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Why Writing Papers is Objectively Harder Than Taking Exams

Okay, okay, this might be an overstatement. Both paper-writing and exam-taking have their fair share of difficulties which prove challenging to English majors and math majors alike during finals season. 

If, however, you’re an arts/humanities student, you’ve likely heard it before: “Ugh, you have finals period so easy.” Nonsense! Writing papers is no walk in the park. Here is why. 

1. The feeling that nothing is ever “done”

It can be so hard to bring yourself to click “submit” on Canvas because, deep down, you know that your essay could be made better somehow. Did you spell check one last time? Did you miss a lurking instance of passive voice? Did you forget to cite something? No matter how hard you try, a paper is never perfect— and that’s a hard pill to swallow. 

2. The subjectivity of grading

Unlike when taking an exam, there is no set rubric, content base, or skill set you need to draw from in order to succeed. It’s just you, your brain, a blank page, and a ton of source material you need to work with in order to come up with something deemed worthy of the elusive A. Two people could grade the same paper and award it entirely different scores, and that’s just something we have to live with. 

3. The agonizing annoyance of formatting footnotes last minute

Can someone tell me why there are so many different styles of citation? Can’t they just be standardized? Okay, okay, I know that different styles are helpful for different types of writing. But still— when you’re writing three papers and one is MLA, one is Chigaco, and one is APA, it’s bound to get confusing. 

4. The way you’re expected to come up with entirely original things

I often enjoy studying for exams because, well, the information is already there. All I have to do is get it to stick in my brain. Alternatively, when writing a paper, I have to come up with the information. When a professor asks you to create an “original claim,” you’re faced with the task of contributing something new to an entire canon of literature about a certain topic. That, my friends, is daunting. 

5. The way that you can’t study with anyone 

Some of my favorite memories from pre-COVID Yale were late night study parties with friends. The collaborative process of learning or practicing a topic with other people is both enjoyable and extremely helpful in solidifying the information. When you’re writing papers, you’re on your own. 

Chances are, you're suffering through a mixture of exams and papers this finals season. Remember, strive for progress, not perfection. You can do it. 


Shannon Linder is a senior English major at Yale University from the Pacific Northwest. On campus, you’ll find her performing and choreographing for a campus dance group, singing karaoke with friends, or planning her next outdoor adventure.
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