How To Write An Essay Question

Political Science/JSIS/LSJ Writing Center
Tools for TAs and Instructors

Tips for Writing Essay Exams

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Before the Exam: Prepare and Practice

Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
  • Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
  • Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
  • Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
  • Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
  • A definition of the theories
  • A brief description of the issue
  • A comparison of the two theories' predictions
  • A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
In the exam

Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
  • Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
  • Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
  • Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
  • Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
  • Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
  • A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
  • Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
  • Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
  • Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Things to Avoid

Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
  • Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
  • Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
  • Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!

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Quotation + Discuss' questions

One of the most common types of essay question is a direct quotation followed by a general task word or phrase like ‘Discuss' or ‘To what extent do you agree?'.

When answering these questions, the most important thing is to work out your argument – what you think about the ideas in the quotation. Are they right, or wrong? Is there more than one side to the issue? This type of question lets you argue both sides of an argument, as long as you still come to a clear conclusion.

'Double-barrelled' questions

‘Double-barrelled' essay questions contain several issues that you need to answer separately. It's easy to miss parts of these questions – especially in an exam – but you have to answer each part in order to pass.

One way to deal with these questions is to break them into smaller, simpler questions. This makes it easy to see if you need to discuss more than one idea, and gives your research some clear goals.

Double-barrelled questions also challenge you to find relationships between different issues, and show your understanding of how they affect each other.

For example

‘World War II saw many people question old beliefs and argue for change.' To what extent do you agree?

A good essay would talk about both issues raised in this question and talk about how they impact on each other.

Firstly, you'd write about whether WWII made people question their beliefs and if so, how their beliefs changed.

Then you would talk about whether questioning old beliefs led people to argue for change.

General questions

General questions often use like ‘discuss', and ask broad questions that could apply to almost any topic. This means you have to decide on the of your essay, and build your argument from scratch.

The good thing about general questions is that they allow you to pick a topic you know about and really show what you can do.

For example

Were there any winners in the conflict that you studied?

This is a History question, so topics you could write about include:

  • The American Civil War
  • Colonisation in Australia
  • World War I or II.

The key to answering this question well is exploring the idea of what it means to ‘win', and whether there are ever any real winners when societies come into conflict.

The question is broad so you could answer it no matter what period of history you studied.

Specific questions

Specific questions are usually quite long and clearly outline what you need to cover in your essay. They're often easier to answer because they tell you exactly what to do, but they aren't very flexible – you have to be able to do everything in the question, so there can't be any gaps in your knowledge.

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