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5 Rules for Answering ESSAY Questions on Exams



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If I were to ask you what your

least favorite type of test question is,

I'm pretty sure I could guess it

before you gave me your answer,

because it is clearly the essay question.

Other types of questions are easy, right?

Multiple choice?

More like multiple guess.

True false?

Fifty-fifty, I'll take it.

But with an essay there's no guessing.

Everything that's gonna be on that piece of paper

has to come out of your head.

And that can be intimidating.

But if you look at it from a different perspective,

it's also an opportunity.

Essay questions put you 100% in control.

Rather than having to pick from questions

that were written for you, you have

the opportunity to demonstrate exactly

how well you understand the question

and the material that it was based on.

And assuming you're actually did study

and you do understand the material,

the five rules we're gonna go over

in today's video will show you

how you can most effectively communicate

that understanding in your next essay question.

When you're faced with an essay question on a test,

you're almost always working

under a pretty stressful time limit.

And it can often feel like the best way to tackle that

is to start writing immediately.

But before you do, remember, a good essay

is when it communicates your thoughts

in an organized way, and if it's not organized,

it's not gonna be effective

and it's not gonna get you a good grade.

Without a good plan to guide you,

it can be really easy to misinterpret,

or even outright miss, important points

the prompt wants you to cover.

So before you start writing your essay,

use a piece of scratch paper

to plan it out in advance.

First, read the prompt carefully

and make sure you understand

exactly what it's asking for.

And if it's a long prompt, it might actually

be useful to highlight the important points

in that prompt, or to create a checklist

so you know that you're gonna

cover everything within it.

Next, you want to create a rough outline of your essay.

And I recommend going through a two-stage outlining process.

In the first stage, you just want to create

a bullet list of everything that comes to mind

related to the prompt.

This is essentially a brainstorming phase,

so at this point don't worry about the order

of the points that you're writing out,

because it's all about just getting things

out of your head and onto the paper

and ensuring that they cover

what's being asked for in the prompt.

Once you've got that done,

then it's time to move onto stage two.

At this point you're creating a more organized,

ordered list of points that represents

the flow of your essay.

When you have that in hand, you'll find

that writing the actual essay itself is much easier.

Alright, let's talk about essay formats.

There are plenty of creative ways

to structure your writing, as I'm sure

you'll probably know if you've ever seen

Memento or read House of Leaves.

But when you're dealing with an essay on a test,

it's often best to stick with a simple,

time-tested format, both to compensate

for your own limited time,

and as a courtesy to your teacher.

As the author Walter Pauk once wrote,

"Instructors don't have time to treat each essay

"as a puzzle in need of a solution.

"Take the guesswork out of your essay."

A good default format that does this

is the five-paragraph-essay, which consists

of an introductory paragraph,

three body paragraphs,

though you can use more if you need to,

and finally a conclusion.

Within this structure,

there are several different methods

that you can use to organize your points.

The most popular is probably

the decreasing-importance pattern,

in which your first body paragraph

contains your strongest argument,

and the last one covers the weakest

or least consequential.

However, this pattern isn't always the right one to use.

For example, if you've been asked to summarize an event,

then it's probably best to go in chronological order.

And, likewise, if you've been asked to write

the word "potatoes" 600 times,

then you should probably do that.

In short, use the prompt as a guide for choosing

the pattern that you're going to use.

Going back to that idea

of taking the guesswork out of the essay,

let's talk about the introduction.

In most contexts, an essay has to earn its audience.

That's why it's usually a good idea

to start with a hook, something designed

to grab the reader's attention and draw them in.

You might use a quote, or an interesting statistic,

or sometimes even a story.

But when you're answering an essay question on a test,

you've got a guaranteed audience,

namely your teacher.

And when you're writing for an audience

that you know, you can write

with their needs in mind.

So, the question is, what are your teacher's needs?

Well, number one, your teacher is looking

to get through your essay as quickly as possible

because he's got dozens of others to grade,

and number two, he's looking for a solid understanding

of all the points that were asked for in the prompt.

And here's the thing.

A clever introduction doesn't really serve

either of those two purposes, and also wastes

your precious time during the test.

So, unless you think it's absolutely necessary,

I say just jump right into the thesis statement instead.

When you write that thesis statement,

there is one big thing that you need

to make sure you avoid and that is

blatantly restating the prompt.

What do I mean by that?

Well, say you're faced with a prompt like this:

"Explain the tactics used by Genghis Khan

"against the Khwarezmian Shah's armies

"that allowed for his victory in 1221."

With a prompt like this, your teacher

is almost guaranteed to get a ton of essays

from your classmates that all start

virtually the same way:

"The tactics used by Genghis Khan

"against the Khwarezmian Shah

"included utilizing superior speed,"

et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

You get the point.

This is boring, lazy writing.

It literally grabs a phrase from the prompt

and restates it verbatim.

And you're better than that.

So let's consider an improved way to do it.

(clears throat)

"Genghis Khan's swift conquest

"of the Khwarezmid Empire in 1221

"hinged on the use of several innovative tactics,

"chief among them being the constant utilization

"of superior speed and maneuverability.

"The Khan also subverted

"the Khwarezmian Shah's expectations by sending

"a force across the dangerous Tien Shan mountain range

"in order to attack from a different angle,

"and dedicated another force solely to the task

"of hunting down the Shah himself,

"forcing the Shah to continually flee

"and diminishing his ability

"to effectively command his forces.

"These tactics, in conjunction

"with a numerically greater force,

"allowed for a decisive Mongol victory

"that led directly to the destruction

"of the entire Khwarezmid Empire."

This is the kind of introduction

that covers what the prompt is asking for,

but does so in a much more interesting way

that demonstrates your ability

to think and write independently.

Speaking of writing and thinking independently,

I love what the Harvard Writing Center

has to say about the conclusion to your essay.

"So much is at stake in writing a conclusion.

"This is, after all, your last chance

"to persuade your readers to your point of view,

"to impress yourself upon them

"as a writer and thinker."

With that being said, want a way to leave

a really weak impression with your reader?

Well, if you do and you're in the market

for sabotaging all of your hard work,

then just do what all of the other

study skills books and websites

that I came across seem to be recommending,

just blindly restate your points in the conclusion,

summarize them and call it a day.

I'm kidding, don't do that.

Instead, synthesize, find a way

to tie everything together.

Here's how I might end that essay

about the Mongol tactics.

"As countless military conflicts through history

"have demonstrated, numerical superiority

"is not always a perfect predictor of victory.

"Hannibal's victory over the Romans

"at the Battle of Cannae is a perfect example.

"However, Genghis Khan's use of speed, surprise,

"and unrelenting aggression towards the Shah

"gave his forces an unbeatable edge.

"The Khwarezmid Empire, with its more settled ways

"and reliance on fortifications,

"was unable to adapt."

Alright, so let's quickly recap.

To make sure that you write

the best essay possible on your next test,

first, start with an outline.

Get really, really familiar with the prompt,

know exactly what it's asking for,

and then use that two-stage outline process

to create a plan so you know

that you're going to hit every single point.

Next, follow a standard essay format,

like the five-paragraph essay.

Don't make your teacher work more than they have to.

Third, get right to the point.

Don't waste time on a clever introduction.

Fourth, don't restate the prompt in your introduction.

Instead, write an interesting thesis statement

that covers the prompt but in your own words.

And finally, ensure your conclusion

synthesizes everything you've written.

Avoid simply summarizing your points,

especially since your essay is probably a short one.

In addition to keeping these points in mind,

always seek to ensure that your essays

are logical and thorough, but that they're

also concise and don't waste words.

As the author William Strunk wrote

in The Elements of Style,

"Vigorous writing is concise.

"This requires not that the writer

"make all his sentences short,

"or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects

"only in outline, but that every word tell."

When it comes to doing well on tests,

whether they're full of essays or other challenges,

one of the best tools in your arsenal

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facing you from all sides.

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