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Essay Test Panic: Strategies for Success

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 to put
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
better grade?

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 paper.

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.

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