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Exams Survival Guide

A Guide to Surviving and Preparing for Exams

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Answering Essay Questions in an Exam

Writing in Exams:

A good essay offers a concise answer to the essay question in the form of a logical and well organised argument.

Although writing a good essay under exam conditions is difficult, you can prepare yourself by practising writing essays, using past papers and questions. 

What are examiners looking for?

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Has the question been answered?

You must answer the question. Marks are given based on the information you provide, the depth of your answer and supporting evidence.

Does the answer demonstrate knowledge of the subject area?

You need to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts, issues, cases, legislation and any other materials that were explored in the course.

Does the writer display critical thinking skills?

Answering a essay question in an exam does not simply involve relaying the information that you have learnt. You are expected to make connections and comparisons between different arguments and evaluate the strength of particular arguments or supporting evidence.

Is the answer a reasoned and well organised argument?

You need to structure your argument in a clear and organised way, supporting any claims or arguments with evidence (e.g. relevant cases or legislation).

Is is clear that the writer has read and reflected upon course materials?

Have you reviewed the course materials and resources? Have you read the essential readings, as well as some of the recommended readings? When reading, have you made connections between particular arguments, points of view, cases and results? Each of these things will be evident in your writing.

Does the essay make correct use of academic and legal English conventions (grammar, terminology, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, etc.)?

Your written communication skills contribute to the cohesiveness of your answer. It is important to pay attention to grammar, sentence construction, punctuation and spelling. It is also important that your writing is illegible! If an examiner cannot read your writing, how are they supposed to mark it?

What is NOT expected?

  1. A perfectly crafted piece of writing
  2. Extensive referencing
  3. Answers that are as well-structured and supported as in a course assignments

Clue Words Explained

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What are Clue Words?

Most essay or short-answer questions contain a clue word, used to indicate how the question should be answered. Clue words are very important as they tell you exactly what to do in the essay.

Identifying Clue Words

To successfully answer an exam question, you need to be able to identify and understand the exact meaning of clue words.

Example question: Compare and contrast the Australian Higher Education system with that of China.

Clue words: Compare and contrast

If the question asked you to “Evaluate the Australian and the Chinese Higher Education systems”, a completely different answer would be required.

Table of Clue Words that test BASIC KNOWLEDGE

Clue Word


 Compare /  Contrast

To show the similarities and differences.


To give the formal/precise meaning of something.

 Demonstrate /  Illustrate To show make clear by using examples or diagrams.


To provide a detailed account.

 Explain To make a topic clear by giving a step-by-step detailed account, including reasons for how or why something is.
 Identify To state or proivde the information asked for, with reference to its key points and their implications. 


Name or identify a number of factors or key points.


To describe the main features or general principles and how they are related in an organised way.


To describe the main points in clear terms, without being overly descriptive. Use brief, clear sentences.


 To give a short, condensed account of the main ideas.

Table of Clue Words that test CRITICAL THINKING

Clue Word



To look further at an issue or topic than simply describing or explaining it. Highlight the main ideas and look at each one in depth, how they are related and why they are important.

 Apply To use a theoretical concept or principle and relate it to the information provided.

 Argue / Discuss

To present the case for and/or against a particular idea, perspective or opinion and come to a conclusion. Arguments must be supported by appropriate evidence.

 Comment on To give an opinion. Discuss, criticise or explain the meaning of something, using relevant supporting evidence.

 [Critically]  Evaluate

To assess the validity of an argument or conclusion and to give an opinion, supported by expert opinions and evidence. Come to a final conclusion, basing the decision on what is judged to be the most important factors and provide justification. 

 [Critically]  Examine

To look at a topic in detail and establish the key facts and important issues surrounding the topic. This should be a critical evaluation, with a clear perspective and evidence to support this view.


To explore the meaning of a concept, demonstrating understanding and giving judgment or coming to a conclusion.


To give a statement of why something is so, providing justification for this opinion.

 Review To consider, analyse or explain the main points. This should be a critical assessment and not just a description.

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