Writing Essays for Exams: Question and Answer Format

You might be asking yourself what a well written answer to an essay question looks like.

It is…

Highly Focused

Attempt to answer the question as completely and thoroughly as you can. Meaning, answer every part of the question. But, try to avoid ‘padding’ or rambling on with unnecessary information. Doing so only demonstrates that you have no idea what the right answer is and that you are grasping at straws or hoping that somehow you might have the correct answer in your mix of words.

Highly Organized

Never write haphazardly. Yes, it is an exam and some nervousness should be expected. But, you still have an obligation to plan your writing and to make sure that what you write is written in proper format, with a clear introduction, and a thesis statement. That being said, you should also include a concise conclusion that properly summarizes your key points.

Highly Supported

Don’t just say that something has to be true – prove it. With figures, facts, tests, examples, graphs, or whatever else you can find that will help you to prove your argument. In many cases, you will find that the difference between an A+ and a B- is that the person who received the A+ had excellent supporting evidence to back up their claims.

Highly Articulate

Individuals who are incapable of using the conventions of language are often considered to be incompetence and lacking education. Take measure to ensure that you are writing concisely and effectively. If you are unsure of how to do this, refer to a few of our learning guides for help.

Whenever you have a writing assignment that requires you to write an essay, or when you are taking an exam and need to write an essay (SAT essay for example), it is crucial to know and understand the process of writing an effective essay exam.

But, how does one write a thought-provoking and educated response to an essay question?

How to respond to writing test questions effectively and clearly

  1. Begin by carefully reading each of the questions.
  2. Take note of how much time you have (particularly for timed writingassignments) and determine which of the questions you should answer first.
  3. Identify and underline relevant keywords and those that instruct you on what needs to be done for each question.
  4. Select an organizational pattern that is appropriate for each of the keywords identified and strategize your responses on a piece of scrap paper (or in the margins if you aren’t provided extra paper.)
  5. Write out your answers as quickly and as neatly as you can – do not waste time trying to recopy your responses.
  6. Start each answer with a short thesis that clearly summarizes your reply. Wherever possible, phrase your statement so that it restates the question’s essential terminology into a complete statement (and, in itself, answers the question.)
  7. Back up your thesis by using specific references to the things that you have researched and studies.
  8. Remember to proofread your answers and edit or correct and errors in spelling or grammar.

Know the Types of Essay Questions

Most of the essay questions that you will come across, including GRE example questions, will include one or more keywords that will indicate that organizational pattern that you should attempt to use in your response. For your benefit, the six most commonly used organizational patterns are:

  1. Definition
  2. Analysis
  3. Cause and Effect
  4. Comparison and Contrast
  5. Process Analysis and,
  6. Thesis Support

Let’s take a closer look at these organizational patterns.

DEFINITION

Whenever an essay question is following the organizational pattern of Definition, you will know by the use of questions like:

  • DefineY
  • What is a ____
  • Select X terms from the following list and define them

For example:

Question: What is an e-zine?
Answer: An e-zine is a digital publication, similar to a print magazine…

The Process:

  • Restate the term that will be defined
  • State the genus (or class of objects) that the item belongs to
  • Distinguish the term from other members of the same genus by listing the terms defining characteristics.

Tools the might be helpful:

  • Any details that can be used to describe the term
  • Specific examples or case studies
  • Contrast and comparison to familiar terms
  • Further classification
  • Exploration of the origins, results, effect, etc.

ANALYSIS

The next question you might encounter follows the organizational pattern of analysis. These types of questions involve breaking something down into subgroups and determining who the parts make up the whole.

Typical questions include:

  • Analyze Y
  • What are the elements of Y
  • What are the four different kinds of Y
  • Discuss the different types of Y

For examples,

Question: Discuss the different services a community center might offer to the community?
Answer: A community center offers the community at least three types of services: sports services for young people, social gathering for older people, and access to community support for all people.

The Process:

  • Outline all supporting details and examples.
  • Write the essay, clearly describing each element and making transitions between each description. Helpful transition words include: first, second, third, next, another, in addition, etc.
  • End the essay by restating how each element makes up the whole.

CAUSE AND EFFECT

The next organizational pattern you might see if Cause and Effect. This involves following probable or known effects of a certain cause or exploring one or more effects and demonstrating the reasonable causes.  The question you might see include:

  • What are the causes of Y
  • What led to Y
  • Why did Y occur
  • Why does Y happen
  • What would be the effect of Y

For example,

Question: Define an eating disorder and discuss the probable effects the media has on young people with eating disorders.

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Answer: Thesis: An eating disorder is a mental illness that causes the affected individual to….

The answer would go on to explain, in some detail, three or more effects.

Helpful transition words include: because, therefore, for this reason, etc.

COMPARISON AND CONTRAST

In this type of organizational pattern, you are likely to see questions like:

  • How does A differ from B
  • Compare A and B
  • What are the benefits and downfalls of A and B

For example,

Question: Which superpower would you rather have – the power to fly or the power to walk through walls?
Answer: Thesis: I would prefer to have the power of flight over the power to walk through walls for the following reasons: A….. B…. C… and D.

Two development patterns:

Pattern A
The power to fly

  • Benefits
  • Drawbacks

The power to walk through walls

  • Benefits
  • Drawbacks

Pattern B

Benefits

  • The power to fly
  • The power to walk through walls

Helpful transition words include: on the other hand, similarly, yet, unlike A, B …, in the same way, in similar fashion, but, while both A and B are…, nonetheless, on the contrary, despite, though, however, conversely.

PROCESS

This type of organization pattern, also known as process analysis, requires the telling the reader how to accomplish something. It might involve demonstrating a complex procedure or a series of smaller steps. It will almost always be listed chronologically.

The typical questions you might see include:

  • Describe how Y is carried out
  • List all of the steps involved in Y
  • Explain the outcome of Y
  • What is the procedure for Y

For example:

Question: According to Jane Doe, in The Cheese Moved Itself, what is the best procedure for motivating a team of employees?
Answer: In The Cheese Moved Itself, Jane Doe lists eight things that great managers must do to motivate their team: 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. 5.. 6..  7… and 8..

The rest of the answer should discuss each of the eight things in moderate detail.

Helpful transition words include: first, second, third, next, then, following this, finally, lastly, afterwards, subsequently, etc.

THESIS AND SUPPORT

This type of organizational pattern involves stating a well worded opinion and then defending your argument with relevant data, facts, examples, etc. This should all come from the material you studied. Typical questions include:

  • Discuss Y
  • A thought leader has said Y. Do you agree or do you disagree
  • Refute Y
  • Do you believe that Y is valid? Defend your argument.

For example:

Question: Despite criticism, television shows like Teen Mom has helped to lower rates of teenage pregnancy.
Answer: Television shows, like Teen Mom, glamorize teen pregnancy because a… b… c.. and d.

The rest of your answer needs to further develop and demonstrate your arguments of a.. b.. c.. and d.

Helpful transition words include: therefore, for this reason, due in part, it follows, however, as a result, directly.

List of Common Essay Writing Tips Suitable For All Essay Types

It isn’t uncommon for students to start writing frantically after only briefly scanning the essay question. You should NOT do this. Instead, try this:

  • Jot down every piece of information that you’ve had to memorize while studying for the exam – in point form, of course.
  • Read the questions and instructions more than once. Reread every question on the exam. If you just take the time to answer each question as you come across it, you may find that you uncover information that could help you with another question. Remember to identify every part of the question.
  • Develop your thesis and form your answer around that. You are welcome to use wording from the question itself. There is no time to waste on crafting elaborate introductions, but remember to clearly introduce your topic, your statement and how you intend to support your argument.
  • Organize your points in a clear and concise manner. Prior to jumping into the body paragraphs, take the time to write an outline that summarizes the points you intend to make. Confirm that you are answering all of the relevant parts of the question. Structure and organization are the most important elements of any great essay.
  • Make a strong and persuasive argument. Most essays will ask you to prove some sort of argument. There may not be a right or wrong answer, but there certainly are more or less persuasive responses. What makes your argument persuasive?
    • A clear thesis statement
    • Enough supporting evidence that you are able to back up your thesis
    • Logical progression through the parts and ideas in the essay.

What are some things that should be avoided?

  • Never pad your essay. Your instructor will know when you are trying to talk circles around them – they are after all, smarter than you.
  • Stay away from excuses. No one like them. Your teacher doesn’t want to read that you’ve run out of time, or that you weren’t able to study because your cat was in the hospital. If these are true, make an appointment to speak with the TA after the exam.

Don’t hand in the kitchen sink. That is, don’t write down absolutely everything that you know about a specific topic, without connecting any of the information to the question. Everything you put into your answer should connect to the question and clearly support your argument.