Elizabeth Gehrig By Elizabeth Gehrig • October 15, 2015

What Makes a Good Exam Essay? What Mentors Wish Students Knew

Most of us are not mind readers. So when it comes to writing essays on a midterm or final exam, it can be hard to know what the grader is looking for. Here are some insider tips to help you know what your mentors want to see when they are grading your work. Next time you are writing an essay for a course exam, use these tips to compose an organized, well-written answer. 

What is My Mentor Looking For?

When the University’s mentors grade exam essays, they use a set of guidelines that assessment developers have put in place. These guidelines apply to every essay question in every course offered by the University. 

First, your mentor checks to make sure that you have answered the question — all parts of it — completely and accurately. This means your response must include all the necessary concepts or material from your course. It also means that you must demonstrate the required level of understanding and critical thinking. For example, if your essay question asks you to compare and contrast two theories, you want to carefully interweave both theories into a thoughtful comparison, rather than just define or list the facts about both theories.

Second, your mentor wants to see an essay that is well written. A college-level essay should be clear, with no major errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation. This also means you’ve used the correct style and tone for a college student.

Third, your mentor looks for effective, thoughtful organization. A short essay must be focused and concise; a longer essay must have a clear introduction, body and conclusion. The points you make must flow logically and be effective in developing your argument.

So, How Can I Make Sure I Write a Strong Essay?

  • Read the question carefully, more than once. Ask yourself: how many parts are there to this question? What is it really asking me to do? Do I need to include examples, define concepts or apply my knowledge to solve a problem? How long should my essay be?
  • Use scrap paper to create an outline. Plan and organize before you start typing. Identify your essay’s introduction, body and conclusion. What is your main argument, and what are the supporting points, examples or evidence you need to include? Be sure to stick to your outline when you start typing — rambling won’t help your grade!
  • Keep an eye on the time limit. Make sure you leave enough time to create an outline, write your response and review your work.

A Word About Online Testing…

Even if you’ve been answering essay questions for years, taking essay tests online may be slightly different than what you are used to. While taking your test, remember these key distinctions.

  • Many essays, especially longer essays, constitute their own section of a test. Once you complete a section of a test, you’re prompted to click a “submit” button in order to move forward. Be careful: once you click “submit,” you cannot return to that section. So be sure to review your essay and make sure you are truly ready to move on to the next section before you click “submit.”
  • When you write an essay for a course exam, you only have a text box to write your answer. This means that you will use plain text - no formatting, word count, or spell check is available. It also means that if you want to indent your paragraphs (and I definitely recommend dividing your essay into paragraphs), you’ll need to use the space bar, not the tab key.
Elizabeth Gehrig

Written by Elizabeth Gehrig

Elizabeth Gehrig is a senior assessment development specialist in the Center for Learning and Technology. Passionate about high-stakes testing, her career spans more than 10 years in language testing, credit-by-exam and outcomes assessment. Email her at clt@tesu.edu.

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