Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
Tools for TAs and Instructors
Tips for Writing Essay Exams
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Handouts o Writing Center
Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice
Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in
the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam,
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the
last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or
contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you
have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the
instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of
each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the
historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity,
conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to
support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some
key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only
part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking
about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to
compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory
would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key
components of an answer to this question must include:
In the exam
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how
and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the
essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you
have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all
the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you
encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question
that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use
the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate
introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how
you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the
body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting
points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question.
Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science
ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers,
there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
Things to Avoid
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay.
Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all
parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or
find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for
the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you
avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you
write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of
time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an
appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept
at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the
obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long
as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply
write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating
the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer
should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to
show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your
instructor to figure this out!
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