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Test Preparation and Test-taking: Essay Tests

Adapted from a Handout by Jane L. McGrath


This handout covers the following information in regard to taking essay tests.

Photo of two students in a lecture hall taking a testUse these jump links to take you to the sections you want to access:

Cramming: A Note of Caution
Sample Essay Question Answer
Preparing for an Essay exam
Taking an Essay Exam
Reviewing the Essay Exam
Related Learning Links
Assessing Your Testing Skills

Before launching into how to prepare for and take essay tests, it is helpful to get an idea of your test-taking skills. Here are some web sites that help provide this insight. New windows will open so please disable any automatic pop-up killers.

Self-Monitoring Exam Check List Evaluate your exam preparation and performance (Muskingum College)


Cramming: A Note of Caution

Photo showing two female students seated on the floor of a classroom hallway. They are sitting amid many notes and papers and are cramming right before they go in to take a test.

Before taking a test, most of us feel nervous and worry about remembering all the information we studied predominates our thinking. So cramming may seem the best way to relieve ourselves of this stress. However, the opposite is true and it's important to know why. Below are some web sites with information about the dangers of last minute cramming.

Cramming (Study Guides and Strategies)

Emergency Test Preparation (Study Guides and Strategies)


Sample Essay Question Answer

This excellent example of an answer to an essay question, both good and bad, is an important place to start in preparation for essay tests.

Review it thoroughly in order to create an image of what you want to attain as you prepare for and write your response. It will also be a helpful comparison when reviewing your graded exam.

Sample History Essay Exam Response (University of Victoria)

Preparing for an Essay exam

Blocked basketball shot

Just as practice is important to the mastery of any skill, you will feel much more confident if you have prepared adequately for your exams. Follow these steps to successful test preparation.

Focus: Essay exams involve retrieving information from your memory, organizing it, and expressing it in your own words in writing.

Below are some guidelines as to how to prepare for an essay test.

  • Look for trends and themes in your readings: use text boldface headings, end-of-chapter summaries, patterns reflected on charts and diagrams, e.g., comparison/contrast, cause/effect.

  • Concentrate on information that brings together the assigned material. This information comes from your instructor’s online lectures and readings.

  • Organize and restate ideas in your own words rather than simply copying information.

  • Write sample questions and answers using your own words to clearly state the central theme, main points, and significant details.

  • Practice writing a clearly stated essay on the major topics. When appropriate, include your own position on an issue and support it with logical evidence.

  • Credit reference and information sources.

  • Use a study system to review complex or interrelated information.

    1. Select information to be learned.

    2. Outline or diagram it, grouping related points or ideas. Choose a key word/phrase as a memory device for each topic.Read it over several times.On a new piece of paper, write/diagram the first topic and try to fill in specifics from memory without referring to your original study guide.

    3. Repeat this process for each topic.

    Photo of a male student studying in a library

Web Sites for What You Need to Know When Preparing for Exams

Organizing for Test Taking How to get ready to take an essay test (Study Guides and Strategies)

Clue Words in Essay Questions Every essay question contains certain words called clue words that tell you exactly what to do. (University of North Dakota)

Essay Exams Terms and Directives "Directives" ask you to answer, or present information, in a particular way. (Study Guides and Strategies)

Common Exam Errors 6 errors to avoid (University of North Dakota)

How to Study: Essay Exams Many handouts are available to help you improve your essay test grades. (

Anticipating Test Content What's going to be on the test? (Study Guides and Strategies)

Review Tools for Tests Be prepared (Study Guides and Strategies)

Essay Test Preparation Preparation and taking essay tests, as well as key terms to know (California Polytechnic and State University at San Louis Obispo)

Test Preparation Just about everything you need to know about preparing for exams (Muskingum College)

Test-taking Strategies This comprehensive site presents a step-by-step plan for successful test-taking (Muskingum College)


Taking an Essay Exam

Basketball through basket


How do you make that score? Here are some test-taking tips that will help you succeed.


  • Read the question and identify the topic(s) you are to write about, the limiting words that restrict your answer, and key words that tell you what type of information to include in your answer.
  • Example: Compare the learning theories of Freud and Rogers as they relate to motives toward both self and others.
    Topics: learning theories of Freud and Rogers
    Limiting words: as they relate to motives toward both self and others

    Key word: compare

  • Note the key word(s) and do exactly what is asked. For example, don’t describe if the question asks you to evaluate. Frequent key words include the following:
  • describe, analyze, develop, trace = descriptive and analysis questions.

    explain, demonstrate, illustrate, justify = explanation and proof questions.

    compare, contrast, relate = analogy and comparison questions.

    criticize, evaluate, interpret, defend = personal judgment questions.

  • Organize your answer and write a brief outline before you begin to write. This will help you write a more clear and concise answer. Then write your answers in complete sentences and include only one major point in each paragraph. The rest of each paragraph should explain or support the major points.
  • Be direct. Do not ramble or list unconnected pieces of information.
  • Outline the major ideas for the remainder of the answer if you run out of time. You may be able to get additional points even though it is not in essay format.
  • Proofread each answer and do a spell check. When satisfied, copy and paste your response into the appropriate section of the test.

Photo of a male student seated in a classroom and taking a testWeb Sites for Information about What to Do During the Exam

Checklist for Essay Tests 12 points to remember (Middle Tennessee State University)

Instructions on a Test Can Trip You Up Make sure you read directions carefully as it only takes one work to send you in the wrong direction (Test Preparation and Online Education)

The Essay Exam Organization and neatness have merit (Study Guides and Strategies)

Answering Essay Questions (University of Victoria)


Reviewing the Essay Exam

When tests are returned to us with the resulting grades glowing in ink, it is easy to sigh and say, "Well, that's over." We file our exams away and move on to what is coming next.

When this happens, whether the results were joyous or gloom-filled, we lose one of the best opportunities to learn from our mistakes and improve our testing skills.

Below are some important handouts about how to learn from past tests and do better on future ones.

Photo showing two college girls, one of whom has received her test back and she is quite happy


Web Sites for Reviewing After the Exam


Analyzing Past Tests Determine your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker from your past tests. (Bucks County Community College)

A Dozen Reasons to Review a Returned Test (Middle Tennessee State University) Examining Returned Tests After reading the directions, click on [.pdf2] at the bottom to download a copy of the worksheet. (Louisiana State University)

Exam Debriefing Assess how well you prepared for and performed on a test (Muskingum College)

Related ASC Links


Test Preparation and Test-Taking: Objective Exams

Test Preparation and Test-Taking: Online Exams

Overcoming Test Anxiety


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Information adapted and used with permission by the author. © Jane L. McGrath

This site was created and is maintained by Barbara J. Speidel, SWC Academic Success Center Coordinator. @ Barbara J. Speidel

The ASC logo was created by Andrew C. Rempt. @ Andrew C. Rempt

Southwestern College