Essay exams require more than just knowledge recall and application. They also require students to demonstrate their analytical skills, that is their ability to use good reasoning in analysing a situation or solving a problem. There is an expectation that students will not only explain key concepts, but also that they will use key concepts to interpret, make connections, see relationships, draw comparisons and synthesize information in support of their argument or assertion.
Before the Exam
- Revise key concepts and ideas
Go over concepts that were emphasised in tutorials and lectures, as these are, most often, the key concepts that course organisers want you to understand and critique. Course profiles are another useful source in determining key concepts.
Study sessions should include practice exams. Begin your study by anticipating what essay questions will be included. There are several sources for possible essay questions, including major headings in textbooks, course profiles, study guides, end of chapter questions from textbooks, as well as tutorial questions.
- Prepare study sheets
Review lecture, study guide and textbook notes. Record the relevant and important material from these sources on your study sheet. Use these to plan out how to answer your practice questions
Organise all your material. Decide on the best way to present your ideas in a written form. This not only helps you plan an effective essay, it will also help you to remember key ideas.
Sitting the Exam
- Allocate time
Take note of the way marks are allocated and allocate time accordingly.
- Read questions thoroughly
Identify what the question is asking you to do. This can be done by circling any verbs or doing words, underlining the key terms, and identifying any limiting phrases.
- Read questions more than once
It may be beneficial to read the question 3 times to ensure that not only do you know what is expected, but you can also identify whether you have choices. For instance, do you have to answer all questions, or do you have a choice?
- Give yourself space
Leave every second line blank in your answer booklet. This gives you room to fix up mistakes and add any extra ideas.
- Plan before you write
Spend a few minutes gathering your thoughts before writing. This will allow you the time to consider the most effective way to present material and will ensure that you cover all the necessary components.
- Aim for clarity
Your introduction should give your reader clear direction. Ensure that you have a clear argument or thesis in your introduction, that you link all paragraphs to that argument, and that you reinforce the main points in your conclusion. Remember that one sentence should equal one idea.
Answering a question
The topic: Your assignment, essay, or project may have a specific topic, require you to choose from a range of topics, or ask you to define a topic of your own. A common mistake that students make is attempting to cover or choosing a topic that is too large or not clearly defined. The following points are designed to help you begin to refine your ideas.
Identify the TOPIC that you intend to address.
Write down some descriptors, or KEY WORDS, relevant to that topic. You can then check these key words against the subject catalogue in the library to see which of them in fact appear there. This will make you aware of other possible key words as well as helping you to focus your attention on a manageable portion of the field. You should now be ready to think about a title.
Now you may want (or need) to refine your topic further. What terms in your title, or related to your topic, need to be DEFINED? Remember that dictionaries or Wikipedia are not specialist academic or scientific texts and therefore are not often the best places to go for definitions in this context. A definition might be a discussion of the possible approaches to a subject rather than a formula.
What LINES OF THOUGHT does your title suggest? Make sure that your title doesn't include references to an area that you don't want to deal with or, alternatively, omits a major aspect of your argument.
Can you present arguments both FOR AND AGAINST the topic?
Where an essay question is provided, students often fail to do what the question asks of them. Take note of the following list of directive words and make sure you are fulfilling the markers' expectations
Common Specific Instructions used in Assessment Questions
Assignment tasks you will be asked to complete will use a set of common instructions. You should read these instructions carefully and interpret the directive verbs outlined below accordingly.
Analyse: Identify and explain each component and show how they relate to each other.
Compare: Describe the similarities and differences and evaluate likely outcomes.
Contrast: Present an overview of two points of view and set them in opposition to bring out the differences.
Criticise: Give your judgement about the merit of theories or opinions about truth of facts, and back your judgement by a discussion of the evidence.
Debate: Weigh both sides of a controversial argument fairly and thoroughly, reviewing each side.
Define: Set down the precise meaning of a word or phrase and show why the distinctions implied in the definition are necessary by expanding on particular elements that may be sources of confusion or misunderstanding.
Describe: Give a detailed explanation and clarification.
Discuss: Investigate an issue by examining the positive and negative arguments and by exploring interesting alternatives.
Evaluate: Make an appraisal on the basis of pre-established criteria, explore other points of view and, perhaps, include your personal opinion.
Examine: Present in depth and investigate the implications.
Explain: Clarify by the use of explanation, model and example.
Illustrate: Use a model to clarify a particular point or use examples taken from everyday reality.
Interpret: Expand the meaning of a particular issue or event.
Justify: Show the basis for a decision or conclusion by the use of an appropriate model or relevant evidence.
List: Display a series of names, items or figures printed.
Outline: Describe the major features of an issue or theory omitting minor details and emphasising structure and key conclusions.
Prove: Demonstrate truth or falsity by presenting evidence.
Relate: Show how things are connected to each other and how they influence each other.
State: Present in brief, clear form.
Summarise: Give a brief overview of the key points of a matter, omitting details and examples.
Trace: Follow the development of a topic from some point of origin.
A worked example
Below is a fictitious example of how the same information/idea can be tailored to meet the requirements of the assessment piece. (Note: if this were a real assignment, referencing would be required).
Explain the views of Baxter in relation to contemporary Australian popular music.
Your answer might look like this:
Baxter (2025) examines contemporary Australian popular music in an attempt to explain how it provides a vehicle for the marginalised voice of young people in Australian society. She provides evidence of the lack of mainstream opportunities for young people to express their disappointment and rage at issues such as high youth unemployment and the rising cost of education. She then uses examples of lyrics from performers such as "Jebediah", "Powderfinger" and "The Whitlams" to support her argument.
Contrast the views of Baxter and Cadbury in relation to contemporary Australian music.
Your answer might look like this:
While Baxter’s (2025) argument focuses on the social exclusion of young people and how this is reflected in contemporary Australian popular music, Cadbury (2015) asserts that this music is not actually a genuine product of young people at all. He contends that both its content and form are dictated by large-scale media interests and their perception of the anxieties and desires of young people. Although both share the view that young people experience social exclusion, they differ in their perceptions about the effectiveness of music in responding to this.
Critique Baxter’s views in relation to contemporary Australian music.
Your answer might look like this:
Baxter’s (2025) argument finds strong support for some of its propositions. Both Cadbury (2015) and Lindt (2015) concur that young people experience a high degree of exclusion from key social institutions. Ferrero (2030) argues that Baxter’s (2025) research is also extremely strong in this area. However, she fails to make the link between this exclusion and the content of popular music. She does not consider, as Cadbury (2015) does, the influence of capital on the music industry. Lindt (2015) notes that her methodology in selecting lyrics is somewhat selective. Ferrero (2030) also criticises her lack of adequate explanation of competing evidence. Therefore, on the whole, her argument is incomplete and unsupported by the weight of evidence.
In all other cases, or when in doubt, consult your tutor. Your aim should be a simple, clear style. Always spell out what you mean rather than leaving things ambiguous in the mind of the reader. A good general guide is N. Hudson's (1993) Modern Australian Usage, Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
Use of non-discriminatory and formal language
Great care must be taken not to use discriminatory language in academic writing. Depending on the context, disparaging terms can occur in relation to race, age, gender, sexuality, culture, religion, background, and disabilities. The most common, and yet normally unintentional, form of discriminatory language is sexist language. It includes terms such as his, him, her or she when referring to a position which could be held by either a male or female; mankind instead of humankind; or manned instead of staffed; air hostess instead of flight attendant, and so on.
The University of Queensland’s Equity Office has produced a number of leaflets that are available, free of charge, to students and staff. One called ‘A Guide to using Inclusive Language’ is available from http://www.uq.edu.au/equity/.
Academic writing relies on formal language and presentation style. The objective of academic writing is to achieve clear communication (American Psychological Association, 2010). Academic writing relies upon formal language use, objectivity, use of correct grammar and punctuation, avoidance of abbreviations and is free from jargon and gender biased language. Some examples are:-
- In an academic paper, numbers consisting of two or more digits are written numerically, e.g. 10, 234, and single digit numbers are written out in full, for example, one, seven. There are some exceptions to this general rule. For example:-
- Any number that begins a sentence is written out in words; for example: Twenty-eight per cent of the sample……..
- Common fractions; for example: one fifth of the audience
- Universally accepted usage; for example: the Twelve Apostles
- Numerals are used (ignoring the number of digits) in abstracts; for tabulation; statistical discussion and decimal points; sums of money; addresses; dates; time; units of measurement; scores and points on a scale; and page, chapter and volume numbers.
- Do not use abbreviations. Write the terms out in full. For instance, instead of ‘e.g.’ write ‘for example’.
- Acronyms are acceptable only if they are displayed in full the first time they are utilised and the acronym in brackets immediately following the use. For example: Injury in Australia is the leading cause of inpatient hospital occurrences (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2004).
- Be consistent in all you do. For instance, the citation in your assignment must be written in the same way as the citation in the reference list; the form of citation used must be the same throughout your paper; and the size and style of headings must be consistent throughout your paper.
- Apart from reflective journals, in most instances avoid the use of first person (I, me, we, us), and of second person (you) when writing academic papers. Use of third person is, for example the use of terms such as, A basic approach…, Health Professionals must…, An individual’s perception…
Avoid judgemental language. When making an argument, or critiquing behaviour, research or standards, aim for neutral language, for example: “The researchers did not consider…” rather than “The researchers completely ignored…”