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Maguire, Morgan & Reiner: The Oxford Handbook of Criminology 5e

Guidance on answering essay questions

The first challenge of doing examinations successfully is careful and strict time management. You must answer the number of questions that the examiners require of you: typically three or four essays in three hours. If for example you are asked to answer four questions in three hours then you must make absolutely sure that you make a decent attempt at all four essays. You cannot afford to neglect the last question, let alone leave it out altogether, no matter how good your first three answers might be. Losing the 25% of marks allotted to the last question will never be compensated by the extra few marks picked up by tour de force answers to three questions. Sadly sometimes very able and knowledgeable students fail altogether, or do not do themselves justice, because in the pressured exam situation they neglect this rule.  

There is no one right way to write essays in examinations, although there are many wrong or at any rate less good ways. The most important principle to bear in mind is that you must answer the question that has been set by the examiners, not one that you would have preferred them to ask because you had prepared it. Many, perhaps most, students go astray here, frequently because they have over-prepared ready made answers to the topics they have chosen to concentrate on. So let's say they have carefully revised the topic of ethnicities, racism, crime and criminal justice (Chapter 14 of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology), and memorised a set of notes on it, they will simply reproduce as much of this as possible in answer to a question that seems to be on this general area. However, the question invariably will require a focus on some particular aspect of this large set of issues. It may, for example, be about the concept of 'institutional racism', or how discrimination can be defined, or what evidence there is of racism in the criminal justice system. Reproducing a set of notes summarising the chapter as a whole will include much material not centrally relevant to the question, and possibly not include enough that is spot on. Focusing on the question is also an aid to time management: you are not being asked to write everything you know about racism, but to answer a specifically angled question on an aspect of it.

The best way to structure the answer to a question is to begin with a very brief analysis of what you interpret the question as being about, and then a road-map of how you propose to answer it. This focuses your mind on organising a clear, coherent structure for your answer, and also makes it clear to the examiner. It also means that if you can't quite finish your answer because of time pressure, you will have given a very clear indication of what you plan to say and get credit for that. Then of course you fill-in the map with as much (usually not very much because of the time limits) detail on each section as you can. Be very careful to indicate as much as possible of what empirical or other evidence there is to support your points. This does not mean knowing by heart tables of statistics or detailed research findings, but it does mean at least brief references to key sources such as government statistics or research reports.

It is not necessary to come to a definite conclusion on the question: uncertainty having weighed the arguments and evidence is almost always an acceptable position. What is essential, however, is that you have given sufficient weight to arguments contrary to your own, with reasons to back up your rejection. Frequently questions require you to present and assess a number of viewpoints, indicated by such instructions as 'discuss', 'assess', 'how far is the case that…' etc. But it is always essential to consider what alternative interpretations to your own argument there might be.

It is helpful to remember that examiners are often facing a large number of scripts apart from your own. Anything positive you can think of that might lighten their load, and make your script stand-out (apart from howlers!) is always helpful. It might be a (good!) joke, an interesting quote to begin with, something from the news that morning that is relevant to the theme of the essay. Beginning (briefly) with this, even before your 'road map', can arouse the examiner's interest in your essay and make them sympathetic. But it is not worth wasting any substantial time on this garnish. The essential thing is clarity of organisation and argument, and evidence that you have grasped the essential issues in your reading of the subject.