Writing under Pressure: Tips for Surviving Essay Exams

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For most students, finals week is a morass of stress and sleep deprivation. A common source of this stress is the dreaded essay final, a format favored especially among English and History professors. A final in which you are not only supposed to have memorized an entire class’s worth of information but also are supposed to turn that information into a complete and coherent essay…in roughly an hour. This is a daunting task for even the most seasoned of writers. But here are a few tips that can help you make it through the essay final with your mind, if not your fingers, intact.

Pre-Test Prep

Focus on Classroom Discussions

Rereading the entire content of the course before the essay final isn’t practical. But what can be extremely helpful is rereading key sections discussed the most in class. Often, sections that are going to be used in the essay final are those that have been most thoroughly discussed in class. Rereading the passages or chapters of the text that the professor has spent extra time discussing can help you be prepared for the essay test because you have that information fresh in your mind.


Because the nature of essay finals requires you to synthesize information from many sources, professors will often allow you to bring in some form of notes. Now, while notes can be helpful, they can also cause more stress as you either struggle to decide what information is most important to take notes on or take notes on so much that you then spend half of your test time trying to decipher your notes. Notes for essay finals should be short and concise: don’t try to take notes on everything covered during the quarter, which will only waste your time and cause additional stress.

Here are a couple key things to keep in mind when taking notes for an essay final:


For literature classes, most essay finals involve explaining a key theme in several texts or explaining how those texts relate to a larger world issue. As a result, providing quotes that can support these ideas can really help provide authority to your paragraphs. Try to find quotes in the texts that illustrate the key themes and main point of the text. This will provide you with specific evidence for your paragraphs and also help you remember what the text was about while you write.

Important Dates and People

For history essay finals, often the hardest thing to remember is the dates associated with events and people. Having  bulleted notes that simply list the names of important people and the dates associated with them can be lifesaving when writing a history essay final.

During the Test

Read all the options! Most essay finals offer you several choices. Read ALL the choices before you choose one. Often, there will be different subjects or texts in each option and one of those options may include a subject you are hazy on or didn’t take notes for. When given options, make sure you select the one you understand the best and are the most prepared to answer.

Writing the Essay

During the actual essay writing you can run into several struggles that can derail your essay and ultimately your grade. Here are a couple of strategies to overcome those hurdles and get that essay done in the time provided.

Forgetting details

In the middle of writing your essay you completely blank on an important date and don’t have it in your notes. Not remembering specific dates or even names of people does not mean you have tanked your essay. You may not remember what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but if you can remember where he landed, what ships he sailed on, and anything he accomplished once he landed, make sure to put that information in. Showing that you know who the person is can earn you points, even if you don’t remember the relevant dates associated with that person. Explaining what you DO remember about a person is always going to earn you more points on an essay final than avoiding discussing them because you don’t remember a key piece of information.

Running out of time

You are not even halfway through your second short essay and your professor indicates that there are only ten minutes left. Frantically scribbling in the rest of the essay may be an option if you are the Flash, but the average person probably feels doomed. Don’t panic, there is hope! Most professors’ main concern is seeing that you understand the information from the class, not your perfect writing skills. So, when you have an entire paper to write in ten minutes, instead of trying to get one perfect paragraph written and abandoning the rest, work on creating an outline for the rest of the paper. Create topic sentences that explain what you wanted to say for each paragraph and include the important information in bullet-point format. Try to get your concluding ideas down on the page, even if it is just statements with no real flow or transitions. Getting the information you WANTED to talk about down on paper is going to get you more points than having one perfect paragraph in an otherwise incomplete paper.

While these tips are not a foolproof way to sail through an essay exam (unfortunately there is no such magic), they will help take some of the stress away because you will have the confidence that you are beginning the test as prepared as possible and if, heaven forbid, you find yourself scrambling to complete the test you know the best strategy for maximum points. Now go forth and write!

By Emma Allen