Richardson's Rules of Order, Part VII: Tips for Taking College Essay Exams

Heather Cox Richardson

College history exams are different than high school exams. In high school, often you are asked simply to master a relatively small body of material and then to regurgitate it back to prove you memorized it. History at the college level is very different than this. You are asked to read and think about a huge body of material, and then are asked not to dump specific answers onto a page, but rather to think about the material and to answer questions by making an argument for which you marshal evidence from the large body of course material. These different exams require very different approaches to studying and to exam taking.


Don’t make the mistake of simply reading your notes over again and again, hoping that the information will spring into some sort of order when you’re confronted with an exam question. Instead, read your notes over to get you thinking about the course. What are the themes of the course? What did the professor and the readings emphasize?

Now think. If you were writing an exam for the course, what would you ask? Put your ideas into the form of questions. “Something about politics,” is not a question. “How did the quest for political power affect the coming of the American Civil War?” is.

Once you have a number of questions, start to answer them, with your notes and books before you. Brainstorm to see what points are relevant to the topic, and jot them down. When you have a list, think about how you would answer the question, drawing on material from sections as well as readings and lectures. What do YOU think about this topic? Why? What have you learned in the course? An exam is where you get to have your own say about what you’ve learned. You’re part of a larger academic discussion when you take an exam and, yes, we listen to what you have to say. You should have fun putting your ideas together, and enjoy sharing them with us. Remember, there is no right answer. What we want to see is that you can think critically, and that you can weigh evidence to come up with your own ideas. “Wrong” answers are ones that are not based on factual evidence, but so long as you can back up your ideas with legitimate evidence, you can argue whatever you want.

As you fill in your topic sentences, each with at least three specific factual examples, you will need to refer back to your notes to make sure you know the details about those examples. Say, for example, you decide to answer the question above by saying: “In their drive to protect the political power of their region, Northerners and Southerners both accused the opposite section of trying to take over the national government.” You could come up with a number of different examples of occasions on which this happened: John Brown’s Raid, the attack on Charles Sumner, and so on. You’ll want to look up those events so that you really know about them. You may want to go ahead and jot down a skeleton answer to your questions, along with the details of the events you’re discussing, so you can study by them.

The idea here is to put the information in the class into some kind of order that makes sense to you. You will note that you are not trying to learn every single thing covered in class. That would be impossible. What you are trying to do is have control over the material, and develop your own ideas about it. This means that you will probably learn a great deal about some events and very little about others. (I know a great deal about the militarily unimportant Battle of Stone’s River because it was important politically, for example, but know only enough about military maneuvers to be able to figure out larger patterns of change). That’s okay. When you answer a question, the detail you put in about a few events stands for your overall knowledge. (This is called “post holing,” by the way). Do draw from all different kinds of material presented in the class, rather than focusing only on lecture notes, for example.

It doesn’t hurt, either, to talk to your classmates about class material. This doesn’t mean quizzing each other over terminology, but rather having discussions about larger themes. Do you think the roots of the Civil War were in economics? Then marshal your arguments and debate with someone who blames everything on Westward expansion. This type of thought does not necessarily have to be done at a desk, by the way. This can be accomplished over dinner, while biking, running, and so on; rather than talking about the latest episode of Lost or True Blood, try arguing about course themes.

Make sure you get a good night’s sleep for the two nights before an exam. Staying up all night to study is a terrible idea, since fatigue actually slows your ability to think. It’s more important to have a functioning brain than to have a few extra facts crammed into your head.

The Mechanics of Taking an Exam:

READ THE DIRECTIONS! In every single class, there is at least one student who forgets to take part of the exam, or who answers every question rather than picking one of two, or makes some similarly wasteful mistake. Don’t let that person be you!

Write legibly. It’s worth going a tad slower than you’re used to simply to make sure that we can read your writing.

Write your name and that of your professor and TA on the cover of the exam. Make sure you get the names of the professor and your TA right. Incorrectly identifying either suggests that you have neither come to class nor looked at the syllabus.