Acing the Free-Response Exam

By Nate George


“Will the test be multiple choice?” you ask the professor, nearly certain of the answer.
Clearing his throat, the professor responds, “The exam will have both multiple choice and free-response sections.”
A slight chill fills the room as the chattering students fall silent. They stare blankly ahead, unsure of what they have just heard. Abruptly, an ear-shattering war cry breaks the trance as a student leaps from his seat and begins rushing towards the professor. It is at this moment that total bedlam erupts. Students begin smashing Macbooks over each other’s heads while others sharpen pencil darts to throw at the TA. As the room starts to go up in flames, one lone student remains seated. Seemingly unfazed by the short-answer exam, this student is prepared. This student could be you.

There are a few main concerns students have regarding free-response exam questions. The first, and possibly the most intimidating, is the time constraint. Students become so shaken by the concept of a time limit that they are afraid to provide an in-depth response to the questions, fearing that it will take too long. The simple resolution to this issue is to plan ahead. The more familiar you are with the exam material, the more in-depth you can get in a free-response question without taking an excessive amount of time.

You may also want to set a time limit for yourself on each question to ensure that you can complete the exam within the time constraints. One strategy is to look at the clock during the exam and tell yourself to only spend a certain amount of time on a particular problem. This can be practiced at home by timing yourself as you answer study guide questions. There is no room for perfectionism when taking a free-response exam. If there is still time left after you complete the test, feel free to return to responses you struggled with to revise them, but ensure that every question on the exam has been answered before you begin your revisions.

When taking a free-response exam under time constraints, it is common for students to misinterpret what a question is asking. This comes into play particularly on essay questions. Whether it is a failure to address all parts of the question or simply a misunderstanding of what the professor is asking, these issues are easily resolved. The key to fully grasping the meaning of the question is to simply dissect it into different parts. For example, a question may ask:

“Since 1776, America has been at war for 222 out of its 239 years. These wars include the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Iraq War.  Of these wars, which do you feel was the most instrumental in cementing the United States as a world superpower? Explain why. ”

In this instance, it may be beneficial to break the question down into two parts. First, simply answer the question:

Of these wars, which do you feel was the most instrumental in cementing the United States as a world superpower?

This question can be answered in one sentence:

Of these wars, I feel that the ________ War cemented the United States as a world superpower.

It should be noted that it might be wise to select an answer that has the most evidence behind it, even if you don’t personally agree. The second part of the question is going to be the meat and potatoes of your response:

Explain why.

 These may very well be the most daunting two words a student hears during their four years of college besides student loans. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. All you have to do is give the reader (your professor) evidence as to why your statement is true. This may include providing statistics, counterarguments, and expert opinions. Professors often want you to cite material from the class, so don’t forget to include that in your answer as well. This process may be time consuming, but it is necessary to provide a comprehensive response to the entire question.

Now, as the apocalypse unfolds around you at the mention of free-response, you can remain focused on getting that A without breaking a sweat.


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