Essay questions

Essays on Regular and Makeup Examinations
Students taking regular examinations answer twenty-five multiple-choice questions (worth one point each) and one essay question (worth fifteen points). Regular examinations provide three essay questions and students choose which one of the three to answer. For a fifty-minute examination, we estimate one minute for each multiple-choice question, fifteen minutes for the essay, and an extra ten minutes to check your work. Essays often require more thought than multiple-choice questions, but there are usually many ways to answer an essay question, which gives you a chance to show what you know about a topic in your own way and on your own terms. The length of your essay will depend on the specific question and the size of your handwriting, and quality is not directly related to quantity, but strong essays usually require at least one side of a page.
Makeup examinations consist entirely of three essay questions and students must answer all three. Makeup examinations have no multiple-choice component and no choice of questions, which means that makeup examinations are generally more difficult than regular examinations.
Organizing and Writing an Examination Essay
An essay is not just a set of facts; it consists of an introductory section (a central idea, or thesis), a middle section (evidence to support your central idea and explanation of how the evidence is relevant), and a concluding section (summarizing how your evidence and arguments have proven or supported your central idea). Writing an effective essay requires both knowledge of the subject matter and the ability to organize that knowledge into a coherent set of arguments.
Organizing an essay for an examination is difficult because it must be done quickly and without an opportunity to go home and think leisurely about the question. Some people can do this sort of organization in their heads, but most find that jotting down a quick outline is the easiest way of creating an organizational structure for their essay and sticking to it.
The Importance of Organization: Some people think that the essay section of an examination is a good place to throw in a bunch of things that they studied for the examination, but that were not mentioned in the multiple-choice section. Perhaps there are some instructors who use essays in this manner, but the instructors for this class—and most other college-level courses—do not. Filling your essay with extra information, however correct and insightful it may be, is not an effective way to argue in support of your central idea. It is an effective way to lose points for lack of organization.
How to Organize Effectively: Examination essays must be brief because of time constraints. You are given only so much time to complete your entire examination, and only part of that already limited time can be devoted to the essay. As a result, an examination essay must present your ideas quickly and effectively without any wasted time or wasted words. Perhaps surprisingly, the best way to use your time effectively is not to begin writing immediately, but to take a few minutes before you start writing to figure out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.
What to Do First: Once you’ve decided which question to answer, decide what your answer will be. If the question asks you to take sides in a debate, pick your side. If it asks you to interpret a text from a particular perspective, decide what your interpretation will be. Before you start writing, decide on a definite and clear central idea. Once you have decided what your central idea will be, look at the question again and make sure your central idea answers the question asked. Your essay might be brilliantly written and argued, but if it doesn’t answer the question, it won’t receive any points.
Supporting Your Central Idea: No matter how insightful your central idea is, and no matter how brilliantly it answers the essay question, it’s never going to wow your instructors unless it is well supported. When you take up one side of an argument, or assert an interpretation of a text, you need to back up that argument with precise examples. Before you start writing your essay, think of specific examples from the readings, lectures, tales, etc. that back up your argument. How many examples do you need? Usually at least three. Depending on the question, and depending on your answer, you may need more than three examples to support your central idea, but think of three as the minimum number of specific examples you have to give in order to make a good argument. Now, your grade will also depend on the quality—and not just the quantity—of these examples. If you choose examples that are irrelevant to the topic being discussed or examples that don’t directly support your central idea, it won’t matter if you have thirty of them. Before you start to write your essay, make sure you have at least three specific and relevant examples to support your central idea.
Writing Your Essay: You have a central idea, you have at least three concrete examples from the course materials to support that idea—now what do you do with them? Since you only have a short amount of time to write your essay, keep it clear and to the point. Introduce your central idea in the very first sentence. Then jump right in and give your supporting evidence for that central idea. Just make sure you tie each example back to the central idea with a short explanation. Your essay should be structured something like this:
• 1st Sentence: State your central idea in a way that answers the original question.
• 2nd Sentence: Give your first example in support of that central idea.
• 3rd Sentence: Explain how your first example supports the central idea.
• 4th Sentence: Give your second example in support of the central idea.
• 5th Sentence: Explain how your second example supports the central idea.
• 6th Sentence: Give your third example in support of that central idea.
• 7th Sentence: Explain how your third example supports the central idea.
• (If you feel you need to use more examples, keep following this pattern for each piece of evidence you provide in support of the central idea.)
• Last Sentence: Briefly summarize your argument in support of the central idea and make any final conclusions about your argument, if necessary.
For an example of a sample essay, where the central idea is presented in the first sentence and subsequent sentences present examples and explanations of how the evidence supports the central idea, see
If you stick to a coherent structure like this one and don’t break off on other lines of thought, you will find that your points for organization will go up. A clear organizational structure is truly the key that opens the door to great essay writing. The sentence-by-sentence guide above is obviously simplistic, and it is not the only way to write an effective essay (for example, it may take you more than one sentence to present your central idea at the beginning of the essay, and some essays come to a natural end without requiring a final summary sentence), but if you follow another model, you should have a good reason for doing so.
Common Errors and Problems in Examination Essays
Give specific examples from fairy tales and other texts to support your statements, but don’t just retell a fairy tale. Your answer will often need to be supported by specific references to one or more tales, but since you can assume that we will have read the tales, you shouldn’t waste time simply summarizing the plot. Give specific supporting evidence from the texts, but don’t retell any more than you need in order to support your argument.
Don’t just assert your opinion; argue it. Personal opinions may or may not have a place in your essay. If you feel they do have a place (for example, if the question asks you to take one side in an argument or give an interpretation), what is important is not your particular opinion, but the way you support it with specific examples and arguments. Personal opinions (e.g., “I think Bettelheim’s opinion is ridiculous [or brilliant]”) or global assertions (e.g., “Bettelheim’s opinion is obviously ridiculous [or brilliant]”) are not evidence or argument (although they may be used where relevant if you support them with evidence and argument). Avoid sweeping generalizations for two reasons: 1) they are the hardest type of statement to support and 2) it is difficult to show how a sweeping generalization supports a particular central idea.
Don’t just name your examples; explain them. Merely naming a tale that illustrates a point you are trying to make (e.g., “the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of men are often described in greater detail than those of women, as can be seen in ‘Viy’”) can receive only partial credit because it lacks an explanation. To receive full credit, describe how the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of men and women are presented differently in a particular scene or set of scenes in that story. This type of failure to explain how examples support your central idea is one of the most common weaknesses in examination essays.
Read all parts of the question carefully and be sure your essay responds to them. Our examination essay questions often contain several parts or explanations. These superficially complex questions are the friendliest and easiest type of essay question to answer because the details help you focus your essay. If we say “support your argument with examples from at least two Russian tales,” be sure you cite at least two tales and be sure they are Russian. If we say “explain how literary tales differ from folk tales and provide examples,” don’t say “folk tales often have male protagonists, but the protagonist in ‘The Snow Maiden,’ which is a literary tale, is a woman.” That statement is true, but it isn’t an explanation with an example because the alleged example has nothing to do with differences between literary and folk tales, since both types may have male or female protagonists. This type of failure to respond to the specific question is another common weakness in examination essays.
Write an essay, not a set of disconnected statements. An essay isn’t a list of statements; it’s an organized argument consisting of a central idea, a set of supporting examples with explanations, and, where appropriate, a conclusion. Resist the impulse to write down scattershot facts as they occur to you. Instead, form a central idea and think about how you will support it.
Pay attention to vocabulary, grammar, and style. No one expects your writing to be perfect on an in-class essay, and occasional minor spelling errors and grammar errors will not be held against you. Writing an in-class essay requires you to juggle several ideas at once, and occasional mistakes or lapses of attention are understandable. However, if your essay shows pervasive or significant errors in vocabulary or grammar, we can’t give you as many points as someone who writes more carefully, attentively, or gracefully. Similarly, pay attention to the style of your writing. Don’t try to sound like an encyclopedia, but do try to sound serious and thoughtful. If we can’t understand your argument, we can’t give you full credit. (We are not unreasonably fussy about handwriting, and we have a lot of experience reading handwritten exams, but if we honestly cannot read what you’ve written, we can’t give you credit for it.)
How Essay Grades are Determined
What Your Instructors Look For When Grading
Essay questions are graded on a scale of 0-15. A fifteen-point-essay certainly doesn’t have to be something that only a professor could write, but it does have to be truly spectacular undergraduate work, worthy of an A+ (not just an A). Answering a question adequately and making no serious errors does not earn an A; think of A-type grades (14-15) as superior, B-type grades (12-13) as meritorious, C (11) as average, D (9-10) as minimal but not completely without merit, and F (0-8) as seriously deficient. (The relationship of letters to numbers reflects the traditional percentages, e.g., 12/15 = 80%, which is traditionally a low B.)
Overall Quality of the Answer
• Is the central idea of the essay clear, insightful, and correct (if applicable—some questions have no right or wrong answers, only strongly or weakly supported arguments)?
• Does the essay, in general, display a sound understanding of the relevant subject matter and course material?
Organization of Essay and Quality of Examples and Explanations
• Is the essay written according to a clear system of organization?
• Are the examples used to support the central idea of the essay appropriate and effective?
• Are the explanations of these examples clear and do they actually explain how the examples support the central idea?
• Do those explanations display a sound understanding of course material?
Mechanics and Style
• Is the language of the essay effective and at a level appropriate to a college essay?
• Does the language of the essay reflect proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation?
• Is the vocabulary (both general and subject-specific) used correctly in the essay?
The source

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