Exam Strategies: Short Answer & Essay Exams

Essay exams involve a significant written component in which you are asked to discuss and expand on a topic.  These could include written responses in the form of a formal essay or a detailed short-answer response.

Check out our visual resources for "Test Taking Strategies: Short Answer & Essay Questions" below!

What is the difference between a short answer and an essay question?
  • Both short-answer and essay questions ask you to demonstrate your knowledge of course material by relating your answer to concepts covered in the course.
  • Essay questions require a thesis (argument) and supporting evidence (from course material - lectures, readings, discussions, and assignments) outlined in several paragraphs, including an introduction, body, and conclusion.
  • Short-answer questions are more concise than essay answers - think of it as a “mini-essay” - and use a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss; add a concluding sentence that sums up your response.

Preparing for an essay exam
  • Review your course material - look for themes within the topics covered, use these to prepare sample questions if your instructor has not given direction on what to expect from essay questions.
  • Create outlines to answer your practice questions. Choose a definite argument or thesis statement and organize supporting evidence logically in body paragraphs. Try a mnemonic (like a rhyme or acronym) to help remember your outline.
  • Practice! Using your outline, try using a timer to write a full response to your practice or sample questions within the exam time limit.

Answering essay questions
  • Review the question carefully. Think about what it is asking - what are you expected to include?  What material or examples are relevant?
    • Underline keywords in the question to identify the main topic and discussion areas.
  • Plan your time. Keep an eye on the time allowed and how many essay questions you are required to answer. Consider the mark distribution to determine how much time to spend on each question or section.
  • Make a plan. Take a few minutes to brainstorm and plan your response - jot down a brief outline to order your points and arguments before you start to write.
    • Include a thesis statement in your introduction so that your argument is clear, even if you run out of time, and help structure your answer.
    • Write a conclusion, even if brief - use this to bring your ideas together to answer the question and suggest the broader implications.
  • Clearly and concisely answer the question:
    • In your introduction, show that you understand the question and outline how you will answer it.
    • Make one point or argument per paragraph and include one or two pieces of evidence or examples for each point.
    • In your conclusion, summarize the arguments to answer the question.

"Test Taking Strategies: Short Answer & Essay Questions"

Does your next test have short answer or essay questions? Let's look at how to prepare for these type of questions, how to answer these types of questions, and strategies to keep in mind during the exam. Fight exam writer's block and achieve your best marks yet!


Looking for more strategies and tips?
Check out MUN's Academic Success Centre online!


Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Successful exam strategies. Carnegie Mellon University: Student Academic Success. Retrieved April 1, 2022 from https://www.cmu.edu/student-success/other-resources/fast-facts/exam-strategies.pdf

Memorial University of Newfoundland. (n.d.). Exam strategies: Short answer & essay exams. Memorial University of Newfoundland: Academic Success Centre. Retrieved April 1, 2022 from https://www.mun.ca/munup/vssc/learning/exam-strategies-essays.php

Trent University. (n.d.). How to understand and answer free response or essay exam questions. Trent University: Academic Skills. Retrieved April 1, 2022 from https://www.trentu.ca/academicskills/how-guides/how-study/prepare-and-write-exams/how-understand-and-answer-free-response-or-essay-exam

University of Queensland Australia. (n.d.). Exam tips. University of Queensland Australia: Student support, study skills. Retrieved April 1, 2022 from https://my.uq.edu.au/information-and-services/student-support/study-skills/exam-tips

University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Exam questions: Types, characteristics, and suggestions. University of Waterloo: Centre for Teaching Excellence. Retrieved April 1, 2022 from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/developing-assignments/exams/questions-types-characteristics-suggestions