expand search

Academic Skills

two student studying together, sitting against each other back on a university bench

Academic Skills

Studying for Essay Exams

Download a PDF of this guide.


Can you study for an essay exam?

Yes, you can! Many students mistakenly think that, because essay exams focus on analysis rather than memorization, they cannot really “study” for an essay exam. However, essay exams generally require you to pull together information from different parts of the course to create a coherent answer and to support an interpretation with specific examples. That is pretty hard to do well if you haven’t studied the course material! Indeed, there are a number of study strategies that are well-suited to preparing for an essay exam.

The Challenge of Essay Exams

Essay exams require you to interpret a complex and often lengthy question, develop a coherent thesis statement that addresses this question, and write an essay that provides specific evidence to develop and support this thesis. And, it requires you to do all of this under time pressure.

Meeting these challenges will require that you study in ways that will allow you to recognize both the major themes and ideas of the course as well as the specific facts, events, authors, or examples that are associated with those themes.

Study Strategy 1: Create a Study Guide

Essay exams require you to show connections between details, to gather up the specifics and tie them together with the major themes of the course. One of the best ways to prepare for this is to create a study guide.

A study guide is a document that attempts to identify the major themes and synthesize information from different units or weeks of the course. In a study guide, you list information from different units together under thematic categories. Here are some tips on creating a good study guide.

Step 1: Read through lecture notes and reading notes and list the main themes of the class. This is not a list of facts, dates, events or authors, but of themes and ideas.  For example, in your History 1500, this would NOT be a list of events or dates. It would be themes: terror and the state, religion and terror, technology and terror. In English 1000, your list would NOT be a list of authors or books that you have read. Instead, it would be a list of themes that are common to them: literary techniques, self and society, gender etc.

Step 2: Now go back and read through your notes again. This time, you are looking for details such as authors, key terms, events, and examples. Use these details to flesh out your study guide and to show how the details build your understanding of the themes.

Sample Study Guide for History 1500

Theme: Religion and Terror

Module: Witch Craze

  1. Catholicism and beliefs in white and dark magic
  2. The Reformation/Wars of Religion brought social, cultural, and economic disruption, which bred anxiety.
  3. Witch hunting picks up c. 1520.
    • Most intense hunting = 1550-1650 (religious wars = c.1540-1648)
  4. Geography: 75% of trials = German, Swiss, French lands (only 50% of Europe’s population)
    • Proximity to religious tension increases tendency to burn witches

Module: Crusades – List relevant examples

Study Strategy 2: Try to Guess the Questions

When professors write essay questions, they usually review the material they have covered and try to choose topics that will require students to bring together the major themes of the course. By guessing the questions that will be on the exam, you will engage in the same process. Look through your syllabus, lecture and reading notes, and study guide. What concepts or themes have been developed throughout the term? What questions would you ask if you were the professor?

Study Strategy 3: Study from Old Exams

While you are guessing the questions and preparing for an essay exam, it can be very helpful to consult previous exams in the course. While it is unlikely that a professor would use exactly the same questions again on your exam, it can be helpful to get a sense of the types of questions that he or she has asked in the past. Just keep in mind that courses vary from year to year, and your professor may not be concerned about the same issues as last year’s instructor was. Do use old exams to study, but do so with care.

The Trent library maintains an online database of previous exams from which you can search for exams given in your course.

Study Strategy 4: Outline or Write Possible Answers

Trying to identify what questions might be on the exam is, of course, only one part of studying for the exam. You also need to try to create answers to these questions. You can do this by outlining answers. Begin with a clear thesis that addresses the question, and then create a section of the outline that develops each part of your thesis. Finally, add in specific examples that you would use to support your ideas in the appropriate section.

You can also write full answers to the essay questions you devise as you study. The act of writing will help you to remember the material, and although the identical question may not appear on the exam, you will usually be able to employ the connections and supporting details in a response that addresses similar issues.

Study Strategy 5: Study in a Group

One of the best ways to learn material is to talk about it with others. As you do, you deepen your understanding not only by having to explain concepts or themes to others but also by hearing their perspective on the central issues of the course.

While you will ultimately take an exam, and thus need to know course information, on your own, study groups can be a great supplement to independent study activities. Each group member could come prepared with one or two potential exam questions, and then other group members could try to answer them. Or, the entire group could review the course syllabus together and identify central themes or particularly challenging material. Through the process of discussing the information with others, you will increase your understanding and thus be studying for your essay exam.

For Further Resources

For information about writing the essay exam as well as many issues relating to exam preparation, please visit our website