The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
124 Osband


  1. Begin your preparation by reading your instructorís course description and syllabus and then writing down whatever assumptions, biases, and teaching objectives are stated or implied in these materials. Determine how the various course topics relate to one another and note any repeated themes. Think about any potential essay questions you can generate from this information and then write them down.

  2. Read assignments and listen to lectures and discussions with the purpose of determining how the course content supports the major themes and answers the major questions you have generated from the course description and syllabus. Modify and refine these themes and questions throughout the course as you gain additional information.

  3. At some point prior to the test - preferably a week or two before - quickly look over your notes and the chapter headings from your readings. From this overview, generate a list of major topics for the course material covered. For each major topic, create a summary sheet of all the relevant factual data that relates to that topic. (See the "Taking Tests - General Tips" for more information about summary sheets).

  4. In addition to learning the factual material, determine any logical relationships among topics. These relationships are often predictive of essay test questions. For example, if in a history course, you find that two political movements are noticeably similar, then your instructor may very well ask you to compare and contrast the two movements. Generate a list of possible essay questions and consider setting up and answering as many of these questions as time permits.


  1. Read all essay questions before you start to write. As ideas and examples come to you, jot them down on scratch paper or on the back of the test so that you wonít clutter your mind trying to remember everything.

  2. Budget your time according to the point value of each question, allowing time for proof-reading and any unexpected emergencies (such as taking longer than you expected on a question or going blank for a while).

  3. As you read the questions, underline key words (e.g., compare, explain, justify, define) and make sure you understand what you are being asked.

  4. Begin with the questions that seem easiest to you. This procedure reduces anxiety and facilitates clear thinking.

  5. Before actually writing, determine the relationship implied by the question, even if the key word or words do not express a specific relationship. For example, if you were given the following question, "The Progressive Movement was a direct response to the problems of industrialization. Discuss.", you might narrow your response to a more specific cause/effect relationship like the following: "What were the problems of industrialization that caused a response that we label the Progressive Movement?"

  6. After determining the relationship implied by the question, picture the relationship by creating a chart or matrix of the related elements. Be sure to separate general issues you wish to bring up from supporting details and examples. Once this framework for your ideas has been created, generate as many ideas as you can within the allotted time to fill in the categories you have established.


  1. Be sure your answer has a definite thesis that directly answers the question. State this thesis within the first few sentences of your answer.

  2. Provide specific as well as general information in your response by including examples, substantiating facts, and relevant details from your pre-writing matrix.

  3. Use the technical vocabulary of the course.

  4. Leave space for additions to your answer by writing on every other line and on only one side of each page.

  5. Write legibly.

  6. If your mind goes blank or you donít know much about a question, relax and brainstorm for a few moments about the topic. Recall pages from your texts, particularly lectures, class discussions to trigger your memory about ideas relevant to the questions. Write these ideas down as coherently as you can.

  7. When you reach the end of your allotted time period for a given question, move on to the next item. Partially answering all questions is better than fully answering some but not others. The instructor canít give you any credit for a question you havenít attempted.

  8. If you find yourself out of time on a question but with more to say, quickly write down in outline form what you would write if you had time.


  1. Re-read your answers and make any additions that are necessary for clarity & completeness.

  2. Check your response for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.


  1. Read all comments and suggestions.

  2. Look for the origins of the questions. Did most of the information your instructor expected on your essay come from the lectures? From the texts? From outside reading?

  3. Determine the source of your errors. Was there any course content tested for which you failed to prepare or were inadequately prepared? Did you misread or misunderstand any of the questions? Did you do poorly because you ran out of time? Were you too anxious to focus on the questions and your responses? Did the instructor criticize your writing skills--grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, style, or organization--or how you developed or argued your points?

  4. Check the level of difficulty or the level of detail of the test questions. Were most of the questions asking for precise details or main ideas and principles? Did most of the questions come straight from the material covered, or did the instructor expect you to be able to analyze and/or evaluate the information? Did you have any problems with anxiety or blocking during the test?