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Three hours. One essay prompt… on twelve novels. Probably one of the more extreme examples of an English final examination that I have had to take. Sounds insane, but with a certain mindset and a decent amount of preparation beforehand, essay exams are actually not that bad. In Class Essay Exams can be easy if you follow these steps!

As a literature major, I get a lot more written midterms and finals. I have not encountered scantrons and multiple choice exams in a while. Sure, there is no set list of vocabulary terms or concepts to memorize, but in a sense, these kinds of exams can be easier. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Title and Author

Professors will usually want you to be able to name the novel and the author anyway. Free points right there, and it makes you look smarter in your essay.

Keep track of characters

Take note of important characters and their names. You do not want to have to write in your essay, “that one character who appeared in chapter 1 of X novel” or “the main character” repeatedly. It gives the bad impression that you really did not read the novel(s). If force comes to shove, Sparknote all those names to jog your memory and write them down.


Think about each novel and the different themes that can be taken from them. Then, think about more overarching themes that the novels may have in common and may connect them in some way. Think about these overarching themes, then parts or events in the novels that support these themes. You’re going to need to write an essay on the spot, so you will want to have lots of talking points in order to prove your thesis.

Key scenes or quotes

To memorize specific quotes would be ridiculous, but go over the events surrounding that part of the novel so you can easily reference that scene in your essay. If the professor went over a quote or scene in class, take note of that especially. There is a reason that point was emphasized and gone over in class.

When the novels were written

Often literature classes are designed around a certain theme or time period. Think about when these novels were written and their relation to one another. Was novel A written before or after novel B? Was novel B a positive or negative reaction to novel A? Is it written in the same vein as many novels at the time or was it a satire? This can help you better connect writing about them during the exam.

Bring paper, extra pens/pencils and a watch

You don’t want to be that one person begging others around you for paper or something to write with just before the exam begins. Come prepared both mentally and physically. Also bring a watch to keep track of time and make sure you have enough time to cover everything you want to write about.

Keep an Open Mind

Some may see this is as a negative, but I like that essay examinations are really open-ended. There is no 100% correct answer. 1 plus 1 equals 2 is not necessarily the only answer. In your essay, 1 plus 1 can equal 3 …so long as you are able to provide sufficient enough evidence to prove it. So when you start the exam, look over the essay prompt, think about all of the novels for a minute or two. Maybe jot down a rough outline.¬†Allow your thoughts to come together before diving in.

Photo courtesy of ccarlstead via Flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Watch the video below for tips on how to write the conclusion of an essay.
How to Write the Conclusion of an Essay

Do you have any suggestions on writing an in class essay? Share below in the comments section.