Just as athletes follow training plans that ready them for “game day,” motivated students adopt test-taking strategies that prepare them to do well on examinations (and, ultimately, in the courses they take). And, much as athletes will engage in exercises that develop specific muscle groups, students can take specific measures to strengthen their ability to complete the essay portion of an examination with competence and confidence.

In her book Orientation to College Learning, Seventh Edition, Dianna L. Van Blerkom outlines a number of tips that can help students prepare for and take essay examinations. We’ve summarized them below:


To prepare for the essay examination…

1. Practice for the test by answering any sample or practice questions the instructor provided. You’ll likely review most of the points your instructor will cover on the actual test.
2. Go over previous tests and assignments. You will observe some of the topics your instructor has considered important in the past, and you may also get a sense of your instructor’s approach towards testing in general.
3. Read through your lecture notes and scan your reading assignments. Then, based on what you’ve reviewed, try to predict the questions your instructor might ask. Chances are that several of your questions will address some of the same concepts that your instructor includes on your test.
4. Then, carefully review your notes and reading material again, this time to gather points that will help you answer the questions you developed.
5. Now, organize this information into a straightforward, easy-to-remember outline.
6. Once your outline’s created, commit your key points to memory by going over them in your mind—and by saying them out loud! (Verbalizing your answers helps you retain the information.)
7. Come up with simple but catchy phrases that can help you bring to mind your key points during the exam session.
8. Join or form a study group and share the questions you’ve each devised.
9. “Test” yourselves again by independently answering a selection of the group’s questions. Then, discuss your answers to each of the questions.
10. Seeking additional feedback? Set up time to discuss your test-preparation process with your instructor (if he or she is available, of course). (296)

When taking the examination…

1. Be confident! If you’ve taken the above steps to prepare for the examination, you’re in good shape for success.
2. Read through the test instructions carefully, and ask your instructor to clarify anything you find confusing.
3. Consider how you’ll use your time. Allow more time to answer the questions that have a greater point value.
4. Tackle the easier questions first. You can use the remaining time to answer the questions you find more challenging.
5. Before you begin crafting your formal answer, note the various points you want to include in the margin of the test paper.
6. Then, organize your notes, numbering each point in the order you wish to present it. Once you’ve included a point in your essay, cross off the number.
7. Now you’re ready to begin writing! Be as thorough as you can when answering a question. Don’t omit pieces of information simply because you think they’re just “givens.” Your comprehensive answer demonstrates the depth of your knowledge and understanding.
8. If you face an especially vexing question, do what you can to spark your memory. Framing the question in your own words can help you consider how you could answer. Or, just begin writing something in response; the act of writing can jog your thought process, and you can start to recall relevant points from what you’ve studied.
9. Before you hand in your exam, review your work one last time for errors.
10. Once the exam is graded and returned, go over your paper. Review your study strategies in light of your results, and consider how thoroughly they helped you prepare for the examination. Schedule time with your instructor if you’d like greater insight into how you can improve on future exams. (309)


Reference: Van Blerkom, D.L. 2013. Orientation to College Learning, 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


What are your recommended study strategies for essay examinations? Share them below.