Say, for instance, you were asked to write an essay on the relationship of perfection to humanity in a course on Ancient Greek Literature. Assuming you've studied beforehand, how would you begin once you sat down to take the exam?
Plan to Answer the Question Fully
In college-level literature courses, the question itself is often a paragraph or more. So make sure you understand it, in all its parts, before you begin. You may find it helpful to underline or highlight key phrases in the question itself. Take a few moments to organize your thoughts, and jot down a point-form outline on scrap paper.
This process includes recalling the issues involved, recognizing the right terms, and thinking of pertinent examples. Using the Greek Literature example, you might want to recall Ancient Greek attitudes toward art; recognize the difference between Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods; and think of such works as the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, and Lysistrata.
Begin with Traditional Essay Structure
Proper essay format is vital on an exam, since you have little time to revise. Make sure that your essay has a brief and focused introduction, with a thesis (also called a statement of purpose), and a summary of your main points.
Here is a good introductory paragraph for a Greek Literature essay:
- The ancient Greeks portrayed the physical world and the people in it as inherently flawed in their literature. In the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, and Lysistrata, physical flaws and shortcomings serve as a reminder of identity for their heroes, suggesting that imperfection and humanity are inextricably linked.
- Since the beginning of Western civilization, man has been fascinated by the idea of imperfection – can we ever be perfect, or not? Greek art was made to be imperfect, and even in our own times, we hear expressions like “nobody’s perfect.” In all the great works we have studied in this course so far, we can also see that they show imperfections in their characters, especially in such outstanding works like the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, and Lysistrata. These imperfections make it easy for people to identify with their heroes even today.
Once you have a thesis statement, you need to back up your claims with analysis. In literature exams, that means finding relevant examples from your texts:
- Although Odysseus disguises himself often in Homer’s Odyssey, he has a physical flaw that doesn’t change: the scar on his leg. Odysseus’ old nurse, Eurycleia, finds this scar when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, returns home. Eurycleia recognizes Odysseus because of it, and nearly gives away his true identity prematurely. This episode links Odysseus’ physical imperfection to his very humanity. Unlike the gods, he can be hurt, nor can his scars be hidden – not even by his ally, the goddess Athena.
Remember that for an exam essay, you usually aren't expected to quote such texts exactly. But it is essential that you be as specific as possible, and that your examples are directly related to the topic.
As you write, stop once in a while to make sure that you're still on topic and not rambling. In literature courses, focus and clarity are just as important as getting as many facts down on paper as possible.
Also check that you're giving each part of your argument equal time. If, for instance, more than half your time is up, and you're still writing on the Odyssey without mentioning Oedipus Rex and Lysistrata, move on.
Finally, always leave yourself some time at the end to re-read your essay. You will probably spot and correct a few spelling or grammatical errors. Having a few minutes at the end will also allow you to write a more compelling conclusion, which should be a brief restatement of your main points and why they are significant.
A solid thesis, backed up with well-argued examples, is the foundation of a good literature exam essay. Taking time to plan at the beginning and double-check at the end will make writing it easier. You'll be graduating before you know it!