Writing Essays for Exams
While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.
Contributors: Kate Bouwens, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:30:10
What is a well written answer to an essay question?
Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.
Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.
Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.
People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab
How do you write an effective essay exam?
- Read through all the questions carefully.
- Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
- Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
- Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
- Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
- Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
- Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
- Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.
Specific organizational patterns and "key words"
Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.
- "Define X."
- "What is an X?"
- "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."
Q: "What is a fanzine?"
A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.
Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."
- State the term to be defined.
- State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
- Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.
Tools you can use
- Details which describe the term
- Examples and incidents
- Comparisons to familiar terms
- Negation to state what the term is not
- Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
- Examination of origins or causes
- Examination of results, effects, or uses
Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.
- "Analyze X."
- "What are the components of X?"
- "What are the five different kinds of X?"
- "Discuss the different types of X."
Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."
A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.
Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:
- Vocational education
- Continuing education
- Personal development
Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:
- first, second, third, etc.
- in addition
Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.
Cause and Effect
Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).
- "What are the causes of X?"
- "What led to X?"
- "Why did X occur?"
- "Why does X happen?"
- "What would be the effects of X?"
Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."
A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .
The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- as a result
- "How does X differ from Y?"
- "Compare X and Y."
- "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"
Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"
A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .
Two patterns of development:
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
Useful transition words
- on the other hand
- unlike A, B ...
- in the same way
- while both A and B are ..., only B ..
- on the contrary
- while A is ..., B is ...
- "Describe how X is accomplished."
- "List the steps involved in X."
- "Explain what happened in X."
- "What is the procedure involved in X?"
Process (sometimes called process analysis)
This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.
Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"
A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .
The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.
Useful transition words
- first, second, third, etc.
- following this
- after, afterwards, after this
- simultaneously, concurrently
Thesis and Support
- "Discuss X."
- "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
- "Defend or refute X."
- "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."
Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.
Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."
A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .
The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- it follows that
- as a result
A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?
Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.
a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.
b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.
From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.
B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?
1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?
2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?
3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."
4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.
5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?
6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?
For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.
Do you go to school in California? Chances are you’ve heard of the CAHSEE – the exam all Californians need to take to graduate high school.
You might be wondering how to pass the CAHSEE. In this post, we will explain what the CAHSEE tests, what you need to do to pass, and how to study for it.
What Is the CAHSEE?
The CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination) is an exam all California high school students must pass to earn a high school diploma. Students take the exam for the first time sophomore year, and retake it in later years if they don’t pass.
The exam has two sections – math and English Language Arts (ELA).
Most students, around 80% each year, pass the exam on their first try. In 2014, 85% of sophomores passed math and 83% of sophomores passed ELA.
However, the pass rate is significantly lower for English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with disabilities.
In 2014, 42% of special education sophomores passed math, and 39% passed ELA. Only 54% of ELLs passed math, and 38% passed ELA. The test is only given in English, making the ELA portion especially challenging for students still learning the language.
The CAHSEE is not designed to be an extra burden or especially difficult, and students are expected to pass with the basics of what they learn in high school. The goal of the CAHSEE is to ensure all California high school graduates have met a certain skill threshold.
However, if you’re worried about passing, this guide will give you the tools you need for success – and a California high school diploma.
What If I Fail?
Before we dig into the study guide, it’s important to know what happens if you fail the CAHSEE.
You will take the CAHSEE for the first time sophomore year. If you don’t pass a section, you will just have to retake that section – for example, if you pass ELA but fail math, you will only have to take math again. If you fail both sections, you will retake both.
You can retry the CAHSEE twice in junior year and up to five times senior year. So don’t stress if you don’t pass during sophomore year – you will get plenty of chances to retry the test.
If you don’t pass by graduation, you can try for up to two school years after. Depending on your district, there may be summer school or fifth year options to help you pass the CAHSEE and complete high school. Contact your school to find out their policy for students who don’t pass CAHSEE by graduation.
How To Pass The CAHSEE: English
The English, or ELA, section is mostly multiple-choice, though there is a written response section as well. It covers reading and writing topics.
To pass, you need to be able to comprehend and analyze passages, and also know the basics of English grammar and writing strategies. If you don't do much reading in your spare time, try to do a little every day, even if you're just reading articles online or books for fun. Daily reading can help you get better at reading comprehension, even on standardized tests like the CAHSEE.
This section is untimed, so unlike high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT, you don’t have to worry about pacing.
The reading topics are:
- Word Analysis (7 questions)
- Reading Comprehension (18 questions)
- Literary Response and Analysis (20 questions)
The reading questions mostly consist of reading passages and answering questions about them.
The writing topics are:
- Writing Strategy (12 questions)
- Writing Application (1 essay question)
- English Language Conventions (15 questions)
This comes to a total of 72 multiple-choice questions, plus 7 additional unscored questions sprinkled in used to test out new question types.
The ELA section is given a scaled score between 275 and 450. A scaled score means they translate the raw scores (a.k.a. how many points you get from right answers) into a number between 275 and 450. Anything above 350 is passing.
There is not a set amount of raw points you need, since scaling can change from test to test. So you should aim to get a majority of the questions correct, though you don't need to shoot for perfection.
Your essay will be assigned a score from 1 to 4, with 4 being best. Two people will read it, and their scores will be averaged. Your essay won’t be scored if it is illegible, not in English, or off-topic.
How To Pass the CAHSEE: Math
The math section of the CAHSEE is all multiple-choice questions. It is untimed, so again, you don’t have to worry about rushing through.
However, there are no calculators allowed, so you have to do all math work by hand. If you rely on calculators to do multiplication and division, you have to practice doing math on paper.
To pass, you also need to have a pretty solid understanding of math through basic geometry and Algebra I.
Or practice on a chalkboard for some old-school cool.
The math section tests the following topics:
- Probability, Data Analysis and Statistics (12 questions)
- Number Sense (14 questions)
- Algebra and Functions: (17 questions)
- Measurement and Geometry: (17 questions)
- Algebra 1 (12 questions)
- Mathematical Reasoning (8 questions)
- Unscored trial questions (12 questions)
This makes for 92 total questions.
The math section is also scored between 275 and 450, with anything above 350 passing. Again, aim to get a majority of the questions right, but don't worry about being 100% perfect.
CAHSEE Study Guide
So now that you know what's on the CAHSEE and how many chances you will have to pass it, how should you study for it? And what can you use? We will show you how to come up with a study plan, what resources to use, and how to get help at school.
Score Report = Study Guide
After you take the CAHSEE, you will get a detailed report that says how well you did in each topic. For example, it will say how many Algebra and functions questions you got right, in addition to giving an overall math section score.
If you failed the CAHSEE the first time, don’t get overwhelmed by the score report saying all the things you did wrong. You don’t have to fix every single mistake to pass – you just need to fix enough to get above 350.
Use your score report as a study guide. Start with the sections you missed the most questions on and focus on learning that material first.
As an example, say a student got the following score report for math:
- Probability, Data Analysis and Statistics: 7 / 12
- Number Sense: 11 / 14
- Algebra and Functions: 3 / 17
- Measurement and Geometry: 2 / 17
- Algebra 1: 2 / 12
- Mathematical Reasoning: 4 / 8
While this student missed points in every section, they have the most work to do in Algebra and Functions, Measurement and Geometry, and Algebra 1. Since those topics build on each other – you need to understand basic algebra before getting Geometry and Algebra 1 – they should start by studying Algebra and Functions, and then move onto Geometry and Algebra 1.
Also, those sections also happen to be the largest, with 17 questions each for Algebra and Functions and Measurement and Geometry, and 12 questions for Algebra 1.
So if they can improve their scores in those three sections, they will be on track to pass. If they have extra time, they can review the other sections. But they should focus on learning Algebra and Geometry skills and practicing problems in those sections.
If you haven't taken the CAHSEE yet, start with the official study guides (which we will link to below) and focus on what is most difficult for you.
Gather Your Resources
You won't need tons of books to study for the CAHSEE, since there are many resources online. Make sure you have studying basics, though, like a notebook, pen, and earplugs if they help you focus.
Before you start studying, you need some materials! Luckily, there is a free, official CAHSEE study guide online and tons of practice questions for each section – way more questions than actually appear on one CAHSEE.
1. Math study guide
2. Math released questions
3. ELA study guide
4. ELA released questions
The study guides will walk you through what problems are going to be on the CAHSEE, and what you need to know. Start by reading the study guides before moving onto the practice problems. To do the practice problems, either print them out or look at them on the computer. (You can use a blank notebook to keep track of your answers.)
Doing the practice problems is also important so you get used to the format of the CAHSEE. When you correct the problems, don’t just mark what you got wrong and tally your score, try and figure out why you got the question wrong and what you didn’t know.
Pretend It's The Real Thing
You don’t have to time yourself while practicing, since CAHSEE is untimed, but remember to simulate test conditions by not using a calculator or any outside resources. If you don’t know a question, circle it. Come back to it later and figure out what you would need to know to get the question right.
Schedule, Schedule, Schedule
Make studying for the CAHSEE part of your weekly schedule. Put it in your calendar like it’s another class or sport. By making CAHSEE studying a set part of your weekly routine, you can retain information from week to week and make sure you get plenty of practice.
Also, make sure when you study you find a quiet room without distractions. Whether that means finding a table at your school library or asking your family to give you some space after dinner at night, make sure you find a good study spot. It’s very hard to focus with distractions around, especially other people.
Find School Resources
Of course, you shouldn’t try to study completely on your own. Your school probably has resources for CAHSEE studying – it’s a goal for every California high school for all of their students to pass and graduate!
Some schools have CAHSEE classes you can take. Others have after-school or Saturday study sessions. While it’s not fun to have to give up after-school time for studying, even just a few sessions could help you learn what you need to pass, and you might study faster than you would on your own.
Is this the coolest place to spend a Saturday? No. Can it help you pass CAHSEE? Yes.
To find out how your school helps students with CAHSEE, go to the guidance counseling office and ask about CAHSEE classes and resources.
If your school doesn’t have these, you can find a math and an ELA teacher to help you study. Ask if they can explain topics that you don’t understand, or to help go over practice test answers with you. Some schools also have peer tutoring, and you can ask for help there as well.
If you receive special education services, ask your school’s special education department coordinator about resources for CAHSEE, including accommodations you might not have received that could help you pass.
If you normally get accommodations on tests, you should be able to get the same accommodations for CAHSEE.
English Language Learners
If you’re an English Language Learner, ask your school’s ELL coordinator about accommodations you can get on the CAHSEE, including bilingual dictionaries or a read-aloud test.
Remember, it’s in your school’s best interest for all students to pass the CAHSEE. Don’t be shy about tracking down resources that can help you.
Also studying for the ACT or SAT? Learn how to improve a low math score.
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Come up with a target SAT or ACT score based on colleges you want to attend.