HISTORY ESSAY EXAMS
Remember that the general goal of most history exams is to show that you
have learned the specific facts of the course and that you have learned to
understand the big picture that connects those facts. In other words, you
are expected to show that you kn ow how to use the facts to create
arguments about historical relationships, causes, and connections. The
following are meant as guidelines for preparing for and taking history
PRE-EXAM: Go over your class notes/materials and rewrite/rearrange them
according to broad themes which have been presented in the course.
Sometimes the themes are made explicit by the professor or instructor,
sometimes they can be found in the syllabus , and other times you may have
to conceptualize them for yourself. Making study outlines from your notes
will help you be aware of how specific details fit into the larger themes
of the course. For example, your outline should help you recall specific
d etails about a person or event, as well as how that person or event fits
into a larger pattern of historical relationships. Making your own
timelines is also useful--they not only help to conceptualize
relationships between historical forces, but also pr ovide an accurate
chronology of events which can be viewed in a single glance.
You can also make up your own questions and write preliminary outlines
and/or essay responses to them. For a course on World War I, you might
collect all you have on the military technology of the war, or on the
diplomatic aspects of this period. Assign yourself the task of discussing
the development of military technology and its effects during the period,
keeping in mind not only its impact on military planning and operations,
but also on politics, society, etc. Even though this exact question(s)
may not appear on the exam, it will encourage you to recognize
relationships between developments and events. When studying and
rewriting your notes and class materials look for relationships:
influences, developments, causes, effects, similarities/differen ces,
contrasts, and recurring themes.
TAKING THE EXAM: Don't panic!--take a deep breath and plan your strategy.
First pay attention to the format of the exam itself; how many essay
questions, how many identifications (ID's) and how much each part of the
test is worth. Allot your time accordingly. If one big essay comprises
50% of the grade then figure on spending half your time on it. Read the
directions carefully--often history essay exams give you choices.
Highlight or underline the number of questions you are required to answer.
Decide which section you are going to attempt first (you may answer the
questio ns in any order you choose). It is usually advisable to start
with what you know best.
Once you have chosen your essay question, read it carefully and determine
what is being asked. Every question has a topic and a task: identify and
underline those parts of the question. If a question has multiple parts,
break it down into its various c omponents. Try to address these in the
same order in your answer as they appear in the question. Essay questions
typically ask you to perform one of several kinds of tasks:
1) EXPLAIN A CAUSE AND EFFECT. Cause and effect questions come in many
forms. When you are asked to "evaluate the significance of," "trace the
development of," or "describe the influence of" someone or something, you
are being asked to explain a cause a nd effect. The significance of
something refers either to its importance in a specific historical
context, as the product of a particular set of causes, or as the source of
a particular set of effects; the development of something is a process of
histori cal causation; and influence is measured by the effects that an
event or individual has on history.
2) COMPARE AND CONTRAST. Look for the similarities and differences
between two or more subjects. Remember to explain the larger significance
of these similarities and differences. 3) DISCUSS. This is usually a
variant of one of the above.
You may also find it helpful to quickly jot down an outline in your blue
book or on the exam before you begin to write your essay, since once you
start writing it is easy to lose track of the points you want to cover.
Open your response by providing a br ief answer (usually one to three
sentences) to the question/assignment, then list your relevant points in
paragraph form, ending with a brief conclusion. Remember that you must
support your answer with specific evidence, but do not let your answer
become a recital of facts. As with your history papers, an exam essay
contains both evidence (facts) and analysis. Your analysis should consist
of showing how the specific facts support your argument.
IDENTIFICATIONS: ID's should be in paragraph form, and usually have three
1) dating--acknowledge which time frame is particular to the subject. How
specific you need to be may be determined by the scope of the course. It
is always in your best interest to ask your professor or TA how specific
he or she expects you to be on dates. 2) provide details of
importance--who, what about, where, why important. 3) explain historical
significance--what is the relevance of this subject to the broad theme(s)
of the course?