Effective Prompts, Essay Exams

Mark Schaub, Writing Department

Educational Testing Service (ETS), as well as experienced faculty in many fields, require the following characteristics of their prompts for timed essays:


In a situation where the students have only 45 or so minutes to organize their thoughts, draft an essay, and quickly revise it (if there's time left!), it is important that the students not waste time trying to figure out what the Instructor is calling for. The prompt should be brief, particularly if there is a quote or passage attached, to which the prompt pertains.

Do not neglect essential instructions. Beware when using the standard "code words" that students may/may not have encountered before: describe, discuss, contrast, explain, and compare - perhaps explain precise meaning when exam is administered.


The question will separate the best students from the mediocre, and the mediocre from the weakest. This is less important for most of classrooms; those in large-scale testing situations are more concerned about this.

Don't invite students to write simple narratives or summarize material. Instead of relying on extensive memory on the part of students to bring the material/facts with them, write prompts that relate to class discussions about a particular issue or debate.


The responses will be such that the Instructor (or evaluators) will be able to consistently identify the "A" papers, the "B" range papers, etc.

When evaluating or grading the essay responses, be careful to remain objective. Many of us get easily annoyed by certain canned phrases or idiotic statements; keep those in context.


Ideally, the prompt will be related to a topic that will be at least mildly interesting to the students (not to mention the Instructor who has to read the stack of essays!).

Again, prompts that relate to a lively classroom discussion or debate often touch a nerve or pique interest. Touching an overly sensitive nerve, though, can backfire and result in emotional rants.

Page last modified February 16, 2017