Tackling the Take-Home (or In-Class) Exam

Take-home and in-class exams are not the same animal. Let's face it, a take-home exam is essentially the same thing as a paper. So my best advice to you here is to treat it in the same way. That means:

  • follow any instructions to the letter
  • allow plenty of time to complete the exam
  • proofread carefully before handing it in

An in-class exam, however, is another matter. Keep in mind that I am concerned only with in-class essays, not multiple choice tests. The suggestions here can be applied to any number of academic fields, as long as you're being asked to write an essay.

Some general suggestions first. You probably know all this, but it's advice worth repeating.

  • Plan your studying schedule so that on the night before the exam, all you have to do is review briefly. 
  • Get enough sleep before the exam. No amount of cramming can make up for an exhausted brain.
  • Wake up early enough to allow yourself time to prepare in a leisurely fashion. If it's a morning exam, eat breakfast! You need your blood sugar!
  • When you're writing your exam, concentrate on how well you can write, not on how much you can write.
  • Write clearly, leaving yourself room to make neat corrections. If you're writing your exam on a computer, double-space so you can skim your text quickly. Don't worry about mechanical errors as you write; leave them for the end, when you can edit your whole essay at once.
  • Plan your time! Take 15 or 20 minutes to set up your thesis and outline. Then divide your remaining time to give yourself enough time to write, andthen to edit and revise.

Yes, I did use the word "thesis." Your exam essay requires a thesis just like any other kind of essay. Write your thesis statement out in a place where you can refer to it frequently. It's the easiest and most effective way to prevent yourself from drifting off course.

Some other, often overlooked, considerations: Make sure you understand the scholarly operations which the essay question asks you to perform. Understanding the task the question sets for you will help you write a successful essay.

Agree or disagree In your thesis, give your opinion about a topic. You must express either a positive or negative opinion. In the body of your essay, support your opinion. 
Analyze Break down the topic into its parts and explain how the parts relate to each other and to the whole topic. One thesis statement should indicate the components of the analysis.
Critique, criticize Break the topic into its parts (analyze); explain the meaning (interpret); give your opinion (evaluate).
Define Give the exact meaning of the topic. How is it different from everything else of its type? 
Describe, discuss Tell what happened or what the topic is. Concentrate only on primary or most important features. Develop a thesis within the topic area. 
Evaluate Give your opinion about a topic. You may make both positive and negative weight of good and bad points. 
Explain why Tell the main reasons why the topic happened or happens. Support your position with details and specifics. 

Give one or more examples of the topic, relating each to your thesis about the topic.


Interpret Explain the meaning of a topic. Give facts to support your thesis. 
Justify, prove Give reasons to show why the topic or assertion is true. Use examples. 
Relate Show how the topic has an effect on something else. The thesis should make clear the connection(s) between two things.
Compare and contrast Show how, though one thing seems similar to the other, it is really different. Or show how, though it seems different, it is really similar.

So, read your questions carefully. Underline the instruction words to help determine the form your essay will take. Then underline the content words to keep yourself focused.

Instruction Content
  examine the author's perspective
  assess specific evidence
  describe author's view of issue