Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

How to ace (or at least pass) Undergraduate Essay Exams

After my Undergraduate Essay Writing Guide ended up featured in the Guardian by some strange twist of fate, I've had a number of requests from friends and others to write guides for other things. In particular, I had requests to write a how-to for dissertations, as well as one for exams. I would by no means consider myself an expert on dissertation writing, having written a grand total of two in my time at university. However, I have written a lot of exam essays. I've also marked a non-trivial number over the past year. I don't know whether what follows this will be useful to many people - if anyone - but it's a Saturday afternoon and I have ethnographic research to procrastinate doing.

So here it is: a short guide to not screwing up your undergraduate exams.

I'm going to preface this with something fairly obvious: every exam is different. There are hundreds of courses at any given university, and a plurality (if not a majority) of them will require you to write essays of some kind in your exams. However, these essays are likely to vary from 30 minute "short" answers to 3-hour marathons; likewise, they range from the incredibly specific and technical to essays which literally just ask you to write for three hours about the word "Disorder".

A couple of caveats, then: (i) my personal experience of writing exams comes primarily from philosophy, history, and social and medical sciences. These tips are likely to be most useful for the first three of these (some people are cut out to be doctors, and the first year of undergraduate medicine came very close to me and whispered in my ear, "you're not one of them - now take your mid-2.i and get out of my sight"). (ii) Most of what follows will be a general guide to how to approach exam essays, as well as some more specific tips on how (some) examiners think, and common mistakes to avoid. If you'd like more detailed advice, please do feel free to email/tweet me and I'll see what I can do, though I can only offer you the benefit of my own experience and I highly doubt that my advice will be any kind of panacea.

The TL;DR for the panicked or lazy:

1. Use past papers to understand what's going to come up.

2. Only revise a couple more topics than you need to answer.

3. Try to read things that other people haven't (as well as the things they have).

4. Be original in the kinds of answers you write - use other parts of the course to inform your arguments.

5. Devote equal time and energy to each question.

6. Make sure you don't screw up your structure.

This guide comes in three parts: Preparation, Answering the Question and answering some Common Issues.


The bottom line for exams is this: preparation is key. Saying this will likely result in a dozen tweets, all from men, telling me about how they did no work all year, rocked up to their exams and wrote some really clever answers that got them a high first. The following advice is not for you, Renaissance Men. Everyone is happy for you, but also please go away. 

With that out of the way, what can you do to prepare?

1. Use the past papers.

This isn't always an option, because some courses at some universities won't allow you access to past papers. If you don't know whether you have access, or whether they will give them to you on request, then you should ask.

If you have access to past papers, then for the love of everything that is holy, please use them. Unless your course has changed massively over the past year, they are the single best guide to what your examination is going to look like. That means that you can see what the question format is, what kinds of topics come up, and what the range of different questions is likely to be. If you have more than one, you can establish a pattern. Maybe there are nine questions and only eight topics covered, meaning that one topic comes up twice. Maybe each question relates to a specific week in the lecture course.

If you see something you don't understand at all, don't freak out. It's almost definitely a part of the course that has changed or been removed.

Once you have all of this information, or at least as much as you can garner, you're ready to move on to the next few tips.

2. Pick your battles. 

On any given exam, you're likely to be given anywhere from two to thirty different questions you could answer. If you're asked to answer every question on the exam, that's tough luck - essentially, the best solution to this lies in looking at the past papers and figuring out what the questions are likely to be (because they're usually semi-predictable). In the vast majority of circumstances, the questions you're presented with will each deal with some aspect of the course. Sometimes there will be a "general" question which will ask you to engage with the broad themes which are covered in the course, and the best ways to deal with that come from the two tips below. However, most questions tend to pertain to a small set of lectures, or one or more of the readings you've been set.

If you have ten questions in front of you and you only have to answer three of them, you do not need to prepare for all ten. In fact, I would go so far as to say that preparing for all ten topics is a waste of your time and will cause you more anxiety than it will resolve. Personally, I would prepare for four or five of the different topics that might come up, just in case one of the questions is a real doozy and you've got no back-ups. This means that you can be a lot more selective about the readings that you do, and the answers that you prepare. This in turn allows you to go into far more depth, and draw upon a wider range of sources within your chosen fields.

3. Read outside the box.

It's quite likely that you've been assigned a certain set of readings throughout the year. Often, these are from a large number of different books or journals, and they will each deal with a specific topic. Nearly everyone will have read these. That means that when you use them, you're drawing on exactly the material that you are expected to have read, as well as the material that everyone else will be using. Now, this is fine. It's totally reasonable to only use the readings you've been given, and you can get a perfectly respectable 2.i with it - or even a first, if you're creative. However, one of the tricks I learned around halfway through my undergraduate was to use books other than the ones that we'd been given. For a history of science course, I'd find a survey history (recommended in the reading list, but which nobody else had really used) and devour it, in particular focussing on the parts that dealt with the same periods and topics we'd examined in lectures. In philosophy, I would find a book that dealt with a bunch of central issues, or even a number of different Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles, and read those.

What this grants you is the ability to bring in alternative perspectives on the course. If everyone else has read text A and is only drawing from that, but you're drawing on text B that covers the same issues from a different perspective, you're more likely to stand out as a candidate because you've probably got a few nuggets of knowledge that nobody else will have. That's particularly important when you consider that an examiner might have fifty to a hundred exams to mark, and seeing a different argument, fact or citation can genuinely make their (my) day.

4. Synthesise your answers.

This isn't a nonsense Hegel reference; instead, what I mean here is that students often (mistakenly) think that each individual part of their course is unrelated to any other part. I think this is an artifact of the way that we teach; we create and define disciplines by their differing values, jargons and knowledges, and we often make people feel as though they can't be mixed. That's a bad way of conceptualising the world, and a lot of academic efforts are the poorer for it.

When you're writing an exam, you're not just being tested on your knowledge of the one thing that you're writing on at that moment. What examiners are looking for (and longing for) is flair; the ability to take concepts from one part of a course, or discipline, or life in general, and to apply them to another in a way that makes them more interesting, or problematises our existing assumptions.

This is probably best explained by example. I think one of the better essays I wrote back in my undergrad was about the problem of induction. We were asked whether "reliabilism" (the idea that knowledge is justified belief coming from a reliable source) is a solution to this problem. Rather than using the lecture material or anything I'd read on the topic, I drew on another part of the course: Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigms, and the "incommensurability" of the different worldviews they created. This allowed me to say that these two different views of knowledge were incommensurable, and so one couldn't be considered a solution. It worked really well (I got my second highest score to this day on that exam).

Try to see if there are ways in which some parts of your course might be useful in unorthodox ways in other parts. The results might surprise you.


Answering the Question

Once you've prepared and you've got to the exam, you need to actually do the thing. For a lot of people, this is going to be the easiest part. If you've prepared properly, then a lot of this will literally just be trying to get as much of an answer down as possible within the time allotted.

However, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind when answering the questions on your paper.

1. Value the questions equally.

I've seen a lot of exam papers in which students will have the bright idea of answering one question much more fully than all the others because they think that they're better at that question. This is a bizarre tactic. In almost every exam, the questions will be given equal weighting. Giving more time to one essay will almost never result in you significantly bumping up your mark, because it might mean that you get to write an extra paragraph but your underlying argument (and therefore your demonstration of your understanding of the material in the course) is unlikely to be changed all that much. At best, you get to show off your knowledge of a few more authors, and you get a slightly higher mark. The problem is that you take an asymmetrically large hit to your other marks. In deprioritising the essays that you already think you're going to do badly, you're going to make them that much worse, and you're likely to lose a ton more marks on those than you could gain on your stronger effort.

The take-home here is that you should spend equal amounts of time on each question, unless one is weighted significantly less heavily than the others in the marking.

2. Please structure your answers.

It's entirely possible that I'm just a weird structure fetishist and that other examiners (and tutors) don't think this is as important as I do, but until either that's proven or the day comes when all of my students write a perfectly structured, coherent essay, I will continue to discursively ram this down the throats of anyone who will listen.

Structure. your. damn. essay. Just because you're in an exam and you're stressed, doesn't give you an excuse to write an incoherent mess of words. Take five minutes to plan each essay at the start; think about what you want to argue, and then think of the three or four things you need to do in order to show that argument is true and/or important. Then, and only then, should you start writing. You can even leave your introduction until last, if you like, and just fill in the page after you're done with the body and conclusion - that would allow you to make sure that the intro coheres well with the rest of the essay. There is nothing worse (okay, there are a lot of things that are significantly worse, but it's at least a bit annoying) than reading an introduction which is just totally out of whack with the rest of the essay, or seeing a student who's clearly just bound themselves into a terrible argument at the start and gone "oh well, in for a penny, in for a shit" and carried on all the way to the end like a lemming going over an academic cliff.

What does this look like? See my other guide for the full run-down, but essentially: an introduction which has a one-sentence summary of your argument (maybe with some framing of why it's important), followed by a sentence summarising each body paragraph - what you're arguing in it, why it's relevant to the overall message, and how you're going to argue it. Body paragraphs that each have a topic sentence explaining the overall thrust of the paragraph, followed by a PEE structure (juvenile but crucial). Finally, a conclusion that recapitulates your arguments and then gives maybe a couple of sentences showing why this is important and potential implications of what you've done.


Common Issues

Here's a very quick laundry-list of problems and questions that students often come up with.

1. Yes, you should bring multiple pens, ideally with different grips. Your hands can get tired and stopping isn't really an option, so you should make yourself as comfortable as possible.

2. If you think you might not be able to write for three hours, ask for special dispensation to use a computer. Nearly all universities will give you this, but you have to make sure you ask early, and often they'll require a doctor's note.

3. There is no good answer to "how many pages should I write?". The best anyone can tell you is "as many as possible without compromising your argument". That means you should spend five minutes or so planning, and then the rest of the time writing.

4. Please don't try to memorise one essay answer and then apply it to another question. The questions are worded in this way for a reason, and you deciding you want to answer another question is a really terrible idea that will make your examiner hate you.

5. If you want to cite authors, feel free to do so - it will make you look clever. It's highly unlikely your examiner will check the citations, unless they know off the top of their head that they're glaringly wrong, because they usually only get paid about 30-40 minutes to mark a 2 hour script. It is literally more than their job's worth.

6. Don't panic. It will genuinely be okay. You've got this. You've come this far, now all you have to do is push through the last part and you can reward yourself all you like. You will be really annoyed at yourself if you don't put the work in. Put the work in. It will feel good afterwards.

7. If you do panic, that's also okay. You can tell an invigilator that you need to leave and they should be able to rearrange the exam for you. If you are prone to anxiety or panic attacks, try to let them know that this is the case in advance, so they can make alternate preparations for you or at least be on the lookout. Look after your health first. There's no point passing an exam if you're a broken wreck afterwards. Look after yourself. You deserve it.


I hope this helps to clarify a few things with respect to preparing for and writing exam essays. If you're reading this and you have any questions, please feel free to shoot me an email. I might not reply, but that's not because I don't like you - it's just because that's how my supervisors have always behaved and I'm trying to learn to fit in.



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