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How to Ace Essay Questions Using the Three Minute Rule

December 8th, 2008 · 15 comments

Blue Book Phobia

As we tumble toward final exams, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address one of the most dreaded denizens of the season: the blue book essay exam. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a liberal arts student than seeing that big blue book, full of empty, lined pages, just waiting to be filled with paragraphs pregnant with novel insight.

These exams are tough.But in this post I will teach you a devastatingly effective trick for squeezing out the most possible points once you sit down for the test itself. Of course, this advice assumes you’ve done smart preparation (see last week’s post on exam prep mistakes for some pointers on this topic). But assuming you know your stuff, this advice will teach you how to strut it.

It all comes down to the three simple minutes…

Essay Basics

There are two ways to lose points on essay questions. First, you don’t answer everything asked by the prompt. Second, while answering what’s asked, you leave out important relevant arguments covered in class. That’s it. If you can bypass these two pitfalls you’ll do well.

(A common myth is that the quality of your writing matters on these exams. This is rarely true.)

Fans of Straight-A know my advice for avoiding the first pitfall: outline! The technique is simple. Before you start writing your answer to an essay question, sketch out an outline of every argument you want to cover in your response. (I used to write my outlines on the back cover of the blue book.) This outline should be a bullet-point list, containing just a couple words on each line reminding you of the larger points you want to include.

Here’s another tip from the red book: after sketching the outline, go back, look at the question description, and make sure you’re addressing every point it asks. It’s common for students, in their rush to answer, to miss one or more pieces of the question, lurking somewhere deep in a subordinate clause.

Now it’s time to move on the marquee advice…

The Three Minute Rule

To address the second pitfall mentioned above – bypassing relevant arguments in your answer — there is only one thing to do: slow down.

The start of an exam gets the adrenaline pumping. The fear of running out of time motivates you to start writing as soon and as fast as possible. It’s exactly this fear that causes students to blow past those argumentative nuances that make the difference between a B and a A.

Here’s what you should do instead: after you finish sketching your outline for a question stop and think for three full minutes. Literally: look at your watch and time yourself for 180 seconds.

While this time passes, quietly ponder the following: What are you missing? What tricky point did you discuss with your professor earlier in the semester that would fit perfectly in this answer? What argument from another topic could be reapplied here to interesting and informative effect? What argument isn’t really a good fit?

…To Those Who Wait

These three minutes of reflection – and it has to be three minutes; any less and you won’t generate enough new thinking, any more and you might run out of time — can shake loose all manner of insights that you would have otherwise blown right past. I’ll admit, it’s hard to slow down when your mind is screaming for you to keep moving. But these strategic lacuna can make the difference between a blue book God and just another sweat-stained undergrad furiously scribbling like his life depended on it.

Essay exams test you on “the big picture”- relationships between major concepts and themes in the course. Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for and write these exams.

Exam preparation

Learn the material with the exam format in mind

  • Find out as much information as possible about the exam – e.g., whether there will be choice – and guide your studying accordingly.
  • Review the material frequently to maintain a good grasp of the content.
    • Think, and make notes or concept maps, about relationships between themes, ideas and patterns that recur through the course. See the guide Listening & Note-taking and Learning & Studying for information on concept mapping.
    • Practice your critical and analytical skills as you review.
      • Compare/contrast and think about what you agree and disagree with, and why.

Focus your studying by finding and anticipating questions

  • Find sample questions in the textbook or on previous exams, study guides, or online sources.
  • Anticipate questions by:
    • Looking  for patterns of questions in any tests you  have already written in the course;
    • Looking at the course outline for major themes;
    • Checking your notes for what the professor has emphasized in class;
    • Asking yourself what kind of questions you would ask if you were the professor;
    • Brainstorming questions with a study group.
  • Formulate outline or concept map answers to your sample questions.
    • Organize supporting evidence logically around a central argument.
    • Memorize your outlines or key points.
  • A couple of days before the exam, practice writing answers to questions under timed conditions.

If the Professor distributes questions in advance

  • Make sure you have thought through each question and have at least an outline answer for each.
  • Unless the professor has instructed you to work alone, divide the questions among a few people, with each responsible for a full answer to one or more questions. Review, think about, and supplement answers composed by other people.

Right before the exam

  • Free write about the course for about 5 minutes as a warm-up.

Exam writing

Read carefully

  • Look for instructions as to whether there is choice on the exam.
  • Circle key words in questions (e.g.: discuss, compare/contrast, analyze, evaluate, main evidence for, 2 examples) for information on the meaning of certain question words.
  • See information on learning and studying techniques on the SLC page for Exam Preparation.

Manage your time

  • At the beginning of the exam, divide the time you have by the number of marks on the test to figure out how much time you should spend for each mark and each question. Leave time for review.
  • If the exam is mixed format, do the multiple choice, true/ false or matching section first. These types of questions contain information that may help you answer the essay part.
  • If you can choose which questions to answer, choose quickly and don’t change your mind.
  • Start by answering the easiest question, progressing to the most difficult at the end.
  • Generally write in sentences and paragraphs but switch to point form if you are running out of time.

Things to include and/or exclude in your answers

  • Include general statements supported by specific details and examples.
  • Discuss relationships between facts and concepts, rather than just listing facts.
  • Include one item of information (concept, detail, or example) for every mark the essay is worth.
  • Limit personal feelings/ anecdotes/ speculation unless specifically asked for these.

Follow a writing process

  • Plan the essay first
    • Use the first 1/10 to 1/5 of time for a question to make an outline or concept map.
    • Organize the plan around a central thesis statement.
    • Order your subtopics as logically as possible, making for easier transitions in the essay.
    • To avoid going off topic, stick to the outline as you write.
    • Hand in the outline. Some professors or TAs may give marks for material written on it.
  • Write the essay quickly, using clear, concise sentences.
  • Maintain a clear essay structure to make it easier for the professor or TA to mark:
    • A 1-2 sentence introduction, including a clear thesis statement and a preview of the points.
      • Include key words from the question in your thesis statement.
    • Body paragraph each containing one main idea, with a topic sentence linking back to the thesis statement, and transition words (e.g.:  although, however) between paragraphs.
    • A short summary as a conclusion, if you have time.
    • If it is easier, leave a space for the introduction and write the body first.
  • Address issues of spelling, grammar, mechanics, and wording only after drafting the essay.
    • As you write, leave space for corrections/additional points by double-spacing.
  • Review the essay to make sure its content matches your thesis statement.  If not, change the thesis.

For For more information on exam preparation and writing strategies, see our “Exams” pages.

Some suggestions in this handout were adapted from “Fastfacts – Short-Answer and Essay Exams” on the University of Guelph Library web site; “Resources – Exam Strategies” on the St. Francis Xavier University Writing Centre web site; and “Writing Tips – In-Class Essay Exams” and “Writing Tips – Standardized Test Essay Exams” on the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site

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