It is officially that time of year once more. No, not the holiday season, but the season that you must survive in order to enjoy the holidays -- end of term papers and final exams. I am currently covered in final papers and exams that need to be graded. And, trust me, being on the other end of finals (grading rather than writing) is just as stressful and time consuming. No one wants to read (or really enjoys reading) 80 essays on the Irish Potato Famine. While it is rather tedious grading final exams and essays/papers, my time on the "other side" has given me great insight into how students can improve on their final exams and papers.
1) Keep it simple, don't try to "sound smart."
Put yourself in the shoes of your professor, teacher, or TA doing the grading. In many cases they have hundreds of papers and exams to grade this time of year. The purpose of your exam or paper is to demonstrate whether or not you took from the course what they wanted you to learn. So when you are asked to identify terms or answer an essay, they are typically looking for key words and phrases they want to see. They are not concerned with flowery language or creative writing, in fact that can be distracting and even annoying. Demonstrate your knowledge of the subject as clearly and succinctly as possible. If you make their job easier, your grade will be higher, trust me.
2) Analyze don't summarize.
While you want to write clearly and in a straightforward manner, you also want to make sure that you are focused on analyzing material and not just summarizing information. This is the number one mistake I see over and over again. If the question asks about why British attempts to address the Potato Famine in Ireland failed, don't spend more than half of the paper regurgitating details about how many people died, what was causing the crops to fail, and the aid programs set up by the British. Yes, some of that will need to be discussed for context, but the bulk of your answer should use what you learned to analyze the famine and argue why Britain failed.
3) Every essay should have a thesis (even if it is a short essay).
The thesis is simply your answer to the question posed. But this answer should be well-informed and detailed. Your thesis will also help you organize your response. Simply state your argument/thesis in the first paragraph, then each of the following paragraphs will focus on one prong of your thesis. You will instantly have a clear, organized essay that is easy to follow (and grade).
For example: Discuss the various ways in which the English government attempted to address the crisis of the Great Famine. What were some of the flaws in each case that led to their ultimate failure and/or shut-down, and limited the program's ability to adequately address the needs of Famine victims?
Not a strong thesis - The British failed to aid the Irish during the Potato Famine.
Good thesis - The British attempts to aid the Irish people during the Potato Famine failed due to a lack of communication with on the ground officials (2nd paragraph will explain this in more detail), an unwillingness to intervene in market forces (laisse faire ideology)(3rd paragraph will explain this in more detail), and an unwillingness to invest money in Ireland (4th paragraph will explain this in more detail).
See what I mean? Keep it simple.
4) Use your syllabus as a study guide.
When your professor writes a syllabus they spend a ridiculous amount of time crafting their image of the course -- what they want you to learn and what they think is most important. So, your syllabus holds lots of clues about what topics and themes are more important and will likely appear the final exam/paper.
5) Partner up.
Reviewing with a friend or proofing a classmate's paper are great ways to study. Just as I have learned a lot from grading, you will also learn from correcting the mistakes of your peers.
6) Read your paper aloud to proof.
This is such an easy trick that no one ever seems to do. Reading your paper aloud will help you catch grammatical errors, syntax issues, and awkward or missing words.
7) Don't stay up all night cramming or writing.
Exams crammed for overnight and papers written at the last minute will always be obvious. As tempting as it is to stay up all night studying, numerous studies have shown that cramming for tests actually hinders your ability to retain information. Make time to exercise, however, becuase cardio does help you retain information and think more clearly.
You can read more of my study tips below:
Ten easy ways to improve your writing
How to take better notes
The benefits of a history degree
The five most influential books I read as a grad student
Tips for applying to grad school
I hope this helps and good luck with your final exams and papers!