How To Write Answers For Essay Questions

Extended-response or essay questions take care and thought, but they are nothing to fear. In fact, the more you show what you know about a topic, the more credit you are likely to receive on a test.

How To Do It

Good extended-response answers have three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
Beginning

The first paragraph introduces your main idea or position. It begins with a topic sentence. The topic sentence states plainly the point you intend to make in your answer. Often it simply restates the question.

Middle

The second paragraph provides information, examples, and details to support your main idea or position. This is where you show in detail what you know or think about the topic. If the answer calls for a great deal of information, you may need more than one paragraph.

Ending

The final paragraph sums up your main idea or position. It restates your topic sentence, this time with more feeling.

Now You Try

Work through these steps as you answer the question below. Write your answer on a separate piece of paper.

Step 1 Read the question carefully. Take a moment to think about it. What exactly is it asking? Are you being asked to argue a position or to show what you know about a subject? Be sure you know what you are being asked to do before you begin writing.

Question:
Many cities around the world are located near large rivers and lakes, or near an ocean. Why do you think this is so? Provide three or more important advantages that waterways offer cities, and explain why each advantage is important. Give examples.

Step 2 Decide on your main idea or position. You might simply want to restate the question. Write it down. This will be your topic sentence. Then add any extra information that will help explain your topic. That's your first paragraph.

Step 3 Now think. How can you fully explain your idea or position? What details and examples support your main idea? Choose the most convincing details and examples. Write them in separate sentences. Try to write the most important information first.

Step 4 Take a moment to review what you've written. Does it fully answer the question? Do you need to add any more information? Add what you need to and then move on. (Don't worry too much about grammar or spelling. Your answer will be graded on content rather than style. However, do be sure that your writing is neat!)

Step 5 You can breathe easily now: your final paragraph will be a snap! Write a sentence that summarizes your main point or position. The sentence should restate your topic sentence. This time, however, give it some zest. Then add any information that emphasizes what you've written. That's your final paragraph. You're done!

Review and Reflect

Peer review -- having another student comment on your written response or essay -- can be a good way to help you reflect on your work.

Trade your answer with another student. Read the other student's paper carefully. On the back, write your comments.

  • Did the student fully answer the question?
  • Is there a beginning, a middle, and an ending?
  • Could more information be added?
Now trade papers with another student. Comment on the new paper in the same way. When you're finished, return the paper to its writer and get your own back. Read the comments on the back. How could you improve your answer? Did other students have ideas or write answers that show you other ways you might respond to the question?

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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