Writing Essay Exams: Verbs, Task Types, and Stages

            Essay exam questions sometimes involve more than one writing task.  Each task is signaled by a verb naming the kind of task the essay must perform.  It may sound obvious, but you must do what the verb asks, and do it as thoroughly as time allows.  Look at the points per question to allocate time.  If the essay goes beyond a paragraph, provide a proper introduction and conclusion.

1)  Some tasks are deliberately made simple to maximize the efficiency of the question.  You can easily prepare in advance to answer questions trying to discover whether you have mastered the basic rules or facts.  Make this the first stage in your essay exam review: write lists collecting key types of information (category + examples) in responses to these kinds of task verbs:

summarize ("summarize the kinds of media available to modern advertisers")

state ("state the causes for which an ad. agency's contract can be broken")

list ("list Murphy's five rules for successful TV set design")

outline ("outline the typical parts of an advertising contract")

cite reasons ("cite the reasons Green gives for Nike's success over Reebok")

give examples ("give three examples of successful product launch ads")

Note some do not require writing full sentences and paragraphs.  How can you tell whether you are expected to do so anyway?  Also, some answers would probably get higher marks if explanations or examples were added.  How can you tell whether you should spend that extra time?

2)  Other tasks are more complex and require more planning before you write.  Consider quickly listing, in words or phrases, the main points you'll try to cover in an essay dealing with such tasks, and re-organize them logically before you start, using arrows, numbers, circles, etc. to indicate sequence and grouping.  If you fail to finish the essay, many teachers will give you credit for what they see in the outline.  Pre-writing also helps you restart if you panic.  Consider what sub-tasks might be implied by the following verbs:

describe ("describe Nike's corporate structure as it affects their advertising")

discuss ("discuss the ethics of advertising expensive athletic shoes to teens")

review ("review recent controversies involving sports star endorsements")

explain ("explain 'brand awareness'")

show ("show how marketing on the Internet relates to marketing in other media")

explore ("explore possible ways Nike might improve public relations")

determine ("determine which of these three ad. campaigns is likely to succeed."

3)  Some essays explicitly demand more than one task, and students should reasonably expect that the earlier tasks are somehow directly related to the thinking necessary to writing the later ones.  Also, remember to do all the parts!  That's another reason to pre-write.  The following is a typical two-part question:

1)  Describe the typical parts of an advertising campaign for clothing targeting teenage buyers, and explain how Nike adapted them to sell its latest model.

The first part seems easy enough to the writer who knows something about the general history of advertising, but it contains hidden tasks a more competent writer will identify.  What is the cheapest, quickest, and least successful way to write the first part of this essay, and what additional tasks can you imagine that might contribute some excellence to this otherwise simple task?

The second task is the more complex of the two, but it is among the most common instructions in essay exams.  It requires the writer to understand the special changes Nike's advertisers brought to their craft, changes that only can be understood as differences from previous advertisers' craft.  How does this aspect of the second task affect the hidden tasks in the first part?

            The only way to study for these kinds of questions involves anticipating them when reviewing your notes and sketching possible answers on separate sheets of paper.  If you know what you've read and heard in the class, and if you've identified "what's important," you will do better at it than an unprepared student.  But two or three students, together, usually can do a better job of predicting the complex questions and developing good answers.  Study groups work best if they're formed    early in the semester, but even the week before exams is not too late.  Start by frankly admitting what each of you knows best and least, and find the holes in your preparation.  Then, each of you can "teach" your area of specialization in a short session by reviewing notes, and each of you can orally quiz the others on probable exam questions.  Remember to make your questions fair, effective, and efficient.  Sometimes others' answers will teach you!

4)  Finally, some teachers try to avoid the boredom of reading these familiar kinds of essays by writing bizarre instructions that require imagination as well as analytical mastery.  Some famous favorites are:

Philosophy exam: "Why?"

Cognitive science exam: "How do you know?"

Cell biology exam: "A white blood cell and a red blood cell meet in your aorta at noon, and they compare notes on their day's activities.  What do they say?

Literature exam: "You give a dinner party and you invite any four characters from the works we've read.  What happens, what do they say, and why?"

Literary theory exam: "Harte Crane's 'The Bridge' has no regular meter, no rhyme scheme, and no stanza structure.  Why is it a poem?

Rhetoric exam: "Persuade me you write well."

If you get one of these, remember the answer requires you to invent the simple and complex verb-tasks.  Break the task into stages for yourself, and pre-write each one.  Also, try to have fun; it improves creativity.

Some final advice--If you have trouble controlling test anxiety, consider doing without caffeine.  Go to office hours or ask for a conference to clarify tough concepts.  If the teacher offers a review session, attend it and ask questions.  If you have a study group, go together if possible.  Don't be afraid to ask "why?"