Tackling the Essay Exam Question

Essay questions seek to evaluate how well a student is able to integrate facts and information into a coherent discussion. This means that professors expect a clear statement of a central thesis (usually the answer to the question prompt). In an essay exam, state this thesis as the first sentence. The body paragraphs of the essay test question consist of a clear and cogent development of that thesis drawn from insights and examples from course lectures and reading material. To answer essay questions successfully, consider these points:

Tackling the Blue Book ExamOutline your essays before writing them.
Jotting down notes before you begin writing in your blue book is a helpful way to organize your thoughts. You can underline or circle important words in the essay prompt and use these words to help structure your essay.

Choose a simple, logical format for your essay. 
The format of the essay should follow the prompt as much as possible. Consider the following prompt:

What was Jesus’ favored phrase or title which he used to designate himself? Comment on its linguistic background, its OT and Second Temple Jewish context, its meaning for Jesus, and its relationship to the concept of the kingdom of God.

Notice that this essay prompt provides very detailed information about what the professor expects. A simple outline for this question might be as follows:

-Linguistic background of “Son of Man” (Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic)
-OT Context (Daniel, Ezekiel, Adam, David/Kingship)
-2nd Temple Context (4Ezra, Enoch)
-Meaning for Jesus (relation to messiah, prophet, servant, son of God, Israel)
-“Son of Man” and the Kingdom (autobasileia; human vicegerency)

Using this type of prompt as a guide makes structuring your essay fairly simple. However, not all essay questions provide this much specific guidance. In those cases, you will need to identify the important aspects of the topic and structure your essay accordingly.

Use clear, direct, and informative sentences, especially at the beginning of paragraphs.
The blue book essay is not the time for literary subtlety, but for straightforward assertion. If you are asked to describe the transcendental apologetic argument, a simple way to do this is to begin your paragraph with the sentence,

There are three aspects to the transcendental argument. These are . . .

Unlike actual apologetic discourse, the essay question needs no finesse or embellishment. Simply demonstrate that you know the subject well enough to answer the question.

Utilize transition words and phrases to connect your ideas.
When a topic has several important aspects, you may note each of them in successive sentences. However, be sure to indicate how these thoughts relate to the main idea. Consider, for example, the following sentence which introduces a new idea:

From a biblical theological perspective, another OT background to “Son of Man” involves seeing the term as representative of humanity—that is, as the seed Adam.

The underlined phrase clearly connects this paragraph to the prompt and to the preceding discussion (which in this case is the OT background of the title “Son of Man”).

Omit unnecessary introductory remarks, citation, and extraneous commentary.
Blue book essays do not need an introduction; your professor already knows why you are writing.  Any concluding remarks should be brief and specific, stating your thoughts succinctly and clearly and avoiding anything that does not pertain to the essay prompt. While citations strengthen an argument,
actual bibliographic information (e.g., page number, verse reference) is unnecessary in an essay exam answer. 

  Incorporate class notes and Tackling the Essayassigned reading in your essay.
While reference to assigned reading is not always necessary, using terms and ideas from classroom lecture signals to your professor that you understand the material as it has been discussed in class. As you prepare for essay questions, study key phrases and concepts from class notes and your reading for easy recall on test day. 


As time permits, provide a one or two-sentence summary at the end of your question.
Because an essay question does not need to be polished, this step is not required. When possible, however, a very brief summary brings an essay to a close and ties ideas together, demonstrating that you are able to synthesize
the information into a meaningful whole.

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