Everything English

Writing and Grammar Tips (beta)

Contact a customer support specialist at 1-206-494-5992

Exam English

Exam English can be especially difficult for non-native English speakers. It requires a lot of self-editing – on the spot and under pressure. Here, some tips to organize your thoughts before you start writing:

Don’t get too creative. Most exams – both standardized (e.g. the GRE) and university – expect your essay to follow a given format. Exam graders are usually looking for three things:

  • Principle thesis and supporting theses
  • Evidence and/or premises for theses
  • Discussion of evidence and/or premises

They are also looking for:

  1. Organization
  2. Punctuality
  3. Coherence

Don’t waste time when writing. Begin with a bold thesis (a statement of your position – what you are arguing). For example, if responding to a question on why the United States entered World War II, do not begin with a statement such as, “World War II began when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Answer the question directly: “The United States entered World War II after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and because it had strategic interests in sending troops to Europe and the Pacific.” Expound on your opening statement with several supporting sentences: “While the U.S. had provided tacit support to European allies in the form, for example, of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Program, it anticipated becoming more directly involved in the conflict that had roiled Europe and Asia since the mid-1930s. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt launched a three-pronged offensive that was designed to end the war by pushing back Axis forces in the Pacific, European, and North African theaters.”

Follow your opening paragraph with a series of three or four paragraphs (or more, if you have time and space), each with its own sub-thesis. In the case of the current example, you might devote one paragraph to a discussion of the imperative that the U.S. respond to the attack on Pearl Harbor; one paragraph to Roosevelt’s belief that the U.S. would enter the war eventually and to his efforts to assist U.S. allies in Europe, even before the attack on Pearl Harbor; and one paragraph to why the U.S. did not enter the war (e.g. because of popular pressure). Note that one way to lengthen an essay is to strengthen your argument by giving – and then debunking – counter-arguments. For example, in your third supporting paragraph, you might say something like, “Contrary to popular retrospective interpretations of U.S. entry into World War II, public pressure did not play a significant role in policymakers’ decisions to declare war on Japan. In fact, prior to Pearl Harbor, the American public had been primarily non-interventionist, content to let Europe and Asia solve their own problems. Though public opinion was in favor of responding to Pearl Harbor, Washington was influenced in this direction primarily by pre-existing factors, such as strategic necessity, rather than newly-emergent pro-war popular pressure.”

Note that this sample paragraph contains a subthesis (“Contrary to popular retrospective interpretations …”), evidence/a premise (“In fact, prior to Pearl Harbor, the American public …”), and discussion of the evidence/premise given (“Though public opinion was in favor …”). On exams, always give a subthesis first, then evidence/a premise. Evidence is factual. A premise is an assumption on which a broader statement or assertion rests. Both evidence and premises should explain why a subthesis is true. Discussion of evidence or a premise shows understanding on your, the writer’s part, of how the evidence or premise is connected to your subthesis.

Do not bury your thesis or subtheses amongst your evidence. When in doubt, aim for clarity. Obviousness is more important than fancy language on exams. Graders are more impressed by logicality than by big vocabularies and intricacy of expression. To that end, remember rules one through three: 1) Be organized (subthesis, evidence/premise, explanation of evidence/premise). 2) Be punctual (precise). 3) Be coherent (clear, not too fancy).

Always, ALWAYS stop at least once while writing your essay – and certainly after you’ve finished – to check that you’ve answered the question asked. Also, make sure that the argument in your conclusion, which should recap your introduction, does not contradict your introduction. This gets to point 3) coherency.

Also, try to memorize a few transitional phrases. These are key to creating coherency, organization, and punctuality. Here’s a helpful list:

However                                                 Irrespective of

Though/although                                   In addition

While                                                      Moreover

Nevertheless                                          Furthermore

Despite                                                   What is more

In spite of                                           In regard to/with regard to/as regards

As concerns

(Visited 324 times, 1 visits today)