How to Study for Essay Exams

Instructor: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Modified Date: October 10, 2012

DISCLAIMER: This advice may not work for all courses or for every student, but I suspect it will work for most students and many courses in the humanities disciplines.

  • Start to prepare well in advance.

  • Try to understand what the professor regards as important. The professor will usually provide clues in the way she organizes her lectures, in study guides or handouts she provides, in the reading she assigns, or in a study guide deliberately prepared to help you prepare for exams. An attentive student will be alert to the clues. Sometimes it is useful to study together with other students who are taking the course. Professors want their students to do well, but they are also under an obligation to grade fairly, primarily in terms of the quantity and quality of your performance.

  • Using your clues, try to anticipate the topics of the essays that are likely to appear on the exam.

  • Write an outline for an essay on each of these topics. If you are unclear about the main points on any subject, review it.

  • Draft, at home, an essay on each of these topics. If your English is good and your understanding is thorough, the outline itself may be adequate provided you can move directly from an outline to a coherent essay.

  • Reduce your outline to a modest number (4-5) of relatively brief sentences that capture the main points.
  • Suppose you anticipate an opportunity to write an essay on the points that Plato is trying to convey in his allegory of the cave (Allegory of the Cave). The text has been assigned, the textbook itself discusses it, the professor has provided study questions relating to it, and she has devoted a major part of a class session to the passage.

    You might come up with an outline for the essay whose key points are contained in sentences such as the following:
    1. The allegory is a parable or extended metaphor for philosophy itself, understood as a search for wisdom.

    2. Light and darkness play a key role, standing for enlightenment and (relative ignorance), respectively.

    3. The rough ascent represents philosophy as a process, with obstacles on the way; the change from the prisoners' state to seeing the fire, from being in the cave to getting out, from night-time perception in the upper world to daytime perception, etc., indicates that acquiring wisdom is a multistep process.

    4. To be chained in the cave represents the limitations of lacking wisdom, of accepting customary views without critical examination, merely because they are what you are familiar with.

    5. The sun represents the ultimate cause of things-the point of inquiry is to understand ("see") the ultimate causes and how they are related to their effects.

  • Pick a key word from each sentence in your outline that, when recalled, will remind you of the point in the whole sentence, such as:





  • Create a unique syllable that will remind you of the key word, for instance:
    AL for "allegory,"
    LI for "light,"
    PRO for "process,"
    CHA for "chain,"
    CAU for "cause."
  • Put these together to generate a nonsense word: AL-LI-PRO-CHA-CAU

  • MEMORIZE THIS "WORD." (It's a mnemonic or memory device)

    When it comes to the test and you find you do indeed have an opportunity to write an essay on the topic,

  • retrieve your mnemonic from memory,

  • unpack it into syllables,

  • expand the syllables into key words, and

  • expand the key words into sentences.
  • With practice you'll find that, if you understand the material, once you've written down the mnemonic, unpacking its parts into key words and sentences is easy. Each key sentence may trigger a whole paragraph. Your time to write the essays may be limited. Be sure to allocate it wisely to the number of essays you are asked to write.

    The Cave Allegory is discussed at length in many introductory philosophy textbooks. An example of a basic essay on the Cave Allegory is available at (This is probably longer than would be required in the essay part of an exam in an Introduction to Philosophy course.)

  • Note to the user: If you find a way to improve on this method, please let me know.