If your teen heads into exams thinking, I have no idea what my exam essay questions are going to be and I don’t know what I’m going to write, we’ve got very good news.
In this article we’re going to explain how your teen can walk into their exam with multiple ready-to-go essays up their sleeve.
The ultimate essay prep study technique
There’s no way for your teen to know the exact essay questions they’re going to be asked, BUT, they should know before they even start studying for exams, with a high level of certainty, what TYPES of exam questions they’re going to be asked.
Let us explain by taking a look at how we studied for one of our high school essays.
In Clare’s last year at high school she studied New Zealand history. One of the key topics her class focused on during that year was New Zealand’s founding document, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) (you can think of it sort of like a Constitution…).
It was as good as certain that the exam at the end of the year would include a question about the Treaty. What we didn’t know is what the exact question would be.
The exam question we did get for this topic (as mentioned in our first installment of Essay Month) was, What factors led to a significant decision being made in nineteenth-century New Zealand? What were the consequences of this decision?
Because the Treaty was the topic of New Zealand history our class had focused on for much of the year, the ‘significant decision’ our class wrote about for this essay question was the decision of many Māori chiefs to sign the Treaty in 1840. Our task in the exam was to MOLD (mould if you’re from the UK 😉) what we knew about the Treaty to answer the specific essay question.
That last sentence is the most important point of this article so let us repeat it:
The key to being able to answer any essay question in an exam, is to MOLD what you know about the relevant topic to ensure that you are answering the specific essay question being asked.
Learning this skill means that as long as you studied for the exam in the way we’re about to more fully explain, you will be able to answer ANY QUESTION on that topic the exam throws at you. It means that you will already know the types of points you’re going to make before you walk into the exam room. Then, once you’re in the exam, your task is to MOLD those points to make sure that you’re answering the specific question being asked.
As mentioned already, it was as good as certain that we would get a question about the Treaty, but we didn’t know the essay question was going to focus on this idea of a ‘decision’ and its consequences.
The exam could have asked any of the following questions:
- What was a significant turning point in New Zealand history and what impact did it have on society?
- What was the relationship between European settlers and Māori in the 19th century and how did this relationship change over time?
- How were Māori impacted by colonisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
You can see that these questions are quite similar but they have a different focus. To answer any of them we would need to discuss the following main points:
- The context of the Treaty – who / what / where / why
- The consequences of the Treaty being signed
The KEY TAKEAWAY FROM THIS ARTICLE IS: To get a good grade, we would have to MOLD those points to make sure we were addressing the specifics of the essay question.
For the first hypothetical question above, the ‘significant turning point’ would be the signing of the Treaty, and ‘impact’ is just another word for consequences. To answer the second question, you would use your knowledge about the context for the Treaty (who / what / where / why) as a means for explaining the ‘relationship’ between European settlers and Māori, and you would use your knowledge of the consequences of the Treaty being signed to answer the second part of the question about how the relationship changed over time. The same can be said for the third question.
The difference between these essay questions is the focus. The first is on impact, the second is on relationship, and the third focuses on Māori.
You can see how even though Clare didn’t know the exact essay question she was going to be asked, by knowing the general topic well she could have answered any of these questions using the knowledge about the Treaty she had.
We have more good news though, there’s a further study technique for ensuring your teen remembers all of the main points they need to make in the exam…
Mnemonic devices: Our study technique for making this essay prep technique EVEN easier
This technique was actually taught to us by our amazing History teacher, so all the credit goes to him.
And the technique is — using mnemonic devices to help you remember what main points to include in your essays.
As we’ve discussed (rambled on about) above, as long as your teen remembers what the main points of their essay should be, in the exam their task is to MOLD those points to answer the specific question being asked.
The technique of using mnemonic devices will prevent your teen from forgetting what those main points are.
Let’s look at an example straight away.
In this example we’re looking at an essay we wrote in high school about the origins of WWI. If you’re into History you’d be right in thinking that this involved learning about the cascade of events before and after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The force or movement we studied in this context was Serbian nationalism.
Going into the exam we knew that we would get an essay question that would require us to write about Serbian nationalism, its role in the Archduke’s assassination, and the consequences of his assassination.
What we didn’t know was the exact essay question we would be asked.
The essay question we got was: In what ways did the background and outcomes of an event that brought about important political change show the influence of a selected historical force or movement?
One might look at that question and on its face think, yuck, what on Earth am I supposed to write about?!
But thanks to the mnemonic devices suggested by our teacher, we had the main points already in our minds and ready to go before we walked into the exam room. All we had to do was — you guessed it — MOLD those points to make sure we answered the specific essay question.
Here’s one of the mnemonics that we used to answer this essay question:
What on Earth is RAM BNCR you ask?! Well it’s nothing, but this funny mnemonic is a whole lot more memorable than each of the points it represents. RAM represents the characteristics of Serbian nationalism, and BNCR represents the background causes of the assassination of the Archduke.
On the planning page of the exam paper Clare wrote out this mnemonic, so when she was writing the ‘background’ section of the essay, she just had to refer back to the planning page and then ‘fill out’ each letter of the mnemonic paragraph by paragraph.
This relates back to our first two installments of Essay Month — essay structure and Essay Plans. By using this mnemonic, my essay had excellent Paragraph structure, that is, it ensured the S.E.X.I. of each paragraph. It also fed into my Essay Plan, with each letter of the mnemonic being the main point of a different paragraph.
Here’s a photo of the real Essay Plan I made in the exam:
Clearly it’s not the most thorough Essay Plan, but it’s a lot better than nothing.
And here is a photo of one of the real paragraphs of my essay. I have underlined the relevant mnemonic letter out of RAM BNCR (‘B’ for Bosnian Crisis), and the relevant parts of the S.E.X.I. structure.
I went into the exam knowing that I would write an essay about the lead up to WWI, and knowing that the main points that RAM BNCR represents would be the paragraphs of my essay. You can see how this paragraph MOLDS what I learnt about Serbian nationalism and the causes of WWI to answer the specific essay question we were asked in the exam.
How your teen can make their own mnemonics for essay writing
There are absolutely NO RULES for this. It’s not like RAM BNCR makes any sense whatsoever! The only thing a mnemonic has to do is be memorable.
Let us know what mnemonic devices your teen comes up with in the comments below or flick us an email (email@example.com) or go modern and tell us on social media — we and all the other teens out there would love to hear it!
We hope you enjoyed this insanely thorough examination of how to study for exams that have essay questions. Well done for making it to the end and now go forth and help your teen conquer their essay writing!
Happy essay writing,
Clare & Chris
P.S. Send us your teen’s writing and we’ll mark it for free.
We’re here to help your teen write the best essays they’re capable of, so make sure you send us a sample of their essay writing (or maybe an Essay Plan!) and we will send it back to you with personalised feedback in just 3 days (for free of course). Just email it to Clare at firstname.lastname@example.org 😊