‘How long should an exam essay be?’ & other FAQ

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Which question should I do first?

This is crucial: if you’re doing an exam with more than 1 essay, do the essay you expect to do best first. Do not leave the best to last! There are exceptions to this rule eg if you need to write an essay to get into the right mind-set but the principle is the same: give the best of your time and energy to the essays which will enable you to show your abilities to best advantage.

If you have a 3 hour exam with 3 questions and you feel confident on 1, fairly confident on another and are really not happy about the 3rd then take 5 or 10 mins from each of your weaker questions and add them to the time you allow yourself for your strongest question. This still means that you have 50 mins for your weakest question. By the time you get to it you may find it easier than you expected. If you know that the last question will be a disaster then it might be sensible to take more time from that question to add to the earlier ones but make sure that you still write that 3rd essay.

NB It’s a question of simple maths. If you are expected to do 3 essays and you only write 2, you get 0 for your 3rd essay. However brilliant your 1st 2 essays, your final mark will suffer dreadfully.

Always make sure that you answer all of the questions.

In degree-level exams it’s relatively easy to get the first 40 marks or so to pass. It’s much more difficult to get the next 20 marks and more difficult again to get marks in the top range. It’s pretty darned easy to get 30 marks for an essay. Yes it’s a fail but if the mark will still contribute to your overall mark it’s well worth doing.

Please ask your tutor about overall marks and how they’re calculated. In the universities I worked in individual essays were given individual marks and we then calculated an overall mark based on those 3 marks. It’s a very common system but there may be variations so please confirm how the exam works with your tutor.

How long should an exam essay be?

This is something that has always worried my students. Please believe me that the quality of the exam essay is much more important than its length! I’ve seen exam essays from 1 sentence (I kid you not) to over 8 pages. On average a degree-level exam essay is 2 to 4 pages but this depends on the size of handwriting to some extent.

It is better to write 2 pages of relevant material than 6 pages of repetition and irrelevance. If you find yourself trying to force what you’re writing to make it appear relevant, re-focus your energies into actually being relevant instead. Examiners can spot irrelevance a mile off.

How do I get better marks? (write a better essay 🙂 )

The simple truth is that ‘points mean prizes’: the more relevant points you make (points of argument supported by textual reference, relevant points of socio-political history, reference to other writers) the more marks you will get.

Don’t describe the text, don’t simply recount the plot, analyse it.

Don’t waste time with a lengthy introduction – just get on with answering the question.

Don’t waste time writing a lengthy essay plan. If it will help, give yourself 5 mins to jot down notes and then get on with it!

Using quotations to support your argument is helpful but simply throwing quotations into your answer because you want to show that you know then (even though you know they’re not relevant) is not. Irrelevance (however interesting) detracts from your argument and weakens it.

When you’re trying to learn quotations try to focus on short quotations which are clearly relevant to key issues.

If you can’t remember quotations under pressure, detailed textual reference also shows that you know the text and is a good way of supporting your argument.

What’s the point of an exam?

It’s a way of demonstrating that students know the texts / material and can relate what they know to the question and answer it relevantly and coherently.

There are sound reasons why exams work as a form of assessment but of course they are also a highly effective means of torturing both students and examiners 🙂 Good luck everyone.

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