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Essay Advice Paper Check

Jerz > Writing > Academic

If you’re facing a timed essay very soon, this handout offers some very basic, very quick tips.

  1. Plan your time wisely.
  2. Answer the right question.
  3. Collect your thoughts.
  4. Leave time to revise.
  5. Revise your thesis statementbefore you turn in your paper, so it looks like the conclusion you stumbled across was the one you planned from the start. (This small step can often make a huge difference.)

1. Plan your time wisely.

If you are, at this moment, frantically cramming for tomorrow morning’s exam, that first tip may not sound all that useful. Procrastination is probably the biggest reason why bright students sometimes get poor grades. (Start early!)

You can also plan your time during the test itself. Your professor knows which paragraphs are harder to write, and will evaluate them accordingly. Does the question ask you to “evaluate”? If so, don’t fill your page with a summary. Likewise, if the question asks for “evidence,” don’t spend all your time giving your own personal opinions.

  • Start with the larger essay questions, so that you answer them before you burn out or run out of time.
  • If one essay question is worth 50% of the test score, spend 50% of your time on it.
  • If you finish early, you can always go back and add more detail.   (As long as your additions and changes are legible, your instructor will probably be happy to see signs of revision.)

2) Answer the right question.

Before you begin your answer, you should be sure what the question is asking. I often grade a university composition competency test, and sometimes have to fail well-written papers that fail to address the assigned topic.

If the question asks you to “explain” a topic, then a paragraph that presents your personal opinion won’t be of much help. If the question asks you to present a specific example, then a paragraph that summarizes what “some people say” about the topic won’t be very useful.

3) Collect your thoughts.

Resist the urge to start churning out words immediately. If you are going to get anywhere in an essay, you need to know where you are going.

To avoid time-consuming false starts, jot down an outline, or draw anidea map.  An idea map is like a family tree for your thesis.  Start with the “trunk” (a circle in the center of your paper).  Draw lines that connect that central idea to main branches (circles that represent subtopics), and keep fanning out in that manner.   If one particular branch is fruitful, cut it off and make it a separate entity.

If a branch doesn’t bear fruit, prune it off.   You should identify and avoid the deadwood in advance — before you find yourself out on a limb.  (Sorry… I’ll try to leaf the puns alone… I wood knot want you to be board.)

Get right to the point.  Don’t bury your best points under an avalanche of fluff.

The Great Depression was an important time in our nation’s history.  Unemployment, urban decay, and a sense of hopelessness filled almost every part of human life.  Yet, even in the midst of great misery, people needed to entertain themselves.  People tried many different ways to relieve their tensions, from religious revivals, to Jazz music, to membership in the Communist party.   But a whole lot of average people who were suffering in their daily lives often sought escapist entertainment in the form of movies.  One such movie was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. In Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism.

The author of the above passage not only wastes time composing six sentences before getting to her thesis (the very last sentence), she also clouds the issue by bringing up topics (religion, music, and Communism) that she has no intention of ever mentioning again. She could have spent that time on more depth, or on proofreading, or even on some other section of the test. If she had at the very least crossed out the unnecessary introduction, she would not have mislead the instructor.

In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, “The Little Tramp” symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism — leisure, self-reliance, and compassion.

The revised example is simply the [slightly edited] last sentence of the original wordy and vague paragraph.  This clear, direct thesis statement helps the student focus on the communication task at hand.
Too often, the only revision students do is crossing out their false starts, or explaining their way out of a corner by adding to the end of their essay.

4. Leave time to revise.

Note: simply tacking on additional paragraphs or inserting words is not revision (see: “Revision vs. Editing“).

Sometimes, in the middle of a difficult paragraph, students will glance back at the question, and get a new idea. They will then hastily back out of their current paragraph, and provide a rough transition like: “But an even more important aspect is…”.  They continue in this manner, like a builder who keeps breaking down walls to add new wings onto a house.

  • To avoid this problem before it starts, see the previous tip, or this nifty handout on “Blueprinting.”
  • To handle this problem when it occurs, don’t automatically add to the end of an essay — write in the margins, or draw a line to indicate where you want to insert a new paragraph.
  • Leave space to revise too — write on every other line and leave the backs of pages blank, so you will have room to make legible insertions if you need to.
  • Obviously, if you are writing your test on a computer, you should just insert and rearrange text as you would normally.

5) Revise your thesis statement

If inspiration strikes while you are in the middle of an essay, and your conclusion turns out to be nothing like you thought it would be, change your thesis statement to match your conclusion. (Assuming, of course, that your unexpected conclusion still addresses the assigned topic.)

When a writer realizes that an essay is veering off in a new direction, and handles it by tacking more paragraphs onto the end, the result can be extremely awkward.

  • Joe Student writes a thesis statement that examines the relationship between “independence” and public morals.
  • Midway through his essay, Joe hits upon a different idea that relates to “prosperity.”
  • To mask the transition, he writes a sentence that refers to “independence and prosperity”, as if the two concepts are interchangeable.
  • After writing a few more paragraphs on “prosperity”, Joe realizes he needs to unify the two ideas in his conclusion. He writes a new paragraph that examines the connections between independence and prosperity.
  • He then writes a conclusion that “proves” that independence and prosperity are inseparable.

Unfortunately, Joe started out by making a claim about independence and public morals. If Joe tacks yet another paragraph onto the end of the paper, he will further dilute his conclusion. If he ignores the problem, his essay will appear disorganized.  Such hasty additions will rapidly obscure the original structure.

Joe will have to wrap up his essay with something ghastly like “Therefore, this essay has discussed such important issues as A, B, C and D, all of which shed an important light on [rephrase essay question here].”

To avoid linear additions, you should ideally avoid going off on tangents.  But even a very short paper is a result of a process. If you stumble onto a good idea in the middle of your paper, go back and change your thesis statement to account for your new ideas. Then, revise the subpoints and transitions so that your whole essay points towards that conclusion. Your professor will be pleased to see that you were able to make the connection, and your whole essay will be much stronger.

Dennis G. Jerz
04 May 2000 — first posted
26 May 2000 — typos corrected; puns added
26 Jul 2000 — minor edits
04 Dec 2002 — revision


Related Links

Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
Tools for TAs and Instructors

Tips for Writing Essay Exams

Back to Helpful HandoutsoWriting Center Home Page

Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
  • Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
  • Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
  • Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
  • Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
  • A definition of the theories
  • A brief description of the issue
  • A comparison of the two theories' predictions
  • A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
  • Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
  • Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
  • Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
  • Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
  • Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
  • Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
  • Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
  • Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!

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