Essay Test Panic: Strategies
by Barbara Baird
You're seated in your desk. You've jumped through
all the hoops to register for classes, paid your fees
(or at least, taken out a student loan), and read all
the assignments. Now there is another hurdle: it's time
for the much-dreaded essay exam.
Panic sets in. The sweat runs, the heart beat accelerates,
and the breathing gets shallower and faster. The first
essay question reads, "Frederic the Great or Frederic
I: Who was the Greater?" You studied for this exam for
hours, and you can see in your mind's eye the notes
you wrote. But although the words are in your head,
you cannot transfer them to your paper. When you try
something down, you end up writing lots of stuff trying
to fill up space and you
use big adult-sized words to impress the professor.
The problem? You're
suffering from an essay test panic attack.
What can you do to prevent this attack? How can you
really show what you
know in the essay? How can you structure your answer
so that you can prove
that it answers the question, especially if you need
to defend it later for a
As a non-traditional college student who worked for
two years as a writing tutor at a university writing
center, I have some tried and true tips to pass along
to student writers who may be subject to these essay
test panic attacks. If you have read the assignments
and studied for the test, those attacks probably stem
from not remembering how, or learning how, to structure
an essay when the time comes for the pen to hit the
If you have taken a college freshman composition course,
you will notice right away that the tips I recommend
parallel the process of structuring a basic five-paragraph
composition. You will employ the Introduction, Body,
Conclusion method of writing to your essay exam answers.
Essay Writing Tips
Read the question at least twice. Do you understand what the professor wants you to answer? He is your only reader, so you need to figure out what he needs to see. A professor of mine advised, "Give the professor what he needs, but make him want to read your essay."
Think about what your angle (main point) is going
to be and strategize about how
you will support this point for the first few minutes.
On the side margin or on
the back of your writing paper, write down the thesis.
This is the main point of
the essay - the pivot point. Then, write down at least
three supporting points.
If you want, you can always write down other information
that you want to
include in your essay. Work fast though. After you've
done that, you're ready
to start writing.
If you cannot think of an introduction to your essay,
leave the first third of the page blank, and come
back to it. After all, you know what your main point
is anyway. If you know how to start, then go ahead.
Remember the basic rule in composition for the introduction,
begin with a general idea and narrow it as you move
toward the essay thesis. The thesis should, as in most
general five-paragraph compositions, be the last sentence
of the first paragraph.
Write for space in your essay, too. Try to
make your supporting paragraphs one-quarter to at least
one-third of the exam page.