Writing An Essay Under Exam Conditions

Essay writing has been the bane of many GCSE and A level students’ lives since the beginning of time, and the digital age hasn’t changed it nearly as much as we might think. 

With exam season approaching, we spoke with Carine, one of the best online essay tutors in the UK. Carine has a BA in Human, Social, and Political Science from the University of Cambridge and tutors students in essay writing for GCSE, A-Level, University Admissions, and Undergraduate levels. 

“How to write an essay under exam conditions is something that many of my students struggle with. 

This can be a daunting process, but if done correctly and using a tried and true technique, nothing will be able to stop you from achieving exam success!” 

The purpose of this article is to provide students with one possible strategy for approaching an exam essay. This strategy was developed over many years of teaching and working as an online essay tutor and is primarily aimed at students studying humanities or social sciences.

So…. here we go!

3 minutes– Exam essays are timed! It’s just the way the beast is. So, the best way to make the most of that time is to plan and think for about 2-3 minutes.

Critically examine the question– This is the point at which students make mistakes. Rather than saying, “Tell me everything you know about A and B,” questions often ask specific questions about specific topics. Keep this fact in mind. After that, you’ll need to brainstorm relevant information and incorporate it into your strategy. Some plans can be detailed, while others can be as simple as 5 key words related to specific paragraphs, depending on time constraints.

More about this ‘plan’ thing– We’ve figured out what the question is asking, and we’ve had that all-important ‘think.’ Let’s make a plan out of this jumble of genius! Is it necessary to take a chronological or thematic approach to the question? For A level, thematic is frequently required, but chronological is usually sufficient for GCSE. “Search for command words” like “discuss,” “evaluate,” “to what extent,” and so on…. 

These will determine whether you need to write a narrative essay or balance two sides of an argument before reaching a conclusion. Make a list of all of your ideas and organise them into topic paragraphs. Then, in a logical order, arrange your paragraphs to aid the overall flow of your essay. The ultimate goal is for the essay to flow smoothly, allowing the examiner to see how your ideas develop. Making a good plan is an important step in the right direction.

What should this ‘essay plan thing’ look like?

Introduction- This section will introduce your understanding of the question, how you intend to approach it, a little about the content, and possibly your line of argument. Introductions are difficult for some students, so they prefer to finish them last. It is purely a matter of personal taste.

Between 4 and 6 paragraphs- Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that informs the examiner about the topic of the paragraph. By the second sentence, the examiner should have a good idea of what the paragraph is trying to accomplish. Don’t be stingy with your words! Each paragraph should present information in a concise and clear manner. Then comes the crucial part…. Make sure your paragraphs are clearly marked. This means that before moving on, allude to what the next paragraph will say. This adds fluidity to your essay and shows the examiner that you paid close attention to structure in your response. (Note: The first thing most levelled mark schemes for all exam boards say is that structure is important.) Topic paragraphs and signposting serve to check a box on that critical mark scheme).

Conclusion- Briefly summarise what you’ve said in your essay, including the main arguments, before concluding with your main point.

How to catch the Essay Examiner’s eye 

Consider the following scenario. Mr/Mrs Examiner will be marking hundreds of essays, and yours will be one of them. Consider the size and shape of that stack of paperwork. Examiners are obviously conscientious individuals who carefully read each essay they receive, but it wouldn’t hurt to give them a friendly’step up’ and make it a little easier and more interesting for them to mark. Let’s make it as simple as possible for them to award you higher grades! But how do you go about doing this effectively?

– Have a really good introduction. – This is what I call a ‘boom-wow’ intro. It’s all about having a catchy first sentence that demonstrates you know what you’re talking about and a strong main argument. This lets the examiner know where you’re going and what to expect!

– Plan plan plan plan plan…..yeah, so plan! – If each paragraph addresses the factors, impacts, issues, and points you mentioned in the introduction, it’s clear that you’re in command and not just filling time!

-Sign-posting – Throughout the essay, connect paragraphs to one another and to the overall essay title! This gives the examiner confidence that the essay is focused.

– Make the essay easy to read. – This means you should be aware of those pesky spelling and grammar errors, which can have a significant impact on your overall grade. If you have bad handwriting (like me), write on alternate lines to make your letters clear and easy to read!

– Have a ‘boom-wow’ ending too! – Keep it short and sweet, and make sure you’ve summarised your main points and linked everything back to the main essay question. It will serve as a reminder to the examiner that your essay was always focused and under control.

Know your stuff– Writing an excellent exam response necessitates knowing what to write. Yes, it’s a storm when you brainstorm. However, when writing the essay, you’ll need clear arguments, a thorough understanding of the issues, and the ability to back up your claims with case-study evidence or expert opinions from geographers, historians, or authors. It’s all about choosing the right information from your larger body of knowledge, and in order to do so effectively, you’ll need to know your stuff, put in a lot of effort in your studies, pay attention to your teacher’s (and tutor’s) advice, and do some good revision!

But look on the bright side – A good essay strategy will allow you to make the most of your knowledge. If you only know a little about a subject, a good essay strategy and style can help you hide some of your knowledge gaps. However, if you really know your stuff, you should be able to write an absolutely fantastic exam essay rather than just a good one!

So, what have I been talking about – school exam essay writing, right?!?

– Study that all important exam question.

– Brainstorm.

– Plan.

– Answer the question.

– Catch the examiners eye.

– Know your stuff.

– A good style helps you make the most of what you know!