How to Write an Exam

        Based on a decade of exam reading, here are some successful and unsuccessful strategies for actually writing the exam.  I'm assuming you're looking at short-passage identifications where you also have to explain "the significance of the passage," and short impromptu essays, like those in my sample midterm exam.

1)  Budget your time!  Spend roughly the same percent of your available time on a section as it is worth in points (e.g., 30 points = 30% of 50 minutes = 15 minutes).  Spend a somewhat larger percentage on tasks that take a lot of preparation before they can be performed, like writing an impromptu essay.  You can probably cut more quickly through shorter tasks, even if they're numerous.  Some people spend so much time on one or two parts of a multi-part exam that they have little or no time for the later parts.  For pedagogical reasons, most instructors put the biggest single point-getter last in the sequence of questions.  In my case, it's the short essay, and they're last because I want people to pass through the passage identifications in order to have a firm grasp on some of the actual text before they write.  I'm trying to prevent gross generalizations without supporting evidence by reminding you about evidence you could use if you recognize what it is.  The grave danger is that you'll miss 30 or 40 points of the total by not taking 30 to 40 percent of the time, or more, to write the essay.  Think of what that means--you may limit your highest possible score to no more than a C- (70) or a D- (60), and that's if you get everything else perfectly right!  So set a deadline by which you will stop working on the earlier parts and start writing the essay.

2)  Read the short-passage identifications twice--first to "gestalt" or holistically grasp what they're about so as to attempt an identification, as you would take in people's faces without studying the nose or eyes when trying to remember their names.  Then reread the ones you're going to write about as if for the first time, making sure all the details support your identification and seeking aspects that harbor hidden significance.  Using my face-recognition simile, that would be like taking a second look at your friend's eyes or mouth to seek signs of emotional state, health, truth-telling, etc.  Is the passage hiding an unexpressed emotion, reacting to something not said, anticipating something to come, revealing a state of "ill health" in a character, or concealing a lie?  "Significance" means more than a paraphrase of the passage in your own words.  What previous parts of the text or even previous texts motivated the events, dialogue, thinking in this passage?  What consequences will later occur as a result of the events, dialogue or thinking?  Don't treat the passage as a trigger for a recital of all you've memorized about the work or author.  That will blind you to what's in front of your eyes in the passage.  Look at the language of the passage for signs of authors' or characters' hidden agendas, their basic values and beliefs, ironies, ignorance, and wisdoms.  Use some of what you memorized to help you add value to what you're saying about the passage, but don't waste time loading the response with rehearsed biographies, plot summaries, etc.

3)  When writing an impromptu essay in response to an essay question, keep the whole essay's question firmly in mind, and that means all of it, not just the last or the easiest part.  Don't generalize at length about one or two words in the question.  You must have specific evidence before you can generalize--check the passages to see whether I've handed you evidence you could use to support your thesis ("For example," "that is," etc).    More importantly, consider the intent of the question and, in your answer, strive to meet that implicit intent with appropriate responses--what's this course all about and what are the big issues that keep coming up in discussion/lecture?  If you are not sure how the precise parts of the question connect with the course's main objectives (in our case to read and understand the creation of early literature), think about trying another question you do understand in this way.   You must carry out the literal instructions in the question, but if you do so without understanding why you're being asked to do so, you risk misunderstanding everything you're writing about.

4)  Plan your essay before you write it.  At least sketch a list of phrases, works, characters or scenes or images etc. that will figure in your answer.   Decide in what order you'll take them up, and look for connections among them to make sense of that order.  Are you looking at chronological development or influence, improvement/growth or degradation/decay, most important to least important or the reverse, tracing causes to effects or effects to causes, or any of the other standard schemes of arrangement?   Explain those relationships in your answer, especially at paragraph transitions.    Also decide, based on that quick list, how many paragraphs you'll need to answer the question.  Do the math--e.g., 2 works of literature with a comparison of one part and a contrast of another is 2 x 2 = 4 paragraphs minimum plus an introduction and conclusion = 6 paragraphs.  Use that knowledge to pace yourself as you write, and the instructor also will have an idea from that sketch what you might not have had time to write if the clock beats you.  If you lose track of your plan while writing, break off, return to the sketch of your plan, and restart where you lost your track.  A minor incoherence is better than an essay that spirals out of control.

5)  Just before you write, review the key terms of art you're planning to use.  This jargon probably is newly learned and may be easy to get wrong.  That can confuse you and your reader, with potentially disastrous results.  Check these key terms to make sure you've got them right.  Can you tell a quatrain from a couplet and a couplet from a sestet?  Can you distinguish a simile from a metaphor or a flat from a round character?  Knowing the principle upon which the terms acquired their names will help you remember all of them, and will help you guess the names of related terms you haven't yet learned.  For instance, if a couplet is 2 lines and a quatrain is 4 lines, what would be the name of an 8-line stanzaic unit?  (Knowing musical terms usually helps one describe poetry for obvious reasons.)

Click here for some practical advice about how to study for this kind of exam.