What Am I Good At Essays

Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
Tools for TAs and Instructors


Tips for Writing Essay Exams

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Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
  • Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
  • Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
  • Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
  • Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
  • A definition of the theories
  • A brief description of the issue
  • A comparison of the two theories' predictions
  • A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
  • Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
  • Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
  • Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
  • Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
  • Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
  • Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
  • Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
  • Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!



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Who Am I?

I have often wondered what it is that makes me who I am. Is it my personality, or my character? Is it the way that I dress? Maybe it is my choice of career? Or, maybe it is a combination of all of these things, because I don’t think that there is one description or label that is capable of defining me completely.

I like to think that for the most part, I am a pretty easy person to get along with. I am generally a positive person to be around and I try not to judge anyone for the choices that they make or the beliefs that they subscribe to. I just treat everyone with the same respect that I would like to be treated with. However, this does not mean that I am a pushover. I do not suffer fools gladly and if you try to take advantage of me you are very likely to see a completely different side of me! I think that this is something that is probably true of most people though, so maybe I am fairly typical in that respect.

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I am a shy person and at times I feel incredibly awkward around people, especially those that I don’t know. I am the type of person who will hang back and observe strangers before making the decision about whether or not I want to join in with the group. It is because of this that I am often wrongly labelled as being stand offish or antisocial. This could not be further from the truth. I love to be around people once I get to know them, it is just that I am painfully shy at the beginning. Sometimes I wish that I could make people understand this because I am sure that I have missed out on many potential friendships because of this shyness that seems to come across as my being a nasty type of person, but then again maybe only the people who have had patience are the type of friends that I should be pursuing.

Once I get to know you, that is when you will get to see the real me. Not the shy and wary exterior, but the real person inside. The person who can have razor sharp wit fuelled by sarcasm, but who is also incredibly warm and supportive of those I care about. The person inside loves to laugh and will tell you lots of stories about the crazy antics that my slightly dysfunctional family gets up to and the stupid clumsy things that I have done. My closest friends would describe me as funny, loyal and genuine, but it takes a lot for people to get to that point where I am willing to show that side of me.

They say that there are two sides to every coin and that sums me up pretty well. I might be outgoing and sociable, but I am also shy and awkward. I can be warm and loving, but I am also capable of cutting someone down with my sharp tongue. Everything about me happens in contrast and depends on who I am with and how comfortable I feel around them.

In conclusion, there are many different things that make me who I am. It is not just my character and my personality, but also the things I do and say. I seem to be made up entirely of opposites and contradictions. There are so many different elements that make up this puzzle that is me – a unique individual.

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