How to Prepare for Essay Exams During Finals

Keep these tips in mind when faced with an essay exam this finals week and you’ll be well prepared to ace even the trickiest of prompts!

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3-minute read

It can be the stuff of nightmares: Pages of blank space waiting for you to fill them as the minutes tick away. An essay exam may be daunting, but don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t prepare if you don’t know the questions in advance.

An essay exam is different from standard question exams not only in format but in how you should prep for it. Studying will likely be less about memorization of formulas, dates, or definitions, and more about understanding ideas, symbolism, or cause and effect. The point of these types of exams is to show how well you understand the bigger picture and can connect the concepts you’ve learned.

Think about what types of questions you expect to see

Obviously, if your instructor has provided sample questions, you have a head-start on this part. Outline your potential answers to the sample questions, and make sure you know enough to fill in the details. However, if you’re in the dark in terms of specific questions, start by reviewing the main topics listed on your syllabus and then consider common themes that seem likely to turn up on the exam. Come up with a few potential essay questions on your own, and practice putting together your answers to those.

As you practice writing your answers to these questions, you’ll better retain the information and hopefully be able to reuse much of it on your real essay, even if the question is somewhat different from what you predicted. At the very least, you’re getting practice constructing a well-composed essay on a whim!

Pick your friends’ brains

Even though essays are a personal way of showing your knowledge, you might find it useful to study for them in a small group. For your initial brainstorming about potential questions, it can be helpful to hear what stood out to other people as key concepts and what they think you’re likely to be asked about on the exam; moreover, you can share your insights with them and get even more of a conversation going. This will give you a broader range of material to follow up on during your own study time—plus it’s more fun than going it alone!

Prep your strategy

Beyond studying the actual course material, think through your strategy for how you’ll use your time during the exam. Your plan might look something like this, assuming you have 90 minutes of test time available:

  1. Read the prompt carefully and understand all parts of the question (5 minutes).

  2. Outline your main points. This does not need to be comprehensive; you want to save most of your time for writing the actual essay. But that part will be easier and faster if you organize your thoughts first (10 minutes).

  3. Write an introduction that concisely and clearly reflects the main points you will make. Reflect once again on the essay prompt to show you understand what is being asked, and then keep your writing focused on that (5-10 minutes).

  4. Follow with clearly organized paragraphs on each of your supporting points, using your outline as a guide. Make each point and then move on to make sure you are on track time-wise (50-55 minutes).

  5. Write a conclusion that ties your ideas together, then read through the entire essay to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything or made errors (10 minutes, or as much time as you have left).

Use all the time available

Yes, it’s really tempting to just finish your conclusion and bolt—after all, you’re ready to be done with this essay, this class, and this semester, already! But if you can stand it, take that extra 10 minutes if you have it and read over your essay one more time. Is there anything you forgot to mention? Are there meandering sentences, irrelevant details, or repetition you can cross out? As you write, check back in on the original question and your opening paragraph to make sure you stayed on point.

Think quality over quantity

It’s better to answer the question in clear, concise language than to unnecessarily draw out your essay with extra words or repetitive information. Your instructor is looking to see that you’ve understood the main points, so the more clearly you can get those across, the better. On the other hand, don’t shortchange yourself by leaving out important details—your goal here is to demonstrate what you know. Ensure you incorporate as much of that as possible while keeping your essay focused.

With these strategies in mind, you should be ready to tackle those daunting blank pages with a little less fear. Ready, set, write!


Lora Wegman is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.

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