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Corpus Christi College University of Cambridge

Answering essay questions

Answering essay questions in exams:

The examiner is particularly interested in your opinion, and how you show what evidence you are using to sustain it. Can you set out the arguments for BOTH sides of an argument and still justify a choice that leans towards one? A wishy-washy conclusion that simply says there are points to be made on both sides will not get you many marks.

Exam questions are chosen because there are points to be made on both sides, either because it is a debatable question, or it is based on a quote that is being used out of context. This reviewing of evidence to create an argument which is more than a simple agreement or disagreement is a key skill which is being tested.

You are aiming to gain marks by writing convincingly about a debate, not providing a startling new analysis which the assessor as expert in the field has never considered . You simply have to be adding what the assessor cannot otherwise know: your view of the material. and your ability to arrange it into a coherent argument.

Remember the assessor will be working to a marking scheme which will give some marks for relevant information, and some for organisation of the argument, and validity of the conclusion you are drawing from your evidence.

There are two broad approaches to answering an essay question, and they are known as the jury and advocate methods.


The Jury Method:

In this approach you set out your answer in a logical sequence , beginning with definitions of key terms, and ending with the verdict made in your concluding paragraph, having put forward some evidence on both sides of the argument in the heart of the answer. Your verdict is highly unlikely to be a simple judgement The task is most commonly to weigh the evidence for and against, and thus come up with a considered and subtle view of the issues.


The advocate approach:

Here you put your verdict in your first paragraph , and build the rest of the essay to support it. This has the advantage of sign posting to the busy assessor what view you will be supporting, and the general tenor of the argument. You will be marshalling your evidence both for and against your view in the same way as in a jury essay but each paragraph either supports your assertion or reviews contrary arguments in order to note their limitations . Your final verdict may be that there is a lot of truth in the statement, or very little. It is worth choosing one of these in preference to a verdict that the arguments are evenly balanced... since sitting on the fence is not a convincing way of being persuasive, which is what is being tested.

You still have to be as systematic in showing how you are analysing the question, and defining key terms at an early stage. And at the end, you may usefully put your verdict within a broader context to demonstrate briefly that you are aware how this debate fits into other RELEVANT and significant issues. If you can put the subject into perspective you are finishing with some impact, rather than a bland summary of your position.


It can be useful, at least during revision to discuss your approach with other students and even agree what is relevant material to include. Unless you copy another assignment word for word, which is unacceptable, your presentation will be your unique synthesis, yet you will have had the advantage of testing your ideas against other students'.


Tips for answering essay questions:

If you read through your essay and it is a long list of facts, unless your key verb was ‘describe' you may have missed the point. Check the verb again and see if you can add a final paragraph to show the relevance of the facts to your verdict.