Digital History>Writing Guides>Taking an Essay Exam

Taking an Essay Exam

An essay question asks you to combine information drawn from several different sources, arrange that information in an unfamiliar pattern, and draw conclusions.

How Instructors Grade Essay Exams

When professors evaluate your essays, they not only test your command of the facts, but also your analytical, organizational, and essay-writing skills.

In an essay, you must do much more than simply regurgitate information offered in a lecture. You need to demonstrate your capacity to apply the knowledge to a specific question. You need to present a clear and compelling argument and a structure that flows logically. In short, you are graded both on substance and style.


  • Does the essay adequately cover the issues raised in the question?
  • Does the essay thoroughly define key terms and concepts?
  • Is the thesis too general? Is it appropriate to the complexity of the material?
  • Is the essay's argument logical?
  • Does the essay include specific references to the readings and lectures?


  • Does the essay respond directly to the question?
  • Does the essay adequately document its arguments?
  • Is the essay well-organized?
  • Are quotations thoroughly analyzed?
  • Are the paragraphs and sentences well-constructed?

Watch for Key Words

Most essay questions contain a specific instruction or “prompt” that you are to respond to:

  • Compare:
    You are to emphasize similarities, although differences may be mentioned.
  • Contrast:
    You are to stress dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.
  • Criticize:
    Discuss the limitations and good points or contributions of the work in question.
  • Define:
    Definitions call for concise, clear, authoritative meanings.
  • Describe:
    Recount, characterize, sketch or relate in narrative form.
  • Discuss:
    Examine, analyze carefully, and present considerations pro and con regarding the problems or items involved. This type of question calls for a complete and detailed answer.
  • Enumerate:
    In such questions you should recount, one by one, in concise form, the points required.
  • Evaluate:
    Carefully appraise a problem stressing both advantages and limitations. Evaluation implies authoritative and, to a lesser degree, personal appraisal of both contributions and limitations.
  • Explain:
    Clarify, elucidate, and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the "how or why," reconcile any differences in opinion, and, where possible, state causes.
  • Identify:
    Thoroughly describe or define a specific person, event, or concept, and state its significance.
  • Illustrate:
    Explain or clarify your answer to the problem by presenting a concrete example.
  • Justify:
    Provide the grounds for your point of view. Present your evidence in a convincing form.
  • Outline:
    An outline answer is organized description. Give the main points and essential supplementary materials, omitting minor details, and present the information in a systematic arrangement.
  • Summarize:
    Give in condensed form the main points or facts.
  • Trace:
    Describe a historical sequence, or development from the point of origin.

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