Preparing for an Essay Exam Help (page 3)

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Updated on Sep 6, 2011


In a persuasive, or argument, essay, you choose one idea and show why it is more legitimate or worthy than another. Your purpose is not to merely show your side, but to convince your reader why your side is best. In order to convince effectively, you must base your argument on reasoning and logic. The most important strategy for the persuasive essay is to choose the side that has the best, or most, evidence. If you believe in that side, your argument will most likely be even stronger (although you don't have to believe in it to write a good essay).

An important component of a persuasive essay is the inclusion of other sides or points of view. In fact, the scoring rubric for the ACT essay notes specifically that readers will be looking for counterarguments. Counterarguments are presented in order to be refuted or weakened, thereby strengthening the case for your side. However, it is important to use reasoning and understanding to refute them. If you don't sound fair, or simply present emotional reasons why your side is best, you have weakened your argument. You must show that your idea is most legitimate in part because other ideas are weak or incorrect.

Key verbs that will help you identify a call to write a persuasive essay include:

  • Criticize: express your judgment about the strengths and weaknesses of your topic, and draw conclusions
  • Evaluate: assess the topic based on its strengths and weaknesses, drawing conclusions
  • Justify: defend or uphold your position on the topic, using convincing evidence
  • Prove: confirm or verify that something is real or true using evidence, examples, and sound reasoning

Understanding Your Prompt

This advice might seem obvious, but it aims to correct one of the most common mistakes made on essay exams: Spend time understanding the type of prompt you'll encounter. Remember that your score depends in large part on how well you address that prompt (both the ACT and SAT essay directions note that an essay written off topic will be scored 0; a GED essay that fails to adequately address the prompt also gets the lowest score—a 1). Preparation materials, both in print and on the Internet, are available for every essay exam, so it's easy to familiarize yourself with them.

Many students fail to address the prompt because they didn't understand what it was asking them to write about. The best way to determine whether you understand it is to put the prompt in your own words, and then compare yours with the original. Are they nearly the same in meaning? If you have trouble with this exercise, try circling the verbs (key words) in the original prompt. These are the same key words you will look for during the exam. When you understand the key words, you can more easily write the type of essay required by the prompt.

Budgeting Your Time

As you prepare to take your exam, familiarize yourself with its timing. Whether you have 25 minutes or an hour, you should complete three distinct tasks: planning, writing, and revising. The writing stage will take the longest, and, for essays that don't hold grammatical and spelling mistakes against you, the revising stage will be the shortest. But every essay should include all three.


Review in particular Freewriting and Listing Help and Writing, The 5 W's, and Mapping Help, and decide, based on a few practice essays, which brainstorming technique works best for you in a timed situation. Knowing exactly what you will do when you begin the exam will not only help you save time, but will also take some of the pressure off, too. Some exit exams (such as Indiana's Graduation Qualifying Exam) judge your prewriting notes, outlines, and other graphic organizers, making it even more important to choose a strategy that you know you do well ahead of time. Even if you are taking the SAT, and have just 25 minutes for your essay, spend the first 3–5 planning.

Your planning time, no matter which prewriting strategy you use, should involve the formation of a thesis statement and three or four main points. Any supporting evidence for, or examples of, those points should be included. Once you begin planning, don't be tempted to switch topics, which will waste valuable writing time. Allow a few minutes to think through the topic. You may cross off main points that don't work, or add a new one or two as you go.

Time Management

Set a schedule that allows for each step in the writing process:

  • Spend the first of your time planning your essay.
  • Spend of your time drafting your essay.
  • Spend the last of your time editing and proofreading your essay.
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