The Written Exams
by Jennifer Davies
Take advantage of practice exams. Some departments make past exam questions available for your perusal, although you may only be allowed to look them over, not write the questions down or make copies. Nonetheless, this is one way to get a more concrete idea of the type of questions for which you might be responsible. Some departments may even host practice exams wherein you mock the actual exam protocolótake the exam as you might on the official day but where you get to print out and examine your results. Your department secretary can be very useful to you on this countóshe can arrange a space and time for you to take the practice exam and it is a good way to gauge your progress as the exam date approaches.
Make your own practice exams. Even if your department doesnít formally conduct practice exams, you can stage your own. Some of you may not know what will be asked of you, but this does not bar you from imagining what the questions might be. Consult old exams or students who have passed the exams previously and then write your own questions. (This is also a great preparation strategy; even though your questions may not match up with what you are asked, your sample essays may somehow correspond or provide you with an outline for answering your professorís questions. The act of writing the questions forces you to consider what the really important themes or frameworks are). Then test yourself. Recreate the test conditions as closely as possible and then read the sample essays you have written for weaknesses or gaps in your knowledge. This sample testing may also alleviate a lot of test anxiety by at least making you feel more prepared and in control of your destiny.
Create outlines. Again, most departments donít tell you what the questions are before you test, but you may nonetheless be given a general idea of the topics or themes for which you are responsible. Create and memorize outlines for possible questions. These frameworks may help you answer a variety of questions, even if they donít match up with your own.
Less is more. As long as you prove in your essays that you understand the general framework and context of the question, it is almost always better to demonstrate a deep understanding of a few texts rather than a superficial of a hundred texts (unless of course your department has informed you that you are responsible for knowing a hundred texts superficially). Most readers want to know that you understand a few seminal works in the context of a broader body of knowledge. Keep this in mind as you think about how to respond in your written exams, and bone up on the "big" texts rather than trying to memorize the nitty-gritty minutiae of all of the texts youíve read.
Memorize a few quotations. Itís a cheap trick, but it works, and most successful exam-takers have done it. Tuck away a few simple but meaningful (and usually short) quotations that may be thrown into an essay somewhere. It provides a little color for your essays and demonstrates to your reader that you have taken the time to get to know your texts closely.
Be aware of time constraints. Make a quick outline for each question before you begin writing. Time management is of the essence; you donít want to fail an exam because you spent 45 minutes on an introduction and 15 minutes on the body of your essay. Give yourself parameters and stick to them. Also check with the proctor of the exam to see if there is any leeway at all on the time allotted (some proctors may allow you to go 15 minutes over if completely necessary). If your exam is a take-home exam, time is important in a different manner. You may have 24 or 48 hours to answer your questions. Organization and time-management are still of utmost-importance. Take the time to draw up a plan of attack and an outline before you begin so that you control the essay-writing process rather than letting it control you.