If you don’t write essays to revise for essay-based exams, you’re not alone

It feels like a dirty confession to make, but I don’t write essays as a revision technique. Despite the fact that most of the GCSE’s and all of the A-Levels I took were essay-based subjects, and the degree I’m currently taking is almost entirely assessed by essays, essay-writing has never been my go-to revision method. It isn’t because I hate essays, I like to think I have a normal love/hate relationship with them but because they don’t work for me. The reason this confession almost feels sacrilegious is because it is something I’ve heard repeatedly for years from teachers, ‘practise writing essays’ and ‘write practice essays’. School was a constant stream of ‘practice essays’, ‘practice essays’ and, you’ve guessed it, ‘practice essays’. It would be a lie to say that I’ve never written any; I had to write my fair share at school and did write a few at home. I’m not trying to say they aren’t helpful but that they aren’t equally helpful for everyone, and I’m one of the people that can revise more successfully in other ways. This article isn’t to give you an excuse to stop writing essays but a reminder that it is okay to prioritise other revision methods. I feel guilty sometimes, wondering if I should write an essay and am in fact being lazy- and sometimes I am, but normally it is more than that.

Practice essays are useful for multiple reasons: practising your ideas and sharing them with your teachers, checking how your grades are progressing, figuring out how much you can write under time constraints, and testing your memory; although, I tend to use spider diagrams to achieve the latter. These are all important things to consider and reasons why you might not want to entirely give up on practice essays. Sometimes, essays are unavoidable, particularly when you’re in school. I do think that having to write one every couple of weeks in the lead up to my A-Level philosophy exam was somewhat helpful. However, it’s still not something you have to choose to do when you’re revising at home or when you’re at university. The golden rule of revision is that you should do what is best for you.

However, writing practice essays is often counterproductive for me, especially now that I’m at University. This was often equally true for me at school, apart from that one philosophy exam, their usefulness often varied depending on the subject and specific exam. Generally, I learn things by reading them over and over again, not by writing them. I test my knowledge by preparing a practice answer, which I then tell someone, since it is quicker to explain something verbally than explain it in writing. When I am trying to cement information in my brain, I prefer this quicker method of repetition because it saves time. Explaining something to someone, particularly someone who doesn’t know the subject, requires you to explain definitions and the caveats or background to an argument. Verbal answers are also useful for revising different answers to a theory, since exam papers may focus on one area of a topic. I feel sorry for my mum who endured several long dog walks spent discussing the problem of evil. I then use spider diagrams to test my knowledge, as I find them easier to come back to and read again compared to essays. After categorising the relevant information (i.e. the main point, where an argument comes from, people that build on it, extra evidence and ways to expand or complicate the point), I number the main categories and think of the best ways to connect them i.e. how to make my extra information relevant to the main point that an essay question might relate to. This process is similar to writing an essay, but it saves time because I can use bullet points rather than whole sentences. I find different ways to achieve the things that you would normally get out of writing a practice essay.

The main reason that practice essays don’t work for me is because of the way that my mind works during exams – something you can start to figure out from your mocks or, dare I say it, a practice essay. I know that I tend to perform best when I feel that my mind is being creative or analytical. My ideas come together the best when they are original, when I’m responding to a question in that moment, deciding then and there which of the points I will put together – but still using the links I have already revised to structure my argument. Most importantly, if I have recently written a practice essay on a similar topic to the one that comes up in the exam, I find myself trying to replicate my previous answer – I end up forgetting parts and not fully analysing the question. If I tried to recreate a past answer I worry I would fail to fully think through the question. For this reason, I refused to write any practice essays (not that I wrote them very frequently outside of school) for at least two weeks before my exams at school, philosophy included. As silly as it might sound to someone else, I deliberately chose my essay question on a topic I had not written about recently during my philosophy AS exam. In a panic that I hadn’t fully understood natural law theory, I broke my self-imposed rule and had my teacher mark a practice essay on it the week before my exam. I then tried to memorise all of the points I made in the essay when I got 23/25 on it. When one of the questions on the real paper was almost identical to the one that I had chosen to practise, I decided to choose a different topic, worried I would try to regurgitate my practice essay, second guess what I had written, and potentially miss important points. I ended up getting 100 UMS on the paper, so I think it is safe to say I made the right choice. Whilst it would be a lie to say that I haven’t written several practice essays over the years, they are not my go-to revision technique and I hardly ever use them now (I have yet to at university). You have to pick the revision method that feels best for you, even if it is not the method that teachers often advocate. If you know that practice essays are not the thing for you, don’t worry, it’s the same for me too.

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