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How to Write Brilliant Essays in Exams

It’s common to feel nervous before exams, but this shouldn’t affect your ability to think clearly and write well on the day to gain the grades you deserve. Discover how to approach exams effectively, and learn how to perform at your best on the day of your test.

Preparing for the essay portion of your test

By the time you sit down to the exam, the majority of your work has already been done: The exam is about putting into practice the skills and knowledge which you’ve already acquired. So think about the demands of your exam well in advance:

  • Check out the format of the exam, and make sure you’ve had practice answering the different types of essay questions.

  • Identify those topics which you’re less comfortable with, and which will need more work.

  • Work out roughly how much time you’ll need to revise each topic, and plan a revision timetable.

  • Keep organised, easy-to-read, easy-to-access notes. Trying to revise from disorganized and unspecific notes is a pretty impossible task. Developing good habits from the start will save you much time and stress.

  • Work out your revision strategy. People work in very different ways, so experiment to find out what suits you.

  • Practise writing by hand. Most people write essays on a computer and don’t get much practice at writing timed, handwritten essays.

The day before your essay-writing

Look after your body as well as your mind. Eat healthily (this will help you to focus) and to avoid any alcohol. Taking exercise is a good way to recharge your batteries and will help keep your energy levels high. Drink plenty of water to maintain concentration and focus. Perhaps most importantly, try to get a good night’s sleep and make some time for relaxation.

Stay calm and focused on the day of your exam

Remember that nerves are perfectly normal, and that adrenalin is useful in keeping you focused during the exam. Remind yourself that you’ve done well in exams before, and that you can do so again. Take some deep breaths if you feel nervous during the exam, and don’t start to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. You need time to think as well as well write, so don’t be put off by people scribbling around you.

If things are going wrong and you blank out, don’t panic. Check that you have the right exam: Papers can get misplaced. Try to recall the main themes of your course and check whether these fit against the questions. Take some deep breaths, and calmly note down any thoughts that come into your head.

Make sure you read the question carefully and tailor your response accordingly. Read all of the questions before making your choice. Always go for the subject you feel strongest with. Pay attention to the function words in the question, which tell you what to do. Don’t jump into an answer without knowing precisely what is being asked of you. Compare, explain, discuss . . . each of these requires a different type of response, and you should structure your essay accordingly.

Try to make your essay stand out from the crowd by paying attention to the finer details. If possible, leave a few minutes to read through your answer at the end, paying attention to your spelling, grammar and punctuation. Ensure that your writing flows – you may need to add a linking word or phrase to clarify your meaning. Finally, cross out your rough drafts so that the examiner knows where your answer starts.

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