Exam Prep: Essay Writing Tips for Long Answer Questions

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A new year has begun. With the holidays over, it’s time to return to the flow of work and school. You may have already listed all the upcoming assignments and exams to study for. Hopefully, you’re getting a head start on studying. For many students at the University of Toronto, courses that require extensive writing can be a source of stress. This is especially true during exams that will require you to structure all of your thoughts effectively under the pressure of limited minutes! Long answer questions that ask for a lengthy response can be intimidating, but there are ways to approach them effectively and squish those fears.

Here are a few writing tips that will help you organize your work and write a good essay (even under the extreme pressure of the clock ticking):

The most daunting task of long answer questions is not knowing how to begin an academic essay.

You may be fixated on perfecting your work within the first few sentences. While this is admirable, it may hold you back. This also factors in the stress of writing an essay. On an exam, you might not know what to expect (unless the professor gives major hints before the exam day). You usually have to start writing based on memorization. There is not much time to fixate on every superficial detail. Therefore, it is important to begin writing and let it flow.

How to practice this:

Pick any topic and start writing about it for fifteen minutes. Better yet, choose a relevant topic to the course you’re studying for and start writing about it as you would on an exam. It may also prompt you to research the topic in detail beforehand so you can absorb the information and test your knowledge. Do not focus on perfecting each sentence. Basically, this practice will help you clarify your thoughts and point out the inconsistencies. When you’re done writing the topic you selected, you can rearrange or change certain things. Maybe you forgot an important word or you were repetitive. As long as you jump over the hurdle of worrying and start writing, you help yourself understand your own thinking and discover what’s missing.

Get feedback from somebody other than yourself.

Please be mindful of who you select for providing feedback. Some people may not give you the full unvarnished truth. You should aim to receive feedback that is constructive and, at best, professional. This will assist you greatly in answering long answer questions. The University of Toronto has various options available such as writing instructors, workshops, and general advice (many of which are available at http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca). Everything from annotated bibliographies to writer’s block is discussed. Additionally, there is always someone available to assist in organizing your writing. Remember to cultivate a network of people you can trust to give you proper constructive feedback.

Review the first round of feedback.

More importantly, read your essay out loud. Reading out loud will assist you in identifying good rhythm in your writing. Ask yourself if your writing flows logically. Or whether it jumps from one point to another — missing important information (or citations). Some final exams do not require proper citation, however, remembering authors may help you memorize important points on-the-spot and incorporate them into long answer questions effectively. After re-writing your work, you might have to re-write it again. As you practice, you become better at quickly curating a focus and rhythm, which will help you write a good response for long answer questions.

Practice reading comprehension to become a better writer.

Good flow with comprehension and structure alleviates any stress as you write your essay. You have to want to become comfortable with translating your thoughts into words. Reading comprehension, alongside daily writing practice, will assist you in developing focus and continuity of thought. This is very important to keep in mind as you structure your essays.

Best of luck as you write those exams this year!

Published on January 17, 2020

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