If I were to ask you what your least favorite type of test question is, I’m pretty sure I could guess it before you gave me your answer, because it is clearly the essay question.
Other types of questions are easy, right? Multiple choice? More like multiple guess. True false? Fifty-fifty, I’ll take it. But with an essay there’s no guessing.
Everything that’s gonna be on that piece of paper has to come out of your head. And that can be intimidating. But if you look at it from a different perspective, it’s also an opportunity. Essay questions put you 100% in control.
Rather than having to pick from questions that were written for you, you have the opportunity to demonstrate exactly how well you understand the question and the material that it was based on. And assuming you’re actually did study and you do understand the material, the five rules we’re gonna go over in today’s article by ilm space will show you how you can most effectively communicate that understanding in your next essay question.
When you’re faced with an essay question on a test, you’re almost always working under a pretty stressful time limit. And it can often feel like the best way to tackle that is to start writing immediately. But before you do, remember, a good essay is when it communicates your thoughts in an organized way, and if it’s not organized, it’s not gonna be effective and it’s not gonna get you a good grade.
Without a good plan to guide you, it can be really easy to misinterpret, or even outright miss, important points the prompt wants you to cover. So before you start writing your essay, use a piece of scratch paper to plan it out in advance.
First, read the prompt carefully and make sure you understand exactly what it’s asking for. And if it’s a long prompt, it might actually be useful to highlight the important points in that prompt, or to create a checklist so you know that you’re gonna cover everything within it. Next, you want to create a rough outline of your essay. And I recommend going through a two-stage outlining process. In the first stage, you just want to create a bullet list of everything that comes to mind related to the prompt. This is essentially a brainstorming phase, so at this point don’t worry about the order of the points that you’re writing out, because it’s all about just getting things out of your head and onto the paper and ensuring that they cover what’s being asked for in the prompt.
Once you’ve got that done, then it’s time to move onto stage two. At this point you’re creating a more organized, ordered list of points that represents the flow of your essay. When you have that in hand, you’ll find that writing the actual essay itself is much easier. Alright, let’s talk about essay formats. There are plenty of creative ways to structure your writing, as I’m sure you’ll probably know if you’ve ever seen Memento or read House of Leaves. But when you’re dealing with an essay on a test, it’s often best to stick with a simple, time-tested format, both to compensate for your own limited time, and as a courtesy to your teacher.
As the author Walter Pauk once wrote, “Instructors don’t have time to treat each essay “as a puzzle in need of a solution.
“Take the guesswork out of your essay.”
A good default format that does this is the five-paragraph-essay, which consists of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, though you can use more if you need to, and finally a conclusion. Within this structure, there are several different methods that you can use to organize your points.
The most popular is probably the decreasing-importance pattern, in which your first body paragraph contains your strongest argument, and the last one covers the weakest or least consequential. However, this pattern isn’t always the right one to use.
For example, if you’ve been asked to summarize an event, then it’s probably best to go in chronological order. And, likewise, if you’ve been asked to write the word “potatoes” 600 times, then you should probably do that. In short, use the prompt as a guide for choosing the pattern that you’re going to use. Going back to that idea of taking the guesswork out of the essay, let’s talk about the introduction. In most contexts, an essay has to earn its audience. That’s why it’s usually a good idea to start with a hook, something designed to grab the reader’s attention and draw them in. You might use a quote, or an interesting statistic, or sometimes even a story. But when you’re answering an essay question on a test, you’ve got a guaranteed audience, namely your teacher. And when you’re writing for an audience that you know, you can write with their needs in mind.
So, the question is, what are your teacher’s needs? Well, number one, your teacher is looking to get through your essay as quickly as possible because he’s got dozens of others to grade, and number two, he’s looking for a solid understanding of all the points that were asked for in the prompt. And here’s the thing. A clever introduction doesn’t really serve either of those two purposes, and also wastes your precious time during the test.
So, unless you think it’s absolutely necessary, I say just jump right into the thesis statement instead. When you write that thesis statement, there is one big thing that you need to make sure you avoid and that is blatantly restating the prompt. What do I mean by that? Well, say you’re faced with a prompt like this: “Explain the tactics used by Genghis Khan “against the Khwarezmian Shah’s armies “that allowed for his victory in 1221.” With a prompt like this, your teacher is almost guaranteed to get a ton of essays from your classmates that all start virtually the same way: “The tactics used by Genghis Khan “against the Khwarezmian Shah “included utilizing superior speed,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You get the point. This is boring, lazy writing.
It literally grabs a phrase from the prompt and restates it verbatim. And you’re better than that. So let’s consider an improved way to do it. (clears throat) “Genghis Khan’s swift conquest “of the Khwarezmid Empire in 1221 “hinged on the use of several innovative tactics, “chief among them being the constant utilization “of superior speed and maneuverability. “The Khan also subverted “the Khwarezmian Shah’s expectations by sending “a force across the dangerous Tien Shan mountain range “in order to attack from a different angle, “and dedicated another force solely to the task “of hunting down the Shah himself, “forcing the Shah to continually flee “and diminishing his ability “to effectively command his forces. “These tactics, in conjunction “with a numerically greater force, “allowed for a decisive Mongol victory “that led directly to the destruction “of the entire Khwarezmid Empire.”
This is the kind of introduction that covers what the prompt is asking for, but does so in a much more interesting way that demonstrates your ability to think and write independently. Speaking of writing and thinking independently, I love what the Harvard Writing Center has to say about the conclusion to your essay. “So much is at stake in writing a conclusion. “This is, after all, your last chance “to persuade your readers to your point of view, “to impress yourself upon them “as a writer and thinker.” With that being said, want a way to leave a really weak impression with your reader?
Well, if you do and you’re in the market for sabotaging all of your hard work, then just do what all of the other study skills books and websites that I came across seem to be recommending, just blindly restate your points in the conclusion, summarize them and call it a day. I’m kidding, don’t do that. Instead, synthesize, find a way to tie everything together. Here’s how I might end that essay about the Mongol tactics.
“As countless military conflicts through history “have demonstrated, numerical superiority “is not always a perfect predictor of victory. “Hannibal’s victory over the Romans “at the Battle of Cannae is a perfect example. “However, Genghis Khan’s use of speed, surprise, “and unrelenting aggression towards the Shah “gave his forces an unbeatable edge. “The Khwarezmid Empire, with its more settled ways “and reliance on fortifications, “was unable to adapt.” Alright, so let’s quickly recap.
To make sure that you write the best essay possible on your next test, first, start with an outline. Get really, really familiar with the prompt, know exactly what it’s asking for, and then use that two-stage outline process to create a plan so you know that you’re going to hit every single point. Next, follow a standard essay format, like the five-paragraph essay. Don’t make your teacher work more than they have to.
Third, get right to the point. Don’t waste time on a clever introduction. Fourth, don’t restate the prompt in your introduction. Instead, write an interesting thesis statement that covers the prompt but in your own words. And finally, ensure your conclusion synthesizes everything you’ve written.
Avoid simply summarizing your points, especially since your essay is probably a short one. In addition to keeping these points in mind, always seek to ensure that your essays are logical and thorough, but that they’re also concise and don’t waste words. As the author William Strunk wrote in The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. “This requires not that the writer “make all his sentences short, “or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects “only in outline, but that every word tell.” When it comes to doing well on tests, whether they’re full of essays or other challenges, one of the best tools in your arsenal is your ability to think critically and to analyze the problems facing you from all sides.
And if you’re looking for a great way to improve those abilities, you should check out Brilliant. Brilliant’s library of courses helps you become a better thinker and develop your intuition by immediately challenging you with interesting problems, rather than focusing on rote memorization and passive delivery. If you’re looking to become an all-around better thinker, a great place to start would be their Logic course, which will solidify your ability to think ahead and avoid common logical fallacies. Or, if you’re interested in gaining a greater understanding of math and science, check out their courses on probability, calculus, astronomy, algorithms, and many many more.
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