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Exam Writing Strategies

So it's right about time for midterm exams now, and a lot of students are hammering away studying hard order to do well on the exam. I've written a guide to studying efficiently in the past, but after writing that, I realized that studying is only really half the battle. The other half, of course, is actually writing the exam. After all my terms at Waterloo, I've noticed a consistent trend in how exams are graded and formatted, and I've developed a strategy for writing the exam itself, which I will be sharing with you guys today. This strategy to actually writing an exam has helped me a lot on collecting my thoughts, optimizing my time, and also being able to answer questions to the best of my ability. I've tried to group my overall strategy into a group of tips that I hope will be useful and provide some insight for anyone reading this. Do note that this article is catered mostly towards social science exams with a mix of questions (multiple choice, short answer, long answer). There are different strategies for studying each part, which I have outlined in this other article. That being said, here are the following tips that I have to most effectively tackle actually writing an exam.

Tip #1: Go through the whole exam very quickly at the beginning of the exam

The moment you see your exam,  you should go over quickly the whole exam and make sure you have every page, while also quickly checking out the longer answer questions. That way, you have the time to come up with some first thoughts on those essay questions, and also are able to come up with points for the long answer questions while you churn through the rest of your exam. But of course, you're asking me now how one is supposed to think of answers to a question AS they're answering another question. Here's my take on this: think about all the times you've written a paper. The hardest part is thinking about WHAT to write, rather than the actual writing. The actual writing can be done pretty easily, and your mind doesn't need to entirely be on topic to do so. 

Sometimes, I'll be writing a response to a completely different question and a thought that would be useful for a long answer questions randomly pops up in my head. By going through the long answer very quickly at the beginning, you're allowing yourself the full time of the exam for coming up with ideas to write here and there. This strategy is most useful for midterms that have a short answer component and a long answer one, as you're able to collect ideas while writing your short answer (which tends to be more straightforward).

Tip #2: Do not focus on grammar, punctuation, spelling, aesthetic writing, or even (mostly) form/structure

The key intuition here is that you have limited time. You might have two hours or so to churn out four short answers of half a page each, and two long answer questions of one to two pages each. The last thing you should be focusing on is your spelling, grammar, or writing prose. Numerous professors have told me that they do not care at all about grammar or spelling or writing style in an exam. They too understand that you're highly pressured for time and are stressed out due to the large amount of work required to be done in those two hours or so. So the key here is to get your ideas out. Push your thoughts and ideas down on paper as fast as you can, making sure that each question can be answered with as many relevant points as possible. Stuff like punctuation, grammar, and spelling are expected only in an essay assignment, but in a time-sensitive test environment, that's your last priority. It's a hard thing to let go if you're a perfectionist and want to make your answer as pretty as possible, but spending the extra time trying to pretty it up will only harm you in the long run. 

Tip #3: Skip questions that are not immediately known. Go back to them later onward

This tip is pretty commonly stated - the key intuition here is two-fold. Firstly, you would want to save as much time as possible. The more time you have, the more time you would be able to spend on other questions that you could immediately solve. There's to point in spending time on a question you don't immediately know. It would be better to start focusing on the other questions, and come back to it when you have time. Furthermore, you might suddenly find the answer or have a spark of thought while writing your answers to other questions. 

Secondly, skipping a question means that your balance won't be thrown off. Oftentimes, professors put a very difficult multiple choice question smack in the middle of the midterm and that might throw a student off for the rest of the midterm. They could start doubting themselves or they could start panicking because they know for sure they messed up something already. 

Tip #4: For multiple choice questions, always remember to choose the most correct one

Tip #5: Never ever leave a question blank

Tip #6: If it looks right, it's probably right


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