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Back to Helpful HandoutsoWriting Center Home PageBefore the Exam: Prepare and Practice
Writing a good essay requires synthesis of material that cannot be done in the 20-30 minutes you have during the exam. In the days before the exam, you should:
- Anticipate test questions. Look at the question from the last exam. Did the question ask you to apply a theory to historical or contemporary events? Did you have to compare/contrast theories? Did you have to prove an argument? Imagine yourself in the role of the instructor--what did the instructor emphasize? What are the big ideas in the course?
- Practice writing. You may decide to write a summary of each theory you have been discussing, or a short description of the historical or contemporary events you've been studying. Focus on clarity, conciseness, and understanding the differences between the theories.
- Memorize key events, facts, and names. You will have to support your argument with evidence, and this may involve memorizing some key events, or the names of theorists, etc.
- Organize your ideas. Knowledge of the subject matter is only part of the preparation process. You need to spend some time thinking about how to organize your ideas. Let's say the question asks you to compare and contrast what regime theory and hegemonic stability theory would predict about post-cold war nuclear proliferation. The key components of an answer to this question must include:
- A definition of the theories
- A brief description of the issue
- A comparison of the two theories' predictions
- A clear and logical contrasting of the theories (noting how and why they are different)
Many students start writing furiously after scanning the essay question. Do not do this! Instead, try the following:
- Perform a "memory dump." Write down all the information you have had to memorize for the exam in note form.
- Read the questions and instructions carefully. Read over all the questions on the exam. If you simply answer each question as you encounter it, you may give certain information or evidence to one question that is more suitable for another. Be sure to identify all parts of the question.
- Formulate a thesis that answers the question. You can use the wording from the question. There is not time for an elaborate introduction, but be sure to introduce the topic, your argument, and how you will support your thesis (do this in your first paragraph).
- Organize your supporting points. Before you proceed with the body of the essay, write an outline that summarizes your main supporting points. Check to make sure you are answering all parts of the question. Coherent organization is one of the most important characteristics of a good essay.
- Make a persuasive argument. Most essays in political science ask you to make some kind of argument. While there are no right answers, there are more and less persuasive answers. What makes an argument persuasive?
- A clear point that is being argued (a thesis)
- Sufficient evidenct to support that thesis
- Logical progression of ideas throughout the essay
- Review your essay. Take a few minutes to re-read your essay. Correct grammatical mistakes, check to see that you have answered all parts of the question.
Essay exams can be stressful. You may draw a blank, run out of time, or find that you neglected an important part of the course in studying for the test. Of course, good preparation and time management can help you avoid these negative experiences. Some things to keep in mind as you write your essay include the following:
- Avoid excuses. Don't write at the end that you ran out of time, or did not have time to study because you were sick. Make an appointment with your TA to discuss these things after the exam.
- Don't "pad" your answer. Instructors are usually quite adept at detecting student bluffing. They give no credit for elaboration of the obvious. If you are stuck, you can elaborate on what you do know, as long as it relates to the question.
- Avoid the "kitchen sink" approach. Many students simply write down everything they know about a particular topic, without relating the information to the question. Everything you include in your answer should help to answer the question and support your thesis. You need to show how/why the information is relevant -- don't leave it up to your instructor to figure this out!
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The Praxis Core Writing Exam has two essay prompts at the end, after the 44 multiple choice questions on the assessment. In the first of these two essays, you’ll be asked to express a personal opinion on an important social issue. A possible Core Writing Argument Essay prompt might look like this:
Read the opinion stated below:
“Motor vehicles are one of the main causes of pollution and climate change. To address this problem, governments should work to regulate automotive emissions. World leaders should also subsidize public transportation to that people will drive less.”
Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with this opinion. Support your views with specific reasons and opinions from your own experiences, observations, or reading.
Your answer to a prompt such as this one will be graded on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the best score and 1 being the worst. With any luck (or really with any skill), you won’t have to worry about getting a 1. But you’ll need to rise to a number of challenges in order to get a six.
Challenge # 1: Forming an opinion
The Praxis chooses Argument Essay topics that many people have strong opinions on. But you may or may not have a strong opinion on the topic you’re presented with. Looking at the example above, perhaps the issue of climate change and car emissions is one you’re familiar with, but not especially passionate about. You may even feel underinformed on the issue. This is perfectly understandable—not everyone is a climate change expert!
Or perhaps you may normally have some definite feelings about the issue, but draw a blank when you try to tap into your personal feelings on the test. This is understandable too; under the pressure of a timed teacher certification exam, your feelings on social issues may be the last thing on your mind.
It’s important to understand that your true personal opinion doesn’t actually matter to the Praxis scorer. What matters is that you can take a position and defend it in writing, using a well-constructed evidence-based argument. The position you take doesn’t have to be your true position, and you don’t even need to have an opinion in “real life.” You just need to choose a position and make a case for it. The “right” opinion is whichever one you think will be the easiest to write an essay on.
Also bear in mind that the makers of the Praxis Core don’t expect you to be highly educated on the issues. In fact, because this isn’t a research-based essay with external sources, it’s perfectly OK to just use common knowledge—things about the issue that anyone might know—in your argument.
Challenge # 2: Constructing the argument
According to pages 29-36 of the official free study companion for Praxis Core Writing, a 6-point argumentative essay displays a number of important qualities.
The position you take should be stated very clearly. You don’t want your readers—the Praxis Core test scorers—to have any doubts about your position you’re taking on the issue. For clarity, it’s best to present your statement early on, ideally within the first paragraph. The longer someone has to read your essay before they understand your point of view, the less clear your thesis will seem to be.
To get a top score, be sure to also state the supporting details for your thesis strategically. Choose evidence that supports your argument, and supports it completely. Also make sure that all of your key ideas and supporting evidence unfold logically. Your ideas should appear in an order that’s easy to understand, with smooth transitions from one idea to the next.
Challenge #3: Following the conventions of academic writing
Finally, Core Writing test-takers must demonstrate fluent use of written language in their essays. Sentences should show variety in terms of grammar structures and word choice. Awkward wording, poor parallel structure, and errors in grammar and mechanics should also be kept to a minimum.
Having to express an opinion about an important issue can seem daunting. Even in a relaxed conversation with friends, many people feel put-on-the-spot if they’re asked to explain how they feel about some sort of contentious social issue. But you really don’t need to feel anxious about this task. It’s not necessary to sound like a brilliant political pundit or a learned scholar. You just need to create an essay that’s well written and supports your stated opinion in a way that seems complete and logical.
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