It’s really easy to fail essay exams. I’m not talking about those exams in which you’re only asked to give your opinion (ex. “What do you think about Barack Obama?”). No teacher can fail you on those because you have the right to free speech.
I’m talking about the essay exams that require you to cite facts (ex. “Explain the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the French colonies of Southeast Asia”). This is the type of exam that students fail regularly, and I’m going to tell you why.
1. Ugly handwriting
Your handwriting is the first thing your professor sees about your essay. Not your brilliant ideas, not your perfect recall of the subject matter, but the legibility of your handwriting. As much as we’d like to think that professors will only judge our work based on its quality, in real life the presentation of the essay matters a lot.
I’m not saying that you should have perfect handwriting that looks like a font. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have any erasures anywhere on your paper. But it’s crucial that your essay is easy to read. Your professor doesn’t have the time to decipher your chicken scratches, not when there’s an entire stack of chicken scratches to be read, graded, and sorted.
Make your professor’s job a lot easier by writing in large, clear letters. Use just one line to erase things, like this. Insert a blank line between each of your paragraphs. Most importantly, use print. It’s easier to read than cursive.
And please, don’t try to lengthen your essay by scribbling several unreadable lines on purpose. Some students think professors grade essays just by glancing at how long they are. Not true. At best, they’ll just disregard the pseudo-sentences. At worst, they’ll deduct points from you.
2. Fuzzy structure
An essay is supposed to have three clearly defined parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Most students don’t think about these three essential items before they start writing. They read the essay question and then immediately begin writing their final answers.
What’s more, they usually open the essay by writing down the first thing they remember about the topic. It’s a sure-fire way of making themselves seem disorganized and unprepared, even if they really did study hard.
Before writing down your final answer, you should quickly jot down an outline of the ideas you plan to cover in your essay. This doesn’t have to be detailed. What’s important is that you list the facts and arguments that are essential to answering the question fully.
I usually scribble my outlines on the last page or two of my answer booklet. Hopefully, your school allows you to do the same. If not, ask your instructor if you can use a few sheets of scratch paper If you really aren’t allowed to write anywhere else, you should at least have a mental outline of what topics you plan to discuss in your essay.
3. Misguided studying
I don’t just mean those people who really didn’t study at all. I also mean those people who might have studied hard, but haven’t studied smart. Students who focus on memorizing facts, and not the relationships between those facts, fall under this category. Also under this category are those students who don’t have personal opinions about the subject matter.
The whole point of an essay exam is to check the student’s mastery of the subject. You can say that you’ve mastered the subject when you can:
1) summarize weeks of discussions in a few paragraphs
2) argue for or against the issues raised in those discussions
If you can’t do either, you haven’t really studied at all.
4. Bad time management
Time pressure brings down a lot of students during exams. To avoid rushing or even skipping the last essay questions, I have one very simple piece of advice for you: wear a watch.
It’s astounding how many students neglect to do this, when it can spell the difference between getting an A and a B-. Don’t depend on the clock in your exam venue–there might not be one, or it might not be working. You don’t need any unnecessary risks during exams.
The next step is knowing how to budget your time wisely. Say you have 1 hour to answer 3 essay questions. You should allocate about 15 minutes for each essay question. Spend the last 15 minutes carefully reviewing your answers.
5. Too little practice
Many students have trouble with essays just because they aren’t used to writing, let alone writing things down in a logical way. The only solution is to write more.
You don’t have to be a talented writer to ace an essay exam. You don’t need practice writing great metaphors or witty retorts. You only need to develop the ability to write clearly and methodically, and that’s something anyone can learn.
For each book chapter that you study, try writing a 5 sentence paragraph that summarizes the key points of that chapter. Not only do you get to practice for the exam, you also get to review for it at the same time.
Why do you think students fail essay exams?