How do I answer an essay question in an exam?

  • Google+ icon
  • LinkedIn icon

Answering essay questions in exams can seem a daunting task, especially in a subject like History, but there really is no need to panic. History exams are all about preparation. There are three simple steps you can apply in an exam which will help you write a good, solid answer: Revision, planning and timekeeping.

Firstly, revision. This might be a dirty word to some of you, but it is especially essential in History. History exam questions all involve you having to argue a point, and you cannot win any argument if you don't have evidence to back up what you're saying. This is why knowing your subject is so important. Before your exam you must make sure you go through all the content that your teacher has been through with you in class: these will probably include key figures, causes and triggers of events,the events themselves, the consequences of events, and maybe also some historical debates that historians are already having about the topic. I find a great way to revise History is to write out a timeline of the period you're studying, and write in the events and causes etc in different colours so you can see how things developed in chronological order. It will help you make sense of which events might have had an effect on others that followed, as well as getting them all into your head. 

Secondly, planning. This is something you will have to wait for the actual exam to do, but you can practise planning on any mock essay questions your teacher might have given you. Planning is almost as important as revision, as a History essay question, as I have already said, will expect you to contruct an argument. As with any construction, you need a blueprint before you start so you have a good idea of what the end product will look like. In an exam, your plan is your blueprint, so don't skimp on it and rush into the question. To begin, consider what the question is actually asking you - is it a 'to what extent' question? A 'discuss' question? or is there a quote from an historian that you have to agree or disagree with? Consider this first, as you don't want to start your essay and then look back and realise that you're not answering the question! When you know what the examiner wants, your knowledge of your subject from all that excellent revision you will have done will give you an opinion on the question - write this opinion down, as this will become your introduction for your essay. Then bullet point two or three points (depending on how long they are and how much time you have) that prove your opinion, again using your subject knowledge. These will become the main body of your essay. Your conclusion will sum up these points very quickly, link back to the original question so you've shown you've answered it. Top tip - its a great idea to link the end of every point you make back to the question so the examiner can see you're definietly answering it.

Last but not least, timekeeping. This is really linked into planning, but is really important in its own right. You don't want to end up running out of time to answer your question, especially when you've got a really great answer! So, when you get into the exam, make sure you can see a clock, and spend no more than 2 minutes deciding on your question if you have a choice, and then spend a good amount of time planning - if you have an hour to answer, make your planning time no more than 10 minutes, if you have forty-five, shorten it to 5 minutes. As you plan write in how much time you'll spend on each section of your essay - so if you have an hour and three points, you'll have approximately fifteen minutes per point. The time you have remaining should be about five minutes in all, which is easily enough time to write an  introduction and conclusion. Remember an introduction does not have to be long at all - just one line explaining what you will argue is all you need. The conclusion may be slightly longer as you relate your points back to the question, but should not take you more than three minutes. The key with timekeeping is to stick to your times you've set down so that you finish your question on time - if you see that have five minutes left for a point, it will let you know that you need to finish it soon and move on.

That's all there is to it! It may still sound a but new and scary, but these three things will get you writing really well structured and reasoned answers in exams. One more thing you can do once you've learnt your topic, is practise the planning and timekeeping techniques by answering practise questions at home under timed conditions. You will find that practising will give you confidence in the techiniques, and so you'll go into the exam feeling relaxed and confident. 

Just show the examiner how much you know! Good luck.

Jenni S. A Level English Literature tutor, GCSE English Literature tu...

About the author

is an online GCSE History tutor with MyTutor studying at York University

Still stuck? Get one-to-one help from a personally interviewed subject specialist.

95% of our customers rate us

Browse tutors

We use cookies to improve your site experience. By continuing to use this website, we'll assume that you're OK with this. Dismiss