer. This thesis statement will broadly explain the central point of your essay, which the rest of your essay will prove.[9]
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    Draw a quick concept map. Write your thesis in a bubble at the center of a sheet of paper. Write down what you think may be the main ideas of your essay in smaller bubbles. If an idea is very important, make that bubble larger. This concept map will help you visualize which ideas will make good strong points, and which others may be combined or omitted. [10]
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    Write an Outline. Using your concept map as a guide, select three main points that support your thesis. Under each main point, list specific evidence that supports it. Organize your main points into a logical order. Make sure all of your main points work to support your thesis. This outline is just for you so format is not really important.

Part 3
Writing the Essay

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    Write an introduction. Begin with a sentence or two that introduces the topic and its significance. Next, state your thesis. If time allows, provide a sentence that previews your main ideas.[11]
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    Write body paragraphs. Start each paragraph with a strong topic sentence, connecting the last paragraph to this one by use of a transition. Then, support your thesis with specific evidence, such as key vocabulary or facts. Finally, conclude the paragraph with a sentence connecting it back to the thesis.[12]
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    Write a conclusion. Review your body paragraphs. Restate your thesis using different wording or phrasing. Conclude the paper with an explanation as to why your topic was important. Endeavor to do more than simply summarize your paper.[13]
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    Proofread thoroughly. Proofreading your essay can make an immense difference in your grade. This step will enable you to clean up sloppy grammar, as well as to make sure that your essay reads clearly, and makes sense.[14]
    • Read your entire essay to check for clarity. Go back to the prompt and make sure that you have answered the question or questions.
    • Proofread for grammar and spelling. Be sure to check spelling of words you learned in class!
    • Check that every body paragraph has a topic sentence, specific evidence, and a connection to the thesis.
    • If time allows (and if the essay is handwritten), rewrite the essay to reflect any changes you made. Use your best penmanship.
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    Include your name! Double-check that your name appears on your essay. Often students are so preoccupied with the test itself that they forget this crucial element. You worked hard! Be sure to give yourself credit.


  • Look over previous essay tests from the same teacher in order to predict what kind of questions you will be asked.
  • Time spent on planning your writing can often be the most valuable. Jot brief notes (not complete sentences) to yourself about what you will address, and you will spend less time writing the paper.
  • Include any citations your teacher requires.
  • Keep it tidy! If you are composing this essay by hand, make sure you use legible handwriting.[15]
  • If you are writing the essay on a computer, be sure to regularly save your work!


  • Don't neglect any part of the prompt. Answer it wholly and completely, and refer back to it often during your writing. Watch out for two-part questions, and be certain to answer both parts.

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Categories: Tests and Exams | Writing