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Jennifer BrownThe Gift of Gab

Landing an 'A' on Your Essay Exams

by Jennifer Brown

It’s your first semester back in college and you’re nervous enough as it is. As midterm nears you discover that your upcoming Psychology exam is going to be based on a single essay question. You haven’t written anything more comprehensive than the grocery list in years, you have no idea what to expect, and it’s been way too long since Freshman Composition class.

What do you do? Go with your first instinct and drop the class immediately? Better not. Over the course of your new college career you’ll write enough essays to fill a book. In fact, many colleges require a passing grade on a writing proficiency test (aka: essay) before graduation. Learning to write a powerful essay is essential to your collegiate success.

If you’re like most adults, the basics of essay writing disappeared from your brain the minute you left high school and you’ve tucked away those skills. But with just a little sprucing up, your essays can be as good as –better than! – they ever were. Here are a few tips to tidying up your compositions.

Preparing for your upcoming test is key to your success. Don’t expect to walk into the classroom “cold” and be able to turn out a thoughtful essay on the spot. Even if you don’t know ahead of time the question you’ll be answering, you can stack the odds in your favor with a little homework.

  • Take notes. The first step to writing a great essay is taking detailed notes during class. If your professor says it, write it down. If she mentions a book that might pertain to the subject you’re studying, jot it down with the author’s name. You just might use it. Ask your professor if you can tape record her classes. Some don’t allow it, but if yours does, fire up the recorder! Review your notes after class, clearing up any confusing or incomplete notes you’ve made.

    Now that you have stellar notes, don’t just tuck them away in your textbook and forget about them. Review them within a couple hours after class. Then review them again at least once per week. Memorize as much as you can, making sure to etch critical points and handy statistics into your brain. Review your textbook while you’re at it. Do your reading, highlight important stuff, and commit that stuff to memory.

    If your essay exam is going to be open-book, organize your notes in such a way as to make vital information readily available. Use sticky notes, a table of contents, a highlighter, or an outline to help keep your notes in order. Mark pages in your textbook as well.

  • Know what you’re going to say. You may not know exactly what your professor is going to ask you to write about, but you should have a rough idea. What is the general theme of the material being presented? What types of questions will you be expected to answer? What material did the professor stress during class? Chances are those are the things most likely to be on the test.

    Pose your own essay questions, then write short mini-essays to practice. This will get you into “writing” mode and will help you organize your thoughts for the real thing.


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