Yes, you read right.  You can actually love essay tests.  For most of us, essay tests rank right up there with colonoscopies and tax audits, but read on, and you’ll find out why essay tests are actually the kind!

Please don’t jeer or throw things, but I’ve always preferred essay tests.  I think it goes back to my freshman year in high school when Coach Davis, my history teacher, gave us an essay question that was something like, “What factors contributed to the victor’s triumph in the 1858 senate race between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas?”

My first thought on reading this question was, “Kuhhrap!  That Lincoln guy sounds real familiar, but who was Douglas?  Was I even here that day?” My ignorance was so complete that I didn’t even know who won the election, much less why.  (And you wonder why are a concern of mine.)  However, by carefully wording my sentences–The victor, by mustering more of the popular vote and speaking to the people in terms they found compelling, was able to clinch an otherwise very loseable race–and avoiding the gaping holes in my knowledge, I was able to get full credit!  “Kewwwl,” thought I.  From then on essays were my friends.

Obviously, such patent BSing is not always effective, nor–fortunately–is it usually necessary.  But in general, essay questions don’t pin you down as much as multiple choice or short answer type questions.  Perfect knowledge of the topic is not vital! Essays free you up to show what you know and artfully avoid the holes in your knowledge (while implying that you don’t have any such holes).  Bonus: Most of us are already experts at this type of … errr … artful response.  Think about how you might answer such a commonplace question as “How do you like my new haircut?”  You know how to answer without revealing what you really think.  So love those essays!  They provide you with some oft-needed wiggle room.

You can also get better at acing your essays by following a few easy-to-use techniques that will save you time and keep you from giving away points.  Here’s how …[hidepost]

Work from a template.  A template is a basic structure that you follow on most of your essays.


–Restate the basic question or topic

–Then give your stance (the thesis)

–Followed by three reasons to support your position

–Support each of those reasons with two other sentences that provide further explanation or key evidence.

–Finally, restate your thesis and conclude

Using a template is a no-brainer because it has so many benefits.  It enables you to spend more time writing and less time how to structure things.  It prevents you from crashing into an ugly fact half way through your response and then wasting time trying to resuscitate your damaged prose.  Most importantly, a template provides your essays with structure, something that–as any teacher or professor can tell you–is sadly lacking in most essays.  Structure trumps style (everywhere but in your English ).  Translation?  You ain’t always gotta write purty in order to get a good grade.

Plan before you write.  I’m always amazed at how many of my GRE students jump directly into writing their essays without scribbling out at least a basic outline of what they’ll be covering.  For the above template I might quickly scribble down my three basic reasons with an idea of some quote, example, or statistic, I could use to bolster each point.  By the way, I do this on my scratch paper or on the back of the , and I don’t write complete sentences!  These are just my personal , so I abbreviate and summarize … just enough to remind me of my point.  I also take a minute to note in what order I’ll cover the points.  Another way you should plan ahead is by figuring out exactly how much time you have for each essay before you start the test.  Take two minutes to evaluate how much you’ll need to write and how much each essay is worth, then keep track of your time on each essay.  If I have ten minutes to write a given essay I will spend as much as two minutes planning, before I actually even start the essay.  It is time well spent!

Pay attention to your handwriting. After your teacher or professor has read twenty underwhelming essays, fatigue sets in.  When they come to an essay that looks to have been written by an overcaffeinated squirrel, it just makes them mad.  The last thing they want to do is to try and decipher your migraine-inducing chicken scratch.  It’s a lot easier to just give you a mediocre or poor grade with no explanation.  If you come back and ask for some justification, they can always say they couldn’t read your handwriting, but most students won’t ever question their .  Believe me, I’ve know loads o’ teachers and profs.  This is not an uncommon practice!  Slow down and write legibly.

Finally, reread the essay under your breath.  Don’t just read it again, read it as if you are doing so in front of an audience.  In past classes, I’ve had students check, double-check, and triple-check their essays.  Then I’ll have them read the essay aloud to me.  Invariably, students catch three or four errors; missed endings, vague sentences, confusing structure, etc.  Why does this happen?  When we reread to ourselves, we know what we meant to say, so we see what we meant to write.  When we read aloud to an audience, we listen to it from their perspective and catch our flubbed conjugations and mangled meanings.[/hidepost]



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