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October 24, 2017 How to structure an exam essay

This article is part of a series called Study Skills by Compass.

Read the series >

Just follow these simple steps and you’ll be okay.

WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY?

Most exam essays are relatively short and simple, so you should be able to summarise everything you’re trying to say in a single sentence.

And if you can’t, then think again.

And again.

That thing you’re trying to say is your argument, but then I say argument, I don’t mean, “It’s your turn to put out the bin”. The purpose of an essay is that you present a statement, e.g.

‘World War One was caused by a tense alliance system throughout Europe and resentment over previous conflicts’.

Snappy, jah? And then you give detailed bits of evidence to show your reader why this statement is true.

MAKE A LIST OF EACH POINT SUPPORTING YOUR ARGUMENT

Make a list of brief bullet points, and each of those points will later become a paragraph. You might have ten or so points for the average exam essay. While you’re writing each of these paragraphs, make them as detailed as possible, and each should feed back into your argument, e.g.

“The Arms Race saw the military spending of the European powers increase by 50% in the lead up to 1914. It began as a competition between Britain and Germany, and created a sense of aggression and tension across all of Europe”.

WRITE THE CONCLUSION AND INTRODUCTION LAST

This bit is the most tricky and everybody stumbles through it, which is why you should leave it till last when you’re already familiar with the content of your essay. The conclusion and introduction are both summaries of your essay, and should only be about three or four sentences long, but they’re slightly different.

I tend to summarise my points generally in the introduction, and then mention them specifically in the conclusion. For example in the introduction I might say:

“resentment over previous conflicts”

But in the conclusion, I’ll say

“colonial disputes, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Bosnian Crisis”.

It makes it easier for people to picture because they already heard the detailed information in the body paragraphs.

 

DON’T TRY TO MEMORISE THE WHOLE DAMN THING

Some people write out their whole essay before the exam, which is a great idea, but then they try to memorise it word for word. Why would you put yourself through all that pain? All you need to do is memorise your short, sweet list of bullet points that you wrote earlier, and the detail will come back to you. It will! Have faith. The main reason people blank is because they’re so nervous about trying to extract the massively huge load of info they shoved in their brains the night before.

“The effects of stress on memory include interference with a person’s capacity to encode memory and the ability to retrieve information”. Wikipedia

Bam. This means that if you’re panic-cramming the night before you won’t remember it, and if you’re freaking out in the exam room you’ll lose access to all the stuff you do know. So don’t overload, just remember the skeleton of the essay and flesh it out when you’re in the exam room.
https://giphy.com/gifs/school-college-test-12vJgj7zMN3jPy

 

This article is part of a series called Study Skills by Compass.

Read the series >

Kate Cole
is a contributor for ASTAR