How I Study For Essay-Based Exams? 🎈
This is how I teach top students to score full marks on ANY essay questions they encounter in their exams. It essentially works for any humanity subject's essay preparation.
Table of Contents
I'm someone who can't write good essays under time pressure. It's just difficult to study tons of content at home and then spew out a well-structured coherent perfect essay in exam conditions. So I found an effective step-by-step framework from Youtube and adapted it to my university essay exams.
Every essay exam I've given since then ended up scoring in the top percentile.
This year I customised it to IB exams and taught it to Economics, Business, History, Geography and Psychology students. And the group that used this method effectively ended up with 7s in their mock exams. All they did was produce 15-20 good quality essay plans for their subject and memorise them efficiently a few weeks before the exam.
There are two parts to the framework:
Production: Make high-quality digestible essays or plans for every question the examiner can possibly throw at us.
Retention: Drill these essays into your memory using mind maps, spaced revision and your friends.
If your subject's essay questions have mark schemes that already include all the specific content you have to write in the essay (such as the extended responses in Biology) then skip to the Retention section or my Spreadsheet Recall Method.
In these cases, you don't actually need to spend time producing your essays, you just need to understand the content and memorise it directly from the mark-scheme for the exams.
We need to produce high-quality essays that can be easily committed to memory and are guaranteed to score highly.
Step 1: Scope the Essay Questions
Find essay questions that cover the main high-yield concepts from the exam syllabus.
The best way to do this is to go through essay questions from past papers and literally make your essay plans based on them. Make sure these questions are exhaustive enough to cover the breadth of the syllabus.
After you go through enough of these questions and their mark schemes, you will be able to look at the syllabus, put yourself in the examiner's shoes and create your own essay questions that haven't been asked about so far. Use your professors and teachers for question ideas too, they look at these past papers year after year and can easily identify patterns.
Step 2: Mark-scheme = Perfect Answers
The mark-scheme is a special gift you get for these essay questions. READ IT.
You need to take advantage of the mark-schemes. Before making essay plans, you need to read and understand the question's mark scheme. Use its specific phrases and base your essays plans around its guidance and criteria. The majority of them will tell you exactly what to include in the essay or the type of topics to discuss to score marks.
By simply reading it before starting to write your essays, you will understand the structure and the details the IB wants you to include. You can quickly identify the weak topics that require more understanding and research to construct a good essay plan.
Step 3: Plan, Research and Distill
You need to plan 20+ high-quality essays for each exam to make sure your essay plans cover as much breadth of the syllabus as possible.
For each question, I'd start by getting a broad overview of the content from Google searches. Compile as much relevant information about this particular question in a document. Always make sure you use the question's mark scheme as guidance so that the type of information you research and collect remains focused.
I'd suggest ignoring your textbook and notes when researching initially.
3.1: Rather, build your essay using review articles, PDFs and studies. They give you so many more original insights and strong evidence to use for each essay plan.
I copied, pasted and rephrased so many bits and pieces from these review articles that by the end of it I could easily synthesise a solid essay. Pro tip: Use the list of references within each of these papers for more original sources of knowledge.
All of these research PDFs usually answered my essay question directly so I just had to repackage the points in my own way, keeping the IB criteria in mind. Simply using 3-4 academic studies with these detailed google searches for your question will improve your essay quality 10-fold.
Adding this extra effort when producing your essay plan means your points and arguments are very original. It immediately separates you from all of the students writing essays with the same textbook points and arguments from mainstream sources.
However, if the mark scheme only wants you to include the basic arguments from your textbook then forget all the originality. Structure and construct your essay based on the IB criteria only.
Trying to include unique angles is always helpful but never at the expense of the mark scheme's criteria.
Now that you've compiled all these points, evidence and research from these resources spend the next 2-3 hours writing up your detailed essay plan. You can now, use your notes and textbooks to verify the relevance of the concepts you've used to construct your points.
3.2: Break down and distill every piece of content into bullet points. Summarise the research into 'digestible' content.
Trying to memorise paragraphs of information from your plan takes too long. Distill and categorise all your chunks of information into sub-headings and concise bullet-pointed arguments. You need to do this to make your essay plan easier to retain and memorise.
Naturally, the more efficient you are with revising one essay, the more time you will have to repeat its revision and hence retain it more effectively.
We need to upload these 20 essay plans into your 🧠 as efficiently as possible.
Spend time properly understanding all the points and content within your essay, or else the next steps will not work. Its the only way to retain effectively.
Before you start, ensure you aren't just rote learning. Rather gain a comprehensive understanding of your subject through these essay plans so you aren't reliant on those specific 20 questions.
If you do this, then you'll be prepared for any new question that comes up. You'll have such a deep understanding that you'll be able to quickly retrieve quality points and easily construct a full mark essay from all your revision.
Step 4: One-Page Mind Maps
Mind maps were an unexpected charm when it came to memorising my essay plans. Every day, I'd essentially recall every piece of content of an essay plan from memory and regurgitate it in the form of a detailed mind map.
Starting in the middle with the question, branching out with the main points and further branching on those points with unique nuances and pieces of evidence. Actively recalling the essay and putting it on a 1-page diagram really organised my arguments and built on the structure of the essay. It reinforced the broad concepts within each topic and really helped me retain every single point within the essays.
After 3-4 repetitions of drawing these, the essays were completely mapped out in my head.
Every time you draw the essay mind map, review the topics you forgot to mention and try to better incorporate them into your thought process so that you add them in the essay next time.
Step 5: Spaced Practise
The more your brain has to "work" to remember the content, the more you will retain.
Review the essay plans and practise the essay under timed conditions. But you can't just do this once and expect to perfectly remember all your flawless points and facts. You need to space out the repetition of this practice in timed intervals.
After producing an essay plan, you should try and practise writing it up or summarising it on a one-page mind map after a day, then after four days, then after ten days and so on. By allowing yourself to forget what you learnt, your brain will have to work harder to recall it.
Step 6: Feynman Technique
Walk someone else through the harder essays. Explain the question, your arguments and show them the marking criteria.
One doesn't truly understand a topic unless one can explain it to another person. So, that's what I did. I sat down and went through my more complicated essays with someone else. Talked about my introduction, overarching concepts and the evidence behind them. Actively retrieving information and cementing your knowledge through conversation with someone else is the best thing for this exam.
Explaining and structuring a verbal answer proved to help not only understand but also memorise those essays A LOT faster. Once I'd spend 30 minutes talking through an essay in detail, I barely had to revise it again. I simply fixed the identified weaknesses and then practised it in my revision sessions for a few minutes each time.
So, talk through the essays out loud, it really streamlines the process.
I started 4 weeks before my exams and wrote and memorised around 50 essay plans for 3 exams. In the actual exams, around 7/11 essay questions were rephrased or repeated from the list of questions I'd already spent ages practising. As for the rest of them, I'd memorised so many essays and gained such a strong understanding of the topics that I could easily produce a new essay plan during the exam in less than 15 minutes. All because of this simple yet effortful method for revising my essays.