Writing Essay Type Answers To Formal Examination Questions – A Student’s Guide

Questions asked in the Social Sciences, the National Language and some other subjects, require the student to provide long, written answers. There is usually a time constraint and a set number of questions to answer with or without choice so there is great pressure on the student to produce their best effort in a short period of time under examination conditions.

This article will provide a number of strategies to help the student show the examiner what he or she knows in the best possible way. It contains the experience the author gained in sitting for many formal examinations during his school and university years plus in teaching students to cope with these examinations during his long career in the classroom.

Most formal examinations provide perusal time. This is where the real preparation starts. During this time, you, the student, must do the following:

• Read the instructions carefully, to ensure exactly how many questions you need to do.
• Work out how much time to allocate per question. Leave some time for checking/editing.
• Read the questions.
• If there is a choice, decide which questions you can answer best.
• Decide which are the easiest and hardest to answer.
• If there is still time, start making notes on the examination paper about each question.

When the examination begins, do the questions in order from easiest to hardest. There are reasons for this. They are:

• You will create your best answer first. This allows you to give the examiner a good impression.
• You will feel confident because you know you can do a good answer.
• You are fresh and not yet under any time pressure. This allows you to plan well and get off to a successful start.
• Questions you know most about mean you can work quickly and finish early inside the allocated time allowing you extra time for the more difficult questions.

Once it is time to begin, you need to read the first question you plan to do once again to get the general idea of what you are asked to do. Then you must read it slowly again underlining or highlighting the ‘doing or action’ words as they tell you what you must do, e.g. compare, contrast, write an essay, and so on.

Now make sure you plan the question around these action words and the theme suggested in the question. Use the opening paragraph to explain how you view the theme, i.e. explains your position. In each of the following paragraphs, make your points in support of your position and provide evidence in support of each point. Your conclusion should summarise your position and restating your position.

Don’t ‘pad’ your answer. It is better to be concise to show what you know in order to get your argument across. ‘Padding’ does not get you any more marks and takes up time that is better spent on other questions and on the planning and editing of your work.

Leave time at the end of each question to edit what you have written. Start by reading the question again. Then read your answer to ensure you have actually done what you were asked to do.
With the harder questions that you must do at the end, you must still produce the best answer you can even though you might have less data to work with. Plan well and put forth your argument as if you know lots about the issue. If you know you will not have time to complete these last questions, set out your plan for the question in draft form to allow the examiner to see how you have planned to provide an answer.

Make sure you note down the time when you started each question as well as the time when the question should be finished. Remember, you get no extra marks for using more time to do a question. In fact, less time on other questions may well cost you marks.

It is important to show what you know in the best possible way. By this I mean, make sure your writing is legible and your organisation is neat and easy to follow.

You must realise that you cannot put this plan into operation when you first sit for a formal examination. You must practice these strategies during all the practice examinations your teachers give you. You must also evaluate how you use these strategies in every examination, practice or real, so that you work out how you can improve your performance in the next examination.
Having a strategy that works for you will take most of the stress out of the examination environment and allow you to show what you know in the best possible way.

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