The Basics of Writing Exam Essays

      An essay exam is designed to test both your knowledge of the material AND your ability to explain that material to others.  That means that you need to know the information (the “facts”) and know how to organize that information effectively.

     The essay should consist of three basic elements:

    An introduction, typically one paragraph in length.  The introduction should contain a thesis statement that describes the overall content of the essay and expresses a particular point of view.  Be specific, avoid generalizations, and focus on who, what, when, where, why, how, and especially significance.


A poor thesis statement:
    There were a lot of unions in the United States and they helped workers because they had problems.  There were a lot of big strikes.  Unions had a very important impact on the U.S.

A better thesis statement:
    By the late 1800s, the rise of big business in the United States had created problems for American workers, ranging from long hours and low wages to unsafe working conditions and alienation from the process of production.  Workers could only fight back against big business by using collective action—that is, by forming unions.  Two unions in particular, the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, adopted radically different approaches to the problems faced by workers.  The strikes that pitted workers against business owners were far more violent than those in any other industrialized country.  Yet, American workers enjoyed far less success than their counterparts in other countries at either gaining economic concessions from business owners or in influencing the political process in the United States.

    The body, typically between three and six separate paragraphs, each with its own topic sentence. This topic sentence, a kind of miniature thesis statement, describes what you intend to discuss in that particular paragraph.  The rest of the sentences in that paragraph should relate directly back to that paragraph’s topic sentence.  All sentences in that paragraph should focus on the same topic.  Each paragraph should relate directly to one of the issues raised in your introduction/thesis statement. Each major section in your outline is the equivalent of a paragraph in the body of your essay.


A poor example:
    Workers had long hours and low wages.  Then Terence Powderly started the Knights of Labor.  Everybody could join this union.  Most of the people were unskilled and Terence didn’t want them.  The union didn’t work.  There was also the American Federation of Labor.  This was skilled workers only.  It did better.

A better example:
    While the rise of big business created many benefits for Americans, it also created substantial hardships for American workers.  Because of the ready availability of cheap immigrant labor, wages were low, working hours were long (16 hours per day in some cases), and working conditions were extremely dangerous.  Because these factory jobs involved the division of labor, workers were alienated from the process of production—they did not have the satisfaction of producing an entire product, or of controlling the management and operations of the company.
    Because of the power of big business, individual workers could not fight back against these conditions.  Their only recourse lay in collective action.  Unions, which were essentially collections of organized labor, had the power to fight against big businesses, which were essentially collections of organized capital.
    The Knights of Labor were the first effective national union.  The Knights were open to virtually all workers, including the unskilled, African-Americans, and women.  The head of the Knights, Terence Powderly, was a highly skilled worker who wanted to use the union to gain greater control over the process of production.  However, a successful railroad strike by the Knights in the 1880s brought into the union more than a million new members who instead wanted “bread and butter unionism”—that is, higher wages, shorter hours, and safer working conditions.  This conflict in goals between Powderly and ordinary Knights of Labor members tore the union apart.
    Samuel Gompers, aware of this problem, organized the American Federation of Labor along very different lines.  He only wanted highly skilled workers in the AFofL, and he wanted to exclude African-Americans, women, and immigrants.  The AFofL . . ..

NOTE THAT each topic is discussed in a separate paragraph, that each paragraph is linked to the introduction, and to the paragraphs before it and after it.  Note also that each paragraph equates to a section of the outline.

    The conclusion, typically one paragraph that summarizes your argument without introducing new ideas.

A poor conclusion:
    And then there was the homestead Strike.  The strikes all failed because the government always took the side of big business.  But today workers don’t have to worry about the problems of working for a big business and that’s why the United States is the greatest country in the world.

A better conclusion:
    In conclusion, the problems facing American workers in the late 19th century forced those workers to embrace collective action in the form of unions.  Throughout the period of labor violence, conservative unions like the AFofL survived, while more broad-based unions like the Knights of Labor and radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World failed.  Of all the factors that crippled organized labor during this period, none was more important than the strength of the capitalist class.  The willingness of governments, especially the federal government, to side with business owners rather than workers, and to protect property rights, rather than individual human rights, ensured the failure of unions at this time.

NOTE THAT the conclusion does not restate your entire essay.  Instead, it focuses on the most important parts of your argument by listing only the most significant issues that you discussed in the body of your essay.