Writing Essay Exams

Since a significant portion of your grade for this course will depend upon assessment of your knowledge and skill as reflected in examinations, here are a few suggestions for dealing with essay exams:

  • Be prepared
    Rely heavily upon the study questions distributed at the outset of the course: look over them at the beginning of each unit; use them to guide your reading of the texts and our discussion in class; and review them before the exam. If you have considered these issues fully, nothing on the exam itself can surprise you. Arrive promptly for the exam, and try to be well-rested, and relaxed.
  • Understand the question
    Before beginning to write, read each question carefully and completely; it will ask that you address a specific issue in a particular way. Pay close attention to words (such as “Describe…,” “Explain…,” “Compare and contrast…,” “Assess…,” and “Evaluate…”) that suggest the appropriate mode of response. If you are uncertain what a question means, ask me for a clarification. Take a moment to organize your thoughts on the subject, and dive in.
  • Stick to the point
    Make sure that your essay is directly relevant to the question asked. Although you will know a great deal more about the philosopher or topic at issue than your answer requires, it will be read only for information and/or argumentation that responds to the specific question. If you believe that additional material is required, indicate clearly and explicitly how it connects with the matter at hand.
  • Use your time wisely
    Although essay exams in philosophy are not meant to be intensely time-pressured, they must be completed within certain limits. You may be asked to write four or five short essays during an exam, allowing fifteen or twenty minutes for each. Don’t get so absorbed in one question that you spend much more than its share of the available time; if you have more to say, jot down a note or two, move on to another question, and return to complete your answer if time allows.
  • Make every word count
    Although it is always helpful to write clearly—that is, in complete, grammatically correct sentences—there is no need to craft beautiful prose. Avoid lengthy prefatory, transitional, and summary verbiage. Get the essentials down on paper, and trust the instructor to evaluate your essay by its quality, not its quantity.