How to achieve a high grade for an essay-type examination question

Here are a few hints to improve your grades on essay-type examination questions. The suggestions are based on common weaknesses identified by an examiner with many years of experience

Different courses set such different challenges that there is no general list of hints available on how to write a good essay. These suggestions are among those I have offered to graduate-level business students based on essays they have written.

[1] Plagiarism: This still occurs in open-book examinations. Copying out anything without attribution is plagiarism. It is rather easy to detect, will result in a severe penalty and the candidate will risk disqualification from the examination and maybe the course.

[2] Poor citations: This is less serious version of [1]. Take care to indicate in the essay which contributions are your own ideas, and where they connect to sources you have drawn on.

[3] Answering the wrong question: Although relatively few students get an answer completely wrong this can happen. An examiner can award a 0% if there is no overlap with what was required.

[4] Bull****ing: An examination is intended to test whether a student has read and understood the study materials. It is easy to detect even the most imaginative bluffing. The loss of marks depends on how far off the mark you are, and could be substantial (20%- 50%)

[5] Weak argument signals: For example, try not to use terms such as “surely”, “clearly”, “logically.”. The examiner concludes that the student is unable to clarify his or her thoughts. This may make the difference between a good grade and a distinction as it could lead to marginal downgrading (10%).

[6] Over-simple causality claims: Beware of claiming that something was ‘caused’ by something else. These claims are unconvincing when there are often multiple ’causes’ to an observed outcome. For example: I recently came across a statement to the effect that “BP boss Tony Hayward lost his job when he said he wanted his life back”. Statements of this kind suggests you have an over-simple “map” or mental model of a topic. What evidence was there that the job loss was caused simply by one ill-judged remark. Grade loss could be quite serious (20%).

[7] Universal claims or generalizations: If you write “All effective leaders communicate well”, The examiner will test it by thinking up counter-examples. The student should qualify the claim as accurately as possible. (possible loss 10%, as in [5]).

[8] Failure to test ideas: Coming up wiuth an imaginative idea, but then spending the rest of the essay justifying it rather then critically inspecting it. Be your own first examiner. Examiners like to see ideas “tested” from different perspectives. (Possible grade loss 10%)

[9] Disorganized scripts: This covers various ‘scrambled’ answers which make the key ideas in script difficult to detect. Make sure your first paragraph shows you know what the question is about. Really confusing efforts will risk the patience of the examiner. Could be serious (5% up to 20%).

[10] Compulsive scribbling: Some students rush to get their ideas down on the page. The result is often hard to read and to follow. If you are a compulsive scribbler, listen to the inner voice asking “ am I writing something an examiner will be able to read and understand?” (Possible grade loss 5%)

[11] Wrong tone: Don’t get too chatty with the examiner. This is the case even if you suspect the examiner to be that friendly professor you met in your classes.

Don’t do as I do …

Great essayists (such as michel-eyquem-de-montaigne pictured above) break the rules. But they are not writing to pass an examination. Furthermore, their genius shines through their work. For examination purposes, a student is advised to stick to ‘plain vanilla’ practices suggested above.

Good luck.

2 Responses to How to achieve a high grade for an essay-type examination question

  1. Tudor says:

    I found myself critically assessing this blog-post. Unlike the typical examination answer I can always clean-up its contents…

    Comments and additional suggestions are welcomed.

  2. Kehinde Ibikunle says:

    This is a good guide to essay-writing for exam purposes. Could you provide references for further reading.

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