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

Heather Cox Richardson

Taking the Exam:

Unless you have very badly misjudged the themes of the class, some of the questions on the exam should look familiar. They will never, however, look exactly like the ones you studied. This is not cause for panic. Just as when you discuss a question, you will often need to rephrase or slightly jockey an exam question to make it one you’re comfortable answering.

For example, say you prepared for the question (from the previous post): “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,” and decided you would answer it by citing, among other things, John Brown’s raid and the attack on Sumner.

The exam question, though, is: “Were Northerners’ fears of the Slave Power legitimate?” You could develop an exam answer here that argued something to the effect of, “Well, yes, the Slave Power was trying to take over the government, but so were Northerners,” or “No, while each side cited plenty of examples of the other side trying to take over the government, these examples were largely propaganda. . . .” In either of these answers, you could easily use the same details and arguments you had developed in your practice answer to your own question. Do, though, nod to the actual exam question in your introductory paragraph, with something that acknowledges it. “While Northerners complained vociferously about the Slave Power, in fact both sections of the Union bore the responsibility for the coming of the Civil War.” Simply launching into a different essay than the one assigned is a mistake.

Having developed practice answers, coming up with your examples and details to answer this essay question should be almost automatic. You may need to rearrange things, but you should not find yourself desperately trying to remember something relevant. You should find it quite easy to put together. Your essay will have a thesis, examples, and details, drawn from a wide range of course material, just as a good essay should.

Be careful not to try to take too large a scope in your essay. If the question focuses on the Civil War, don’t try to start with a history of America from the colonial era. You won’t have time to get to the heart of the essay. Keep focused. Similarly, don’t aim too low, either. If the question asks you to compare America before and after the Civil War, don’t talk only about Reconstruction. You need to demonstrate control over a wide range of course material.

Don’t use throw-away sentences, like: “The Civil War changed America in many ways.” Such an obvious observation is a waste of your time and energy. Be specific: “The Civil War changed America by forcing individuals to confront emerging technologies . . .” leads directly into an essay.

Remember to write history in the past tense.

Do be sure to budget time to conclude your essay. An essay that just stops can never earn a higher grade than a B, at best. Where you end is just as important as where you start, and it’s the final impression you’ll leave on your reader.

Judge your time accurately. If it is a two-hour exam and you finish in 25 minutes, it is unlikely that you have covered enough material to earn a passing grade. If you have two hours to write four short essays, you should budget a half-hour for each. Do not, in that case, spend an hour and a half on one essay.

After You've Mastered the Basics:

A good way to cover extra material in an exam answer is to introduce the opposite argument in your introductory paragraph, and then to dismiss it. “While Southerners pointed to the rise of abolitionism, the North’s dismissal of the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s frightening raid, and Lincoln’s election as proof that Northerners wanted to destroy the South, in fact it was Southerners who were on the offensive in the 1850s. Abolitionists were never more than 1% of the population, the Dred Scott decision was improperly corrupted by politics, John Brown was a maverick, and Lincoln had no intention of harming the South. Southern slave owners, though, systematically attacked the foundations of the American government. . . .” In this way, you’ve essentially given yourself credit for a whole bunch of stuff that can’t fit into your essay, and left the reader with the impression you know the material so well you can talk about anything.

If you’re really feeling elegant, you might want to memorize a short quotation (or an interesting fact) to put into the final paragraph that sums up your understanding of the material, just as icing on the cake. “The triumph of the Union cemented the principles of the Declaration of Independence for, as Lincoln said on the Gettysburg battlefield, ‘our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . .’”