Taking Literature Essay Exams
Preparing for the Exam
§ Prepare assignments properly every day. Do not fall behind.
§ Read carefully. Reading literature is not like reading a newspaper.
§ Take notes as you read, either in the text or in a separate notebook.
§ Underline selectively (insights into character, setting, themes, conflicts, etc.).
§ Routinely memorize authors, titles, and basic information (plots, characters).
§ In literature courses, ideas are more important than mere “facts” (i.e.,
relationships in stories, imagery in poetry, conflict in drama.
§ Know the basic material “cold” so you can be creative with it during the exam.
If you know the literature, you can shape it into any form the question
Studying for the Exam
§ Learn major term, definitions paraphrased in your own words. Be flexible. You
can never be sure what form the questions will take.
§ Develop a strategy for learning the material. Draw comparisons and contrasts.
Notice repeated ideas and themes. Use study sheets to help organize your
thinking. Include attitudes, styles, subject matter, forms, etc.
§ Use charts, timelines, color coding—whatever it takes. Caution: No elaborate
strategy will ever compensate for not knowing the material.
§ Studying together may have some subliminal value, but it is not always a good
§ Try to determine what the instructor feels is important. What ideas were
stressed during class? Formulate possible test questions you might
§ Always integrate your own ideas into your study. Include your own responses
and analysis. The instructor is not looking for parrot-like restatements of
lecture material. Draw your own conclusions about the works.
§ Above all, organize both the material and your thoughts so you can fashion
what you know into the form called for by the exam.
Taking the Exam
First Commandment of Essay Exams: Thou Shalt Not Panic. Key Word: Organization
§ Essay exams are not the same as tests for facts. You need to state your ideas about
the literature and then support those ideas with facts. You are actually arguing or
defending a position using sound logic and appropriate illustrations.
§ Make your own points, not just a paraphrase of the instructor’s lectures. You can only
do this if you have thought about the works beforehand, while you were reading the
§ As you begin, be sure you understand the question! Read it several times to determine
the best approach to take. Take a moment to read the entire test. Mentally outline
your ideas before you begin to write.
§ Your answers must be organized. No instructor will wade through a verbal jungle of
tangled thoughts looking for gold. Don’t just ramble aimlessly hoping to hit something;
get right to the point and then support your statements with examples.
§ Be cognizant of point values of items and watch your time allotment. Begin with the easiest
section and move steadily through to the end.
§ Address each question directly. State your topic idea near the beginning, using
the basic essay form (introduction, body, conclusion) even within individual
§ Do not answer the unasked question! The instructor can immediately spot a panic
§ Once you have stated your thesis, support it with specific references to works. Do not
merely tell, but show! You are trying to prove that you understand the material, and
your time is limited, so include nothing that is irrelevant. Make your point, but don’t
§ Re-read each section quickly before you go to the next one. Check for misspelling,
omitted words, etc.
§ Write in clear, simple, correct style. Readable handwriting will keep the instructor in a
good mood, and this is to your advantage. Poor penmanship will damage your chances
to receive full credit. If it can’t be understood, it can’t be acknowledged.
§ Project confidence in your answers. Stay within the limits of the question. Remain calm.
Deciphering Key Words in Essay Questions
§ Describe: tell a story in detail, either chronologically or spatially
§ Discuss: talk about it from all angles
§ Explain: analyze or clarify (cause-effect evaluation, step-by-step process)
§ Summarize: give main points in condensed form
§ Analyze: break down into parts or principles in order to understand the whole
§ Compare: show similarities
§ Contrast: show differences
§ Define: give meaning in other words
§ Trace: follow a chronological path
§ Identify: define and give specific information
§ Interpret: provide an analytical view of a piece
§ Illustrate: give specific examples
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you have prepared, you need not panic.
If you have not prepared, panic is the appropriate response.