How to Write an Essay in an Exam

If you hate writing and struggle with writing essays, then learning that you have to write an essay in an exam can feel overwhelming. “Writing an essay is hard enough! Now you want me to do it in an hour, in a room full of other people?! Without my notes and the internet?!?!”

I personally like writing projects with urgent deadlines! You’re probably thinking, “Is she crazy?” I didn’t always love to write while under pressure, but through many essays and other high-pressure writing projects over the years, I have found a system that allows me to deliver great content in a short time. In fact, increased urgency can help you bust through writer’s block and procrastination, so this is a great skill to learn!

Don’t miss my post on how to start a college application essay!

The most important thing to remember when you have to write an essay in an exam is this:

The professor wants to assess your:

  1. Knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and what you have learned from the class.
  2. Ability to argue your position on a subject clearly and effectively.
  3. Organizational skills when delivering this information.

Here are several ideas you can adopt before, during, and after you write an essay in an exam.

How to Write an Essay in an Exam
Learn how to write an essay in an exam and overcome your exam anxiety. You can harness these key study motivation tips to prepare for an essay before, during, and after your exam.

Before You Write an Essay in an Exam

Decide on an essay topic, or pick from a list of prompts before the exam.

Try to choose your topic as early as possible so you have time to do your research, create an outline, and address any concerns. If you have questions for your professor, now is the time to ask for clarification.

Review your class notes.

This is why taking good, organized notes in class is critical! Using information specifically mentioned by your professor in class will strengthen your argument when you write an essay during an exam. They will immediately recognize these important points from their own lectures and will be more likely to boost your grade. It is very flattering when your students show they have paid attention to your lessons! Make sure that any information you use from class is directly related to the essay topic you will be covering during the exam.

Review notes from your textbooks or other course materials, especially any that your professor specifically pointed out.

If you discussed a particular passage in class that is relevant to your essay topic, see if it fits into your argument and can be mentioned. What was the event that occurred? Did it involve a specific person? What happened, but more importantly, why was it important? How does it relate to your topic/support your argument?

Consider the following points related to your topic and if/how they contribute to your argument for this particular essay prompt:

  • What happened?
  • Who was involved? Why are they important?
  • Where did it happen? Why is this place important?
  • When did it happen? Why is this time important?
  • Most importantly, WHY did it happen? Why is it significant?

BONUS QUESTIONS: These will take your essay to the next level! What do we learn from this event? How is it affecting us today? How will it affect us in the future?

Create a basic outline.

This will give you a visual, organized representation of how you will write the essay during the exam. In its most simplified format, it will look something like this:

  • Introduction (background information) + thesis
  • Point 1 + example(s) + relate back to thesis
  • Point 2 + example(s) + relate back to thesis
  • Point 3 + example(s) + relate back to thesis
  • Conclusion + reiterate thesis

If you’re stuck, try thinking visually and start with a story.

Not only will you remember your points better during the actual exam, but as a bonus, it will be more engaging for the professor who’s grading it if you incorporate visual elements. What about the conditions in your essay are noteworthy? Describe what would people hear, taste, see, smell, and feel that might be significant.

Don’t include random information; it still needs to tie into your topic and argument. For example, if you were writing about the plague during medieval times, you might include a narrative note describing the unsanitary living conditions. This could include how people dumped waste in the streets, the putrid smell, and how this contributed to the pestilence. That’s hard to forget AND adds force to your argument!

Talk it out with a classmate or friend.

Especially if you are in the same class, even if you are not writing about the same topic, it can help to get another perspective from someone who is familiar with the information. You might be able to help them as well! The best strategy is to outline your own essay as far as possible, then compare notes and see if your friend identifies any holes in your argument or doesn’t understand a connection you are trying to make. This can help you get clarity fast and take your argument from so-so to great.

Write your outline and argument down on a physical piece of paper.

This can be especially great for brainstorming, and you can always move to a digital version if you need. As this Lifehack article explores, writing your thoughts down on paper can also help with the retention of the information, allowing you to remember more details when you write an essay during an exam.

Practice writing your basic outline until you know it by heart.

If nothing else, you want to be able to recite your thesis, your top supporting points, and your top examples from memory. These are the most critical components on which your grade will hinge. Another great way to do this is with flashcards.

During Your Essay in an Exam

During an exam, you often have to write in a linear fashion.

This means you start at the beginning and move straight through to the end. It is very different from when you are normally writing an essay and can jump around, rearrange things, and come back with additional edits.

Having an outline pre-planned and memorized is a huge help when you write an essay in an exam. The important thing is to keep pushing through! Keep writing! If you feel like you’ve forgotten an important point or example, try to tie it in later. 

Once the exam starts, immediately jot down your outline from memory.

Do this on a spare piece of paper or the back of your exam paper if you are able. Take no more than five minutes to do this, or less, if possible. Only then start writing the final version of the essay. Refer back to your outline as needed; you can add thoughts to your outline as you go if you remember something else or have a spark of inspiration! It’s so comforting knowing that you have this safety net during a stressful exam.

Keep it simple!

When in doubt, use the following formula as you write: subject + verb + object. For example, “The chicken (subject) crossed (verb) the road (object).” This is WHAT happend. Then add WHY it’s important. For example, “To get to the other side.”

Don’t diverge from your argument.

Stick to your thesis and main points. Again, this is where that outline comes in handy!

Breathe!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pause and take a deep breath. Do this a few times, observing your breath, until you have calmed and can return to the essay and exam. This article from Harvard describes how focusing on the breath can help relieve stress.

Make sure you have supplies before your exam.

Have extra pens, pencils, and erasers on hand. Wear a watch on your wrist (you probably won’t be able to use your phone!) so you can track how much time you have left. Keep a water bottle with you, and put it on the floor and away from your exam papers to avoid spills.

Give yourself five to 10 minutes to reread and edit your work.

Especially if you are writing in pencil, this gives you the opportunity to check spelling and grammar, or add a bit more to your conclusion. See the bonus questions under the “Before You Write an Essay in an Exam” section for ideas to take your essay to the next level! The conclusion is a great place to use these ideas.

Remember: Done is better than perfect.

Writing an essay in an exam is a huge accomplishment, one that we are not always trained for well in grade school. By the time we get to college, it can feel daunting, but it can help to reframe your definition of success. I guarantee that none of your classmates will write a perfect essay under these circumstances, either. If you include all of your main points in an effective, organized argument, you will be miles ahead of most people!

When in doubt, simplify.

If your thoughts are racing around your mind like a bunch of squirrels, and you can’t pin anything down, go back to the basics. How would you say it if you were explaining it to someone out loud, to someone who knows nothing about the subject, like your grandma? Jot it down on a spare, blank piece of paper before adding it to your final essay.

After Your Essay in an Exam

Celebrate!

Congratulations, you have completed an exam essay, which is no easy feat! Seriously, a lot of work goes into these, so treat yourself!

Did you hit any roadblocks?

If so, jot them down immediately after you finish the essay, and keep them in a safe space where you can find them later. These are items you can revisit moving forward. You will strengthen your writing muscle every time you write an essay in an exam, and addressing these particular concerns will help you improve by leaps and bounds.

Talk to your professor.

If you struggled throughout the essay and exam, use these points to launch a discussion with your professor about how you can improve. See the email template below for how to get the ball rolling.

How to Talk to Your Professor About Your Exam Essay (Email Template)

*Don’t forget to fill in the blanks with your specific information, and tweak it as needed!

Dear Dr./Professor [X],

I am enjoying your class on [X], but I struggled with the essay portion of our exam on [date]. In particular, I had trouble with [use your points from above].

I am currently working on my essay writing in exams, and I would love to hear your insights on how you think I can improve moving forward.

Is there a time we could meet that works for you? I am free during these times this week and next week:

  • Date, time
  • Date, time
  • Date, time

Sincerely,

Your Name

Author: Elise Murrell

After years of slaying all kinds of writing projects and coaching my friends, family members, and coworkers through the writing process, I’m sharing my tried-and-true methods to help you achieve your best essays, ever.

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