Southwest Tennessee Community College Composition Lessons & Resources John Friedlander
Writing Essay Examinations
Overview The Problems Preparation Performance
Essay examinations are really helpful tools for your learning. They teach you to pull together content that you have learned, analyze the material, reach conclusions, and defend your ideas. They challenge you to think clearly as you cope with time pressures, and to express yourself directly and efficiently. Those are pretty useful skills in any career field. In my view, the process of writing an essay examination should also lead you to understand the course material better when you finish the exam than you did when you began.
Writing an essay examination is not identical to writing the sort of essay typical of a composition class, even though many of the same skills are involved. Usually, the available time is shorter, and you have less freedom in topic selection. Usually, you must write a number of short essays, not just one. Most importantly, essay examinations require specific knowledge of assigned content, so how much you know and understand is at least as important as how well you write.
Answers on essay examinations may not look like the five-paragraph themes you have practiced in composition. Some essay answers will take the form of a single, well-developed paragraphs, while others may be three, or five, or ten or twelve paragraphs, depending on the complexity of the question, the time available for answering, and the organizational decisions of the writer. Yet good essay answers share several characteristics of any good essay: they offer an efficient opening, with a clear sense of thesis; they are unified, sticking to what the question asks for; they are well developed, offering sufficient specific evidence to make the writer's understanding and authority clear; and they end smoothly.
Performing well on an essay examination requires chiefly that you know how to write an effective essay generally, and that you know the material you are being tested on; but a few additional techniques of preparation and performance can help you feel better and do better on essay examinations.
Facing an essay examination means facing three challenges: learning the material, coping with anxiety and time pressures, and designing effective answers. All of these are made easier with good methodology.
You have learned to approach writing as a process, and learned the advantages of that approach. View learning and test taking as processes, too, and learn and practice relevant techniques.
Long-term Preparation Short-term Preparation
Your preparation for a test (an essay examination or any other kind of test) has two targets.
First, you need to control the assigned material (U.S. military history from 1780 to 1810; theories of personality development; characteristics of baroque music) or master the required skills (word processing; multiplication of binomials; adding animation to a web page; calculating the strength of concrete). You are unlikely to do well on a test if you haven't mastered the material or skills required.
Second, you need to know how to take a test. Even after you have mastered the knowledge or skills required, you still have to show your mastery through the test. If you can regularly type at an adjusted speed of 70 wpm, but you tense up when you're being formally tested, your pay scale may reflect a speed of 35 wpm. If you are a skillful driver, but become panicky during the driving test and back up over a fire hydrant, you probably won't get your license. If you are the perfect candidate for a job, but you're nervous in an interview, able to say no more than uh-huh, uh-uh, and uhhh, you probably won't get the job. You may understand the materials assigned for a college exam better than the instructor does, but if you mismanage time and answer only two of three required questions, you'll earn a D.
So, as you prepare for examinations, give attention both to the specific knowledge or skills you need to master, and to the skills you need to test well.
You can do well on exams by relying on last-minute studying or cramming, especially if you're efficient in your studying and make good guesses about the content of approaching tests. But you'll feel less anxiety about the tests—and you will retain the material longer—if you study regularly over the long term rather than cramming for the short term.
I can't offer you a full course on study techniques, but let me describe a fairly representative pattern that will help you understand and remember material better, gain more from what happens in the classroom, and prepare for the challenges of essay examinations. (Don't misunderstand my background here—I have had way too much experience in procrastination, last-minute cramming, misdirected blame, and reliance on prayer. What I've learned about good practice comes from many years of stubborn bad practice followed by occasional episodes of good practice, and lots of learning from the good students I have been privileged to teach.)
Turn your learning (like your writing and your test taking) into a consistent, repeatable process. Begin by previewing the course. Even before the first class, read the course description in the college catalog; take a look at the texts in the bookstore, if you're not ready to buy them, checking out the tables of contents. Go to the first meeting with some idea of what you expect from the course. The instructor's initial presentation will be clearer to you if you've already given the course goals and materials some preliminary thought. (This is true even if you totally misunderstood what the class was going to emphasize, because you have some perspective on what the instructor tells you.) Follow variations of this pattern throughout the term.
Read assigned material early, always reading with pen and paper. Write down questions and comments as they occur to you. They don't have to be "good" questions or "insightful" comments to help you—the real goal is to keep your mind active as you read, and to insure that when you come to the next class meeting, you have some specific issues to listen for.
During class, use some variation of "T-notes." T-notes refers to a simple system: on each sheet of note paper, you draw a big "T," with the crossbar at the top of the page, and the downstroke running down to the bottom. During class, you take all your notes on one side of the T; after class (as soon as possible), you read your notes, and add additional details, questions or comments on the other side of the T. This helps sharpen your note-taking, alerts you early to ideas or concepts that seemed clear in class but which you don't really understand yet, helps you develop a regular pattern of review while material is fresh, and provides you with questions you may want answered in the next class meeting.
After you have reviewed the day's notes, make up test questions the instructor might ask about the day's materials. This is a really cool technique. I t makes you decide what was most important in the day's materials; it helps you start "psyching out" the instructor, trying to figure what is important to her, thinking a little from an instructor's perspective; and it steadily builds a set of study questions help you prepare for exams.
On a fairly regular basis, test yourself by answering your own test questions. The form of your answers will vary with the content of the course. Literature courses would typically call for essay questions. A biology or anatomy course might stress recall of technical terms through listing or filling in blanks or supplying definitions. Math courses call for math problems you need to practice solving. [Let me go off on a tangent for a moment. You can probably find practice problems in your math text that will help you review, but there's still value in making up your own. Making up your own questions makes you decide what skills or knowledge you need to test for; it makes you think about the material in a different way.]
If your test questions are essay questions, you can use your study time more efficiently—and develop a needed test-taking skill—by writing outlines for answers in place of full answers. A good outline takes less time to sketch out than a fully developed essay answer, and is sufficient to show you if you know the material.
Occasionally, either as a part of long-term preparation or as a part of short-term preparation, practice for the pressures of test taking. Choose a question likely to appear on your exam, set a timer to match the time you'll have on the exam (maybe thirty minutes for a single essay answer—though that varies), then organize and answer the question under time pressure.
Before you blow off all that advice, let me make another pitch for it. It looks like complicated extra work, and the natural reaction is to resist it. But that's true of the writing process, too. If you look at all of the steps at one time, it seems like way too much to do. When I read descriptions of the writing process (like Decker's "Ways to Write"), I feel intimidated by all that stuff. But we don't do all that stuff at any one time—we just do it one bit at a time, and it adds up to better practice and better results. The same is true of approaching study as a process.
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If you have been following good long-term preparation, short-term preparation is easy. You already know the material and have a good idea of what to expect on the exam. Go through your notes and choose the most likely test questions; review, amplify or rewrite your answers. Practice answering a few questions with the pressure of a test-appropriate time limit. Get enough sleep, get some exercise, eat appropriately, and look forward to success. A last-minute review of key ideas shortly before the exam will be helpful, though, even if you already have good control of the material.
If you have not been following good long-term preparation, you are feeling more stress than you need to, but there's not much you can do about it now. Take a little time on the front end to work out a good strategy for last-minute study. First list the concepts or materials to be covered on the exam; then assign priorities—which are most certain to be tested, which least certain? Determine how much time you have and how much stuff you have to read or review, then apportion your time, insuring that you cover at least the stuff most likely to appear on the exam.
Watch out for overload. Your brain has short-term limits on what it can effectively absorb and process, and if you try to study or cram past the overload point, you may do yourself more harm than good. The overload point is variable—it varies from individual to individual and from topic to topic, and it also varies with physical and emotional condition.
Let's assume, just for an example, that your overload point for English this evening is 30 minutes. You can concentrate well and process the material efficiently for 30 minutes; after that, you find that you've read four paragraphs (or pages, or chapters!) but don't remember even seeing them. Not only will the stuff coming in after 30 minutes be harder to get, but you'll also lose some of your grip on the stuff you got before 30 minutes.
The preferred technique is to study just short of your overload point, then take a break—a 15-minute walk, shooting some hoops, raking leaves, or any other more-physical-than-mental activity is a good choice (the passive mindlessness of much TV-watching is not such a good choice . . .). Come back for another 30 minutes. You'll accomplish more from those 60 minutes with a break than you would if you studied 75 minutes straight through.
If you're cramming for two tests in the morning, or you're coping with other time demands from work and family, perhaps you can't afford so many breaks. Try this alternative: before you hit your overload point in English, shift to study of math; then before you hit the math overload, return to English. I know that looks suspicious and inefficient, but give it a try. Shifting subjects can provide a kind of break in itself.
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Preview Plan Outline Write Review/Proofread
Just as writing and studying are both more efficient and less stressful if you follow a consistent process, so is performance on an examination. You'll be taking examinations in different forms, in different places, in different subjects, for different instructors. Each exam is a different experience. Yet you can bring a consistent process to all of your examinations, and gain the added confidence that familiarity and repetition provide. Move through each exam in five steps: preview, plan, outline, write, and review/proofread. (The process I describe here is aimed at essay examinations, particularly in its outlining step, but the general approach applies to almost any written examination.)
Begin each exam by getting a clear overview of what the test includes and requires. You will control your emotions, recall material more efficiently, and use time more effectively if you form a clear and complete picture of the exam at the very start.
Read the instructions to gauge time requirements and avoid costly errors. If you don't know how many questions you have to answers, you can't apportion the right amount of time for each answer, and may run out of time before finishing. Misunderstanding instructions can be very damaging. Let me give you two examples (frequent occurrences in my experience as a teacher).
The test provides ten questions, and requires the students to answer any two of them in one hour. Racing past the instructions, a student answers all ten questions. I read only the first two, and they are far too short to earn full credit. [I can't score more than two answers, because the other students weren't given that option; I can't read all of the answers and pick the best two, because that also would offer an advantage unavailable to the other students.] The student, who knows all the material well, earns a D or F.
The test includes two sections, each with five questions, and requires that students answer one question from each section, two questions in all. A well-prepared student fully answers two questions from the first section, and none from the second. The student, who knows all the material well, fails the exam.
Read the instructions alertly at the start. Make sure you know what you have to do.
Read the questions to support good choices, eliminate surprises, refine your time strategy, discover resources, and begin efficient thinking. It is natural to want to begin answering and earning points as soon as possible, but time invested in reading all of the questions first will pay off.
If you read all of the questions in advance, you can make good choices about which questions to answer (if you are allowed options), or which questions to answer first or last. This helps you adapt the exam to your strengths. (More about this later.)
It's painful to near the end of an exam and suddenly find a killer question that demands a kind of thinking you haven't done before, or requires more time than any of the earlier questions. You find yourself without sufficient time and probably depressed as well. Reading all of the questions in advance eliminates this kind of painful surprise.
Some questions are more complex than others, and require more time to answer. If you see such questions as you begin the exam, you can reduce the time you give the simpler questions, and allow the extra time you need for more complex ones. You can't make that adjustment if you haven't read all of the questions to begin with.
Sometimes a key term you need to recall for question 2 is already written as part of question 17, or part of the setup for question 8 suggests a useful approach to question 4. You lose access to those resources if you don't read all of the questions in advance.
A final benefit of reading all of the questions in advance may look a little mystical to you, but it still works. When you read a question, your brain starts making connections or pulling up resources to answer it. If you read questions 1, 2 and 3, then start working consciously on question 1, your brain will be working in the background on questions 2 and 3. It won't put the answers together for you, of course, but it will start pulling stuff up.
Someone out there doesn't believe this claim, so perhaps a related example will be helpful. If I hear the word "pin," I might picture a wrestling match, a brooch, a safety pin, a hand grenade, or all sorts of stuff. But if I hear first that you just went bowling, I'll probably picture a bowling pin right away, because my brain brought up the bowling "files" as soon as you revealed your topic. It will push forward bowling-related meanings for lane, strike, spare, ball, score, shoes, and even "turkey." And it will keep those bowling files available for a while, even if you go off on a tangent about your brother-in-law's bad breath, because conversations weave back and forth regularly. Our brains shuffle files like this all the time, because both listening and reading require us to find the right meanings, to infer and predict content. Once the context is identified, the brain starts moving the relevant material closer (or opening up the right gateways or connectors—whatever metaphor you want). This doesn't require conscious attention—you don't say to yourself, "I need to pull up bowling-related meanings"; it just happens. It also happens when you read questions in advance—the brain starts pulling the needed stuff forward, even as you turn your attention to other topics. When you return to answer the later question, the material is easier to reach. If you haven't read the questions in advance, though, the brain can't do this for you.
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You've read the instructions and all of the questions, so you know what is expected of you. Now you can establish your strategy, making the best use of your strengths and the time available to you.
Select the questions you're going to answer, if any choices are available to you. Pick the ones you feel most confident about, the ones most likely to earn you full credit, the ones you can handle well in the time available. (Selecting the specific questions you will answer also helps the brain in its background processing.)
Select the order in which you will answer. Different strategies apply to different people. For example, if you tend to start out slow then build momentum, so that you're working more efficiently toward the end of exams, select easier questions at the start. If you start out strong but then lose steam, save an easier one for the end. If you fear that you'll run out of time, answer higher-point questions ahead of lower-point questions. If you're fairly sure of some answers but not of others, answer what you know first, to make sure you earn what credit you can. If you think you may run out of time, leave the answer you're least certain about until the end—better to run out of time on a question you can't answer than to run out of time on a question you can. Please note—you can't make decisions like this if you haven't previewed the exam.
Apportion your time. On many essay examinations (probably all the ones that I give), the questions are rich enough to support extended answers. It's easy to get involved in one answer and eat up more time than you can afford. As a part of your strategy, assign an approximate time for each answer. For a two-hour examination with three questions to answer, you might begin with the idea of 40 minutes per answer, then subtract time for previewing, planning, and previewing, which might leave you with 30 minutes per answer. Then you might note that the first and second questions require less specific support than the third, so you assign 25 minutes for each of those, and 40 minutes for the third. This is an approximate process, and takes more time to tell than to do, but it will make you much less likely to run out of time accidentally, and it will help you refine the level of development you can afford for each answer.
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Outlining during an essay examination is sloppier than outlining for an essay or report would be, and it takes some practice, but of all the steps in the test taking process, I think outlining is the most valuable—even though it's the step most students resist.
You're already worried about time pressures. You're already giving up time to preview and plan. Minutes are passing and you have nothing on paper that will earn you points. How can you afford time to outline?! You can afford time to outline because you do it fast, and you can afford time to outline because it saves you more time in the long run than it takes to do.
Outlines for test answers are "quick and dirty." Let me show you an example (though doing it on a word processor will make it look neater than it normally would, and will take me a couple of minutes longer than doing it on paper would).
Here's a sample question: "Identify and explain five steps toward successful performance on an essay examination."
Here's a quick and dirty outline:
–time, blunders strategy
sel order—refine time, serve strengths—points, confid. etc
|outline||complete, orderly, confidence, quick & dirty|
|write||once, no draft, 2bl space|
|proofread||content, then mech—steps wt goals|
Writing that took me 4 1/2 minutes on the processor, but I wasted a lot of that by hitting tab buttons incorrectly and trying to make up my mind about laying out the table or grid. It would take less than 3 minutes on paper. The first thing I did was set a grid (I often do this on paper, too). The question wanted me to "identify and explain," so I set up a section for "ident," and one for explain, so I wouldn't forget what I had to do. Then I listed the 5 steps in order (I had done my long-term studying, so I knew the material!), then plugged in whatever occurred to me as part of explanation. That stuff on the right is not carefully ordered or fully thought out—what I'm doing there is half listing, half brainstorming.
Now look at what that 3- (or 4- or 5-) minute outline gets me. First, it gives me confidence. I know I can answer the question. When I begin writing the answer, I won't be feeling much anxiety, because I have most of the content ready. Second, it gives me structure. I know what I'll be writing first, second, and so on (though this is a really easy answer to structure). Third, it gives me completeness. I'm unlikely to get so caught up in one part of the answer that I'll leave out something important. Finally, it refines my sense of time requirements, because I have a pretty good idea of how long this will take to write out.
Without that outline, I would be less confident as I began writing my answer, and I would almost certainly waste 4 or 5 minutes writing a couple of sentences, staring at the ceiling, rereading what I'd written, going back to the question again, trying to be sure I was answering the question. I can afford the time to outline! [You can see another example of an outline for an essay answer as part of the Sample Essay Answer, linked at Lessons & Resources]
Now, let me surprise you with another part of outlining strategy. Outline all of your answers before you begin writing any. That's right—give up even more minutes on the front end without earning any points! Outlining all of the answers on the front end adds to your advantages. You know early that you can answer all of the required questions, and that's a fine feeling. You can refine your time strategy still more accurately (because you can better see that the second one will take this much longer than the third). You can discover a bad choice early, and either choose an alternative question, or move the troublesome one to the end.
Let me tell you two true stories.
When I was a freshman in college, I took a poetry course taught by the chairman of the English department. Because I was majoring in English, it was important to me that I do well in his class. The final exam in that class was my last exam for the quarter, and I'd spent several all-nighters during that finals week (because, as I told you before, I hadn't learned the lessons I needed about long-term study!). The test was scheduled for three hours, and included two questions. I sat down to the exam, wrote outlines for my two answers, wrote out the first answer, then stepped out for a cigarette. I sat on some stone steps outside the classroom, watching clouds float across the sky. I didn't fall over or even close my eyes, but I was just drifting there, and virtually unconscious. The chairman of the English department stepped out of the classroom and touched me on the shoulder, asking if I planned to return to the exam. I'd been drifting on the steps for over an hour, and only fifteen minutes remained in the exam.
I hadn't much time left, and I had no brain left at all. But I had my outline. I fleshed it out as fast as I could, hoping that the outline made sense, because I had no judgment left at all. I finished. I did well on the exam. I began to think very highly of outlines.
I took some graduate courses in education a few years back, not as part of a degree program, but just to learn stuff. One course in methods of teaching involved a lot of memory work, remembering names of methods, the people most associated with them, the dates of their development, their specific principles or steps, their advantages and disadvantages. Lots of stuff. I knew how to study by then, so I had good control over the material and plenty of sleep when I got to the midterm exam, but when I read the exam, I went into shock.
We were to have one hour for the exam, and I saw that the test included ten (!) essay questions. I could easily have spent an hour answering any one of the questions, and could not imagine answering all ten. I absolutely froze, convinced that I couldn't pass the test. I told myself that it didn't matter, I wasn't in a degree program, I could walk out the door and not look back. This was my first experience of freezing on an exam. I had taken exams for which I was unprepared before, horrible experiences (especially one in Analytical Geometry my senior year of high school)—but nothing like this. I think I would have walked out, but I was teaching then, telling my own students how to handle the pressures of essay examinations, and I didn't want to return to my own classroom as a hypocrite. So I took my own advice.
I outlined all ten answers. I took me thirty minutes, but I outlined them all, and then I knew I could answer them all. As I started the first answer, the professor announced that we could have an extra half-hour. Cool! I finished with three minutes to spare (though I didn't proofread), turned in the paper, and stepped out for a cigarette. Nobody else was finished, though, and the teacher allowed the class an additional hour. I was pretty steamed about that, but I still aced the exam.
Now, I would have been toast if the professor had held to the original one-hour time limit (everybody would have been toast). And if the test had been set for two and a half hours to begin with, I wouldn't have frozen. But what dominated my experience was that the outlines saved me.
Outlining takes practice, and you have to keep an eye on the clock, making sure that you have enough time to produce your real answers for real points. But if you practice outlining as a part of your long-term study, if you learn to use the questions on the exam to help you shape the outlines for your answers, and if you gain a little experience in real exams, you'll find that outlining is truly a helpful tool.
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Three principles will help you in the writing step.
First, don't waste time with rough drafts. Drafts are an important part of the writing process when you have time to use them. You can set them aside for several hours or days, and come back for a more objective look at what is effective and what is not. You can treat drafts as resources, as foundations for rewriting. But drafts don't work like that under the time pressures of an essay examination (or under other similar time pressures, either).
Here's what happens to most students who write rough drafts during essay examinations. They can't afford much time to think or plan, because they have to save enough time for rewriting. They write their drafts with panicky speed, because they have to save enough time for rewriting. They think that they will find and fix any errors when they recopy, and they do find and fix some; but because they are so pressured to finish the test before time is up, they are recopying as fast as they were drafting, and they commonly add as many new errors as they fix old ones. If you have a take-home exam with ample time, rough drafts are useful. If you have two hours to write, but only thirty minutes worth of questions to deal with, rough drafts may be useful. But if there is any serious time pressure involved, rough drafts work against you.
A second principle for writing essay exams is to use the question. I've already mentioned and demonstrated using the question as the foundation for your outline, but you can also use the question to build an introduction and thesis for your answer—not all the time, but most of the time. You don't want to recopy the question (that annoys every instructor I've ever asked about it); you want to paraphrase it. It's usually mindlessly simple, but still effective.
Here's a sample question: "Describe the writing process, distinguishing among prewriting, drafting, and rewriting, and including important substeps and techniques." Here's a paraphrase that serves as a fast and effective introduction to the answer: "The writing process includes three main steps, prewriting, drafting, and rewriting, and several important substeps and techniques."
Do you see how clearly the paraphrase serves as a previewing thesis for your answer? Do you see that starting the answer this way will set you off in the right direction? Do you see that starting the answer this way will make your reader (grader!) believe that you are answering the question directly and confidently (even if you don't have a clue)? Do you see how fast and easy this is to do?
This simple paraphrase of the question is often all the introduction your answer will need. On a typical essay exam answer, you don't have to start with a grabber, because you don't have to attract the audience—you're answering a question the audience has asked you. You don't need to build credibility, because that's what the body does. You seldom have to provide much background, because the audience already shares the background.
Paraphrasing the question doesn't always work—there's not much to work with if the question is something like, "Discuss the writing process." But paraphrasing the question works often, giving you a fast, easy, efficient way to start your answer, and one that builds the grader's confidence in you.
A third principle for success in writing is to consider your audience. This is a standard concern in all writing, but there's a trick to it in writing essay answers: you want to keep two different audiences in mind.
Your actual audience is the instructor/grader who will read and evaluate your answer—he or she is the person you need to satisfy, and you must take that real reader's preferences and prejudices into account. (If the instructor is always asking for examples or specifics, recognize that expectation. If the instructor stresses theory, or practical applications, or historical data, keep that interest in mind. If the instructor expects you to parrot back her own views or hates it when students parrot back her own views, keep that in mind.)
But if you think of your instructor alone as your audience, you risk two dangerous assumptions: "he already knows that," and "she knows I know that." Because of those assumptions, students sometimes leave out critical points or details. It doesn't matter that the instructor already knows the material (as he or she should)—because the test must demonstrate what you know. And you mustn't rely on the instructor's knowing that you know something (because you've discussed it in class or presented an earlier report, for example)—the test determines how well you understand and can explain a concept on the test itself.
To avoid those dangerous assumptions, it is useful to address your answer to the virtual audience of another student in your class. Imagine that an intelligent and responsible student in your class missed the meetings in which the material of this question was explored. Explain the material to that student. You can assume general familiarity with the concepts and context of the course, as well as with its specialized vocabulary, but you have to explain everything that is particular to the question you are answering. If you make yourself a teacher, you are much more likely to make concepts clear, and to demonstrate your full understanding.
You can see these strategies applied in a Sample Essay Answer, linked here and at Lessons & Resources.
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The final step in performing well on an essay examination is to proofread, correcting errors that may cost you points. In planning your time strategy for the exam, try to factor in some minutes at the end for proofreading.
Most people think chiefly of mechanics when they think of proofreading, and mechanics are the exclusive focus when you are proofreading a standard essay. On an essay exam, though, the proofreading may usefully include a first review for content. Don't just read your answer over; start by rereading the question. Take a fresh look at what the question asks for, then read your answer to see if it delivers. If the question asks for three elements, and you stopped with only two, you can gain several points by adding that third element. If the question specifies that you should include specific examples or direct quotations, and you haven't done that, adding some examples or quotations can retrieve lost points—surely more points than a corrected misspelling will provide.
(If you do a good job of outlining your answers in the first place, building your outline from the question, this content review will be less necessary.)
Proofreading for mechanics is always a little difficult. When we reread what we just wrote, everything looks fine. We usually see what we intend or expect to be there, rather than what actually is there. (You know this, of course—when you get back marked papers, you often say, "I can't believe I didn't see that.") When we have generous time and resources for the full writing process, we can delay proofreading a day or more, and we'll see things more clearly, or we can share the work with another reader. Neither of these options is available on a timed test.
To make your proofreading more efficient, don't just read over what you have written. Instead, proofread in steps, with specific goals. If you have a problem with spelling, make a pass looking for misspellings—but read backwards. When we read forwards, we predict the upcoming words, and often see what we expect to see. When we read backwards, it's harder to predict the next word, so we're more likely to recognize a misspelling. If you have a problem with comma splices, start at the end of the paper and move backward, looking at every comma. You'll quickly eliminate commas that separate items in a series, or any commas preceding coordinating conjunctions, but you'll slow down and look harder at other commas. You can actually check every comma in a paper faster than you can read it, and you're likely to find and fix most comma splices (if you know what you're looking for. The same process applies to sentence fragments. Start at the end, reading backward, sentence by sentence. When we read forward, we read, "Fred arrived late. Because of a flat tire." We read the sentences together, and they sound okay. If we read backward, though, we read, "Because of a flat tire." That doesn't work as a sentence by itself.
Adjust the proofreading process to what you know about your own writing. Go after your most serious and frequent problems first. If you never write fragments, don't make a pass for fragments. But fix whatever you find, whenever you find it. If you're looking for misspellings and find a comma splice, fix the comma splice then—don't wait for a later pass looking for comma splices.
There's a lot of material here, a lot to absorb. Read it a few times, and try to practice the steps as you read about them. With practice, you will become more confident and skillful in taking essay examinations, and many other kinds of examinations, as well. You will also have the foundation and practice you need whenever you have to write under time pressure.
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