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.