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!