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How to Tackle Short Answer Questions

When you are a student taking an exam, you are bound to encounter different types of questions. Several of them will be briefly discussed, but the main focus of this article will be on short answer questions and short essay questions. It is important to note that there is in fact a major distinction between these two types of test questions. In particular, while short answer questions can be responded to with a word or two (or a couple of sentences at most), the short essay variety involve much more. Much like an essay assignment, this type of test question includes an introduction and thesis/argument, a body paragraph in which you highlight your evidence, and a conclusion in which you discuss the broader implications. A lot of times a test will consist almost exclusively of short answer questions, such as in some economics classes. This is sometimes the case with short essay questions as well. For instance, a student could be given a list of 5 short essay questions and be asked to answer three of them thoroughly. This is often utilized in history and political science classes in which students are required to have a detailed understanding about certain events, the functioning of the different branches of government, etc. It can be daunting to either of these types of tests, but if you attend all of your lectures and read all of the course materials, you will be more likely to succeed.

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Different Formats of Exam Questions

Instructors utilize a variety of different types of test questions in order to measure their students' ability. Some of the questions evaluate critical thinking skills whereas others focus more on the memorization of key definitions. Here are a few of the more common question types that you will find on an exam.

Multiple Choice

This type of question involves a question or statement followed by 4 or 5 possible answers. In some cases the answers can include “none of the above” or “all of the above.” Professors use this type of test to assess how well the students have been paying attention in class, as they often require memorizing terms and key concepts.


The beauty of this type of question is that you always have a 50/50 of being correct. Or if you are a pessimist, a 50/50 of being wrong. As you read through these questions, pay close attention to wording. For example, if it includes absolutes like “always” or “never” it is often a hint that the question is false.

Open-Ended Questions

Unlike close-ended questions in which the student is given a designated list of answers to choose from, an open-ended question allows the student to take a question in whatever direction they wish. These can be used to demonstrate knowledge about a topic based on the student's own opinion about the matter. These kinds of questions can also encourage creativity, especially when they ask students to ponder their own solutions to a problem. Short answer questions can fall into this category.

Fill In the Blanks

You are given a sentence or paragraph containing blanks in which to fill in words. Sometimes the words are provided for you in a box whereas at other times you have come up with your own words. These types of tests are often given to students learning a foreign language, but can also be included on tests involving complex concepts.

Correct the Mistakes

Theses questions are common on foreign language exams. They require you to examine sentences and fix them for grammar mistakes. Note that in some cases you might be informed that certain sentences will not contain any mistakes. In those cases, you would indicate that no changes are necessary.

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Sentence Transformations

Also common on foreign language tests, the purpose of these problems is to rewrite a sentence using different words but still retaining the same meaning.

Connect/Match Words and Sentences

One form of this exercise requires you to match up the first half a sentence on the left side of the page with the second half on the right side. A good strategy is to start by choosing the most obvious pairs. Propositional words will often serve as clues. You could also be asked to match words with their definition or even pair up antonyms.

Short Answer Questions-Answers

Professors like writing short answer questions because they require you to remember concepts, the specific names of events, or dates without being given any hints. Short answer questions can be as straight forward as, “Which country bombed Pearl Harbor?” to “Provide a brief definition and one example of the Pigou Effect.”

Short Answer Essay

As noted above, a short answer essay shares some of the important elements of an essay paper, but as they are exam questions, students have a limited amount of time in which to complete them. In order to write effective short essay answers, consider the following tips:

  • Attend lectures, read the material

When a professor puts short essay questions on an exam, they are certain to be based on the most important information highlighted in the course. For instance, if you are taking an Intro to American Government class and covered the different branches, you could very well be asked to provide summary of the function of each branch. In order to succeed, you must make sure that you are caught up on the material and took good notes.

  • Make a brief outline as you plan your answer

If you already know how to write a short essay, then you are aware that an outline is key since it can provide focus and guidance for your essay questions as you sketch out a plan. Write down your argument, jot down three compelling pieces of evidence, and a conclusion statement. Then proceed to write a full answer, making sure to include the three elements of intro, body, and conclusion.

  • Proofread and edit if time permits

If you manage to finish the questions and have some time left over, look back one more time and make sure your answer makes sense. Also check for potential spelling and structural mistakes. Once you are satisfied, turn in your test and rejoice that it is over!

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