unsplash_525d7892901ff_1If there is one question that I have been asked over and over again as a professor, its “What’s on the exam?” Exams, and particularly essays in exams, have struck fear into the hearts of students for generations. While most professors will trot out the old adage about journeys and destinations, this does little to assuage the very real fears of students who want concrete answers and not philosophical musings. But with the right approach and tools, every student can succeed in writing essays in exams. So here are my eleven top tips on writing amazing exam essays.

1) Have the Right Equipment

I’ve lost count of the number of times students have shown up for exams without any writing tools. Don’t be that person. Make sure you always have everything you need to write.

Each professor will have their own personal quirks about the materials that you need to write an exam, so it’s definitely worth asking. These are some general guidelines

  •  Bring at least two pens, preferably three: You never know when one pen will run out or just not work properly. Pens are generally preferred over pencils, since pencil can be hard to read. It’s usually best to use blue or black pens, but again, it depends on the professor. I once had a student write in rainbow colours and I thought it was awesome, but that’s me. Try to use a pen that you are comfortable writing with. I have tendonitis in both of my wrists, so I’ve come to appreciate the importance of good pens. My favourite ones are the liquid ink pens, since they don’t require any kind of pressure in order to work. I also like aqua pens, because aqua is my favourite colour. 🙂

At a bare minimum, this is what you need. If you want to go further, here are some other suggestions:

  • A pencil: I usually wrote my exams entirely in pen, but some people prefer using pencils for notes. It’s really up to you.
  • A highlighter: These are good for reviewing the exam once you’ve sat down. More on this below.
  • Food and Water: I almost always brought a water bottle. Do whatever feels comfortable. Not every exam room will have ready access to a water fountain or vending machine. It’s best to come prepared.
  • Appropriate clothing: Depending on the time of year, classrooms can either be freezing or hellish infernos. Make sure you’ll be comfortable while writing! And leave any balls caps or hats with brims at home. Most professors will make you take them off, since some enterprising students have used the underside of the brim for notes.

Things you don’t need: White-out. It’s a pain in the ass. Just cross things out. Trust me, no one cares.

2) Read the Entire Exam Before You Write

I cannot emphasize this enough. There will almost always be instructions written at the top of the exam about how to write. Follow these instructions!  This is where your highlighter comes in. When I wrote exams, I went through them and highlighted the most important instructions, to make sure that I followed them properly.

Most exams will tell you to write double-spaced and only on the right side of the paper. I know this seems wasteful, but think about it from your professor’s perspective: try reading 30+ exams that are single spaced. You will go cross-eyed. As for the right side, it’s easier to just turn to the next page rather than flip the entire book around. You want your professor to be happy when they are reading, not frustrated!

If you make a mistake, just start writing the correct way as soon as you remember. There is no point to redoing what you’ve already written.

Why is it so important to read the instructions? There are two reasons. Following instructions shows your professor that you paid attention. It’s usually a sign of a good exam. Failing to follow the instructions is a warning sign and usually signals to the reader that they are about to read a really crappy exam essay. The second reason is equally simple: some professors are assholes. Really. Some will ding you for not following instructions. Don’t forget the old fable of the student who wrote an exam without reading it through, only to find that the last question said “Skip all previous questions and answer only this one.” (I’ve never actually heard of this happening, but I know some professors who would totally do this if they thought they could get away with it.)

3) Work Smart, Not Hard

No one is expecting your exam essay to be perfect, least of all your professor. Everyone’s tired, especially your professor. It’s not necessary to spend the exam writing down absolutely everything you’ve ever remembered about your topic. Just do what you are asked. More work will not get you extra marks and will take away from the time you need for other questions!

4) An Essay by Any Other Name Smells as Sweet…

In most humanities classes, you will have been asked to write essays for assignments, and likely gotten feedback. These lessons are equally applicable to answering essay questions on exams. As such, you know — more or less — what your professor is looking for. So focus on doing that!

5) Have an Organized Approach

Your exam essay should not read like verbal diarrhea. Instead, it should have all the basic components of an essay: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. To do this, write a short outline on the left hand side of the booklet. The outline should contain the parts of the essay. Don’t write out too many details, just enough to prompt you to write your question. Having the information laid out already will help with the writing. In the event that you can’t complete the exam, this outline will show your professor what you planned to do, which might gain you extra points. 

6) Make an Argument

When writing essays in exams, it’s important to focus on presenting an argument. At the university level, professors are more interested in your ability to argue than your ability to remember random facts. Remember how humanities fields involve critical thinking and writing? This is your chance to show off your thinking and writing skills. Most essay questions will ask you to take a position on a topic. This should be your focus.

When making an argument, you need to present evidence. In history essays, this usually means providing examples. Here’s an example of how to use examples:

Question: How did Industrialization change Canadian families?

Answer: Industrialization altered the relationship between husbands and wives. On pre-industrial farms, husbands and wives were interdependent. Both of them were required to accomplish particular tasks in order to survive. While tasks were largely gendered, women could and did assist in traditionally male tasks for the good of the family. For example, men often left home for long periods to earn extra money in the timber or fur industries. During this time, husbands relied on women to plough land, plant and harvest crops, and even cut wood. This work was necessary to ensure the success of the farm……

Expert tip: For a super awesome exam essay, relate  your answer to some of the theories or foundational concepts your professor has talked about in class. The most important ones will be mentioned more than once, so be on the lookout!

7) Have a Smashing Introduction

Professors are just like everyone else, they judge essays and people based on first impressions. While these first impressions can be overcome, it’s really difficult. Most professors will be able to determine the likely grade for your essay by the time they finish reading the introduction, and this will colour the the way the professor looks at the rest of the essay. So if your introduction is weak, they are likely thinking “this is a C; I’ll bet the rest is like this” even if it’s actually pretty good. The same is true for the reverse: an excellent introduction will make professors more likely to forgive mistakes later on! So try to make your introduction as good as you can. At a minimum, the introduction should include your argument in the form of a thesis statement.

8) Have Fun and be Creative!

I realize that writing an exam is not the most entertaining of activities. But imagine what it’s like to read 100 final exams. Any imagination or humour will be greatly appreciated by your professor. Trust me. It also shows that you are comfortable with and understand the material.

9) Stretch your Hand

Most students tend to have a death grip on their pens, which only seems to get worse as the exam progresses. Try to pause every 30 minutes to stretch out your hand. This will prevent your hand from cramping during those critical final moments.

10) Revise If You Can

It’s always good to take a few minutes to revise your essay. It can be really hard to do this. You’re tired, whatever adrenaline you’re running on is likely long gone. Try to close your eyes for a few minutes and unfocus your mind. Then come back to your essay with a fresher perspective.

11) Walk Away! 

Don’t spend time dwelling on what you think you did wrong or right. There is nothing you can do to change the outcome. Put your pen down, appreciate that you did your best, submit your exam, and then go eat some chocolate.


These are my top eleven tips for writing great essays during exams! These essays might seem intimidating, but if you work strategically, they can be an opportunity to show your professor just how much you’ve learned over the semester. The most important point is to just do your best, and appreciate that that is enough.

While these are my suggestions, there are many more tips and tricks. Professors, any you’d like to share? Students, are there any tricks that have gotten you through writing exams? Post your comments below!

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