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What is an Essay Exam?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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An essay exam is an examination in which respondents answer exam questions with essays. This type of exam is designed to test not only knowledge, but the ability to organize and present thoughts under pressure. Essay exams are also used to assess spelling ability. Historically, respondents wrote out answers by hand, classically in a “blue book,” but today, many essay exams are administered on the computer, with respondents using a very basic word processing program which will allow them to enter text, delete text, cut text, and paste text, but not to perform complex tasks like spellchecks.

In an essay exam, the test taker is given a prompt in the form of a question or statement, and asked to respond to it. There are usually no length requirements, although the test may stipulate that it is “short essay,” meaning that the test taker is not expected to go into too much depth with the answers. In some cases, a single question constitutes the entire exam, in which case the essay is expected to be detailed. In other instances, there are several essays, and the test may also include multiple choice, short answer, and other types of questions.

Some essay exams allow students to prepare first. For example, in a literature class, students may be given a list of essay prompts and told they may select one to answer during the exam, or students may be given a list of potential questions, with the instructor selecting one on the day of the test. The student may be allowed to bring in supporting materials such as an annotated text and limited notes. In these cases, the quality of the essay exam is expected to be higher, because the student has had some preparation time.

Some students dread essay exams, while others enjoy them. Some different test taking skills are definitely needed to do well on an essay exam. Time management is critical, as is the ability to organize thoughts on the fly. It is a good idea to ask for scrap paper which can be used to create a rough outline and to jot down notes before actually starting the essay; taking five minutes to read the prompt carefully, generate an initial response, and rough out an outline will improve the quality of the essay substantially.

Students who are unfamiliar with the format may want to practice before they have to perform in a test environment. Numerous sample essay exam questions on a variety of topics are available on the Internet; a student can select one to respond to, set a time limit, and write out an essay. This can also be a useful study aid, as it will help the student think about the topic in new ways.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By GiraffeEars — On Dec 14, 2010

@ FrameMaker- I find that most essay questions tend to focus on themes from a class or subject rather than individual definitions. They may ask you to describe how a system works, or explain a concept. I find that the easiest way to study for these questions is to look for these themes throughout the course and practice writing them out.

Once you have determined the important themes, creating a system diagram to illustrate how a concept works can be beneficial. It can help you create a visual understanding of who a complex idea works, giving you a step-by-step diagram on how to write out this thought.

By FrameMaker — On Dec 13, 2010

What are good ways to prepare for exam essay questions? I hate these types of questions, and I always do poorly. I always find that the essay questions that are going to be asked are impossible to prepare for. I study like crazy, but when I get to the final essay questions, I find myself stuck. I start confusing terms. If anyone has good advice on how to prepare for these types of exams, I would appreciate it.

By Fiorite — On Dec 12, 2010

'Tis the season for holidays and exams. I have an exam in a couple of days that is about half short-answer and half essay questions. From the essay exam rubric from previous tests in this class, I know that my professor is a tough grader. She not only looks at the substance of the essay, but also at the writing ability of the student. Students are marked on syntax, word use, spelling, grammar, tone, and voice. I hate these types of tests, but I have to say that knowing I will be facing these types of exams makes me study harder and learn more.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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