Strategies for Taking Subjective or Essay Tests

by Carol Chandler-Wood

Essay tests can be a great way for a student to earn grade points because they present an opportunity for him/her to tell everything they know about a subject and to earn points while doing so.  If a student knows a lot about the subject, the essay is a place to shine!

  • Essay questions involve major themes and how the facts relate to them.  Therefore, it is essential to understand main ideas and supporting details.
  • One excellent tool in preparing for an essay test is to use a previously written outline, mind map, or combo notes and recall questions of the main ideas and supporting details from texts and class discussions.  Recall questions may even be the test questions.
  • Essay tests require an answer of at least one paragraph in length.  A student will usually be required to focus upon the main points and general concepts more than on details.  However, details must be included in the essay to back up, illustrate, or prove the main points. 
  • When taking an essay test:
    • Read all directions and questions carefully.
    • Decide how much time you will spend on each essay.
    • Begin with the essay easiest for you.  It will allow you to relax, gain confidence and recall facts.
    • Jot pertinent ideas in the margins that you want to use in your essay.  Number ideas in the   order you plan to use them.
    • Begin each answer by restating the question as your lead sentence.
    • Use the information you wrote in the margins to write main ideas first.  Then, fill in supporting details, such as facts, names, etc.
    • Leave space between answers to go back and add information.
    • Reread.  Did you answer the question?
    • Answer all questions.  Write all are sure of for partial credit.
    • Be specific; use relevant facts.
    • Proofread for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and NEATNESS (it does count).
    • Remember, Concise, well organized answers are favored by teachers, which translate into better grades for you! 

The following terms are usually included in the directions for essays.

Questions that include these words require you to write all the relevant information you know:

* Describe * Discuss * Explain * List * Outline * Prove * Review * State

Questions that include these words require you to write specific facts in a specific way:

  • Compare – Write about the likenesses of the subjects.
  • Contrast – Write about the differences only between the subjects.
  • Compare and Contract – Write about the likenesses and differences of the subjects.
  • Define – Write the meaning of the word or subject given.
  • Illustrate – Give examples that would explain, almost draw a picture about the topic.
  • Diagram – You do not need to write, rather draw and label charts, tables, time lines, etc.

Questions that include these words require you to write your opinion backed up by facts:

* Criticize * Evaluate * Interpret * Justify