What makes a good English exam answer?

Essay objectives

When writing an examination or coursework essay it is very important to keep the exam board’s criteria firmly in mind. The emphasis of the essay needs to reflect the purpose of the unit for which it is being written. For instance, is the focus on drama, narrative, tragedy etc.?
It is also vital to address A Level assessment objectives and to check both their relevance and their applicability to the essay you have been asked to write. You may be asked to address any or all of these objectives to a varying degree:
  1. To write a well-expressed, clearly structured essay which has a strong sense of a coherent argument that is convincingly developed and brought to a thoughtfully perceptive conclusion
  2. To analyse aspects of form, structure and language, showing how these enable the writer to achieve his/her effects
  3. To be aware of diverse approaches to the text, engaging in a debate, showing alternative views. It may be appropriate to incorporate references to critical writing about the text (as a springboard for your own ideas) and, in the case of drama, examples of how different directors and actors have interpreted the play
  4. To use contextual material to illuminate the text, showing how beliefs, social attitudes etc. would have affected the original reception of the text. The focus for the essay may have important contextual implications; e.g. King Lear seen in the context of dramatic tragedy.

Focus on the question

What are the terms of the question?

  • Decide what the key words of the question are, and underline them
  • Ensure that you have defined them at least in your own mind – if you think they are problematic, define them at the beginning of your essay
  • Make sure your definition is sound; do not try to stretch the meaning of words too far, but do not just jump at the first possible idea.

What has been asked?

  • Answer the question asked – not the one you would like to have been asked
  • Avoid being irrelevant
  • Be sure that you show explicitly enough how your ideas relate to the question.

Close analysis

If you are asked to analyse an extract:
  • Look closely at it, considering the writer’s choice of language
  • Do not generalise and do not waffle
  • Keep your eye on the given passage.

Wake up the examiner!

Be willing to think

  • Do not just go for the first possible approach
  • Try to range widely, covering a good number of ideas, as long as you stay within the terms of the question
  • Be willing to dispute the terms of the question if you are given the opportunity (e.g. questions which ask: ‘how far … ‘, ‘to what extent … ‘, ‘do you think …’).

Create a strong opening and closing

A reader of an essay – usually a teacher or examiner - is going to be marking many similar essays. To send the reader to sleep at once:

  • just repeat the words of the question (‘This essay asks about ... and I am going to …’)
  • or give the hackneyed dictionary definition.
Instead, try to start in a way which wakes him or her up. Try: 
  • a short, controversial statement
  • a relevant quotation
  • a relevant piece of evidence.
The main thing is that you show you have thought about it, and have realised that a strong opening is very helpful.
A strong ending is important since it is what the reader comes to last in your essay, and so helps to create the final impression:
  • make a strong (but relevant) statement at the end
  • or have a useful quotation to end with.

Illustrate amply with relevant material

  • Do not try to get by on ignorance and waffle! 
  • Use a good number of brief but totally appropriate quotations from the text to prove each point you are making
  • You need to know your text well to do this! 


A fluent style

You need to think out each sentence (very rapidly!) before you put pen to paper:
  • Does it say what you want? 
  • Does it make the point? 


Anyone claiming to be a student of English is expected to have mastered the mechanics of the language:
  • If you know you have problems with spelling and punctuation, do something about it before any examination
  • In examinations you will be penalised for errors
  • Examiners award marks for ‘quality of language’.


  • You need to know your text so well that all its ideas are in your head and that relevant quotations come easily to mind
  • When you use textual quotations, remember to try to blend them seamlessly into your own sentence-structure
  • If you have simply memorised a few quotations, they may not be the most apt ones. 

Be succinct!

  • Say what you want in a clear way without going round in circles
  • Leave yourself time to make new points
  • Always avoid repeating ideas
  • If you do find yourself writing ‘as I mentioned earlier’, check whether repetition of the same point is really helpful – it will rarely earn any further marks.

Appropriate tone and vocabulary 

Most of the essays you will write require a formal register of language:
  • Contractions (‘don’t’, ‘can’t’) and slang which we all naturally use in spoken language are not appropriate in a written essay
  • The tone and style of the language must be right for the designated audience
  • Students of literature are also expected to have a wide range of literary terminology which they can apply correctly; reading some literary criticism during your course (see also Resources: Further Reading) will help you.

Organising your time in exams

Plan a coherent line of argument

Have the confidence to take time to plan. It is worth it:
  • You will save time in the end
  • You will have a much sharper, more authoritative piece of writing
  • Someone who is a practised planner can usefully give a quarter of the overall time allowed to making a plan. Because you are not then sitting trying to think of the next point, the rest of the time allowance should be sufficient. (See also Approaching essays and exams > How to plan an essay.) 

Divide your time appropriately

In an examination you will have several essays to write, or sections to complete:
  • Give each the appropriate time
  • Even if you can write an amazingly stunning essay on one topic, don’t take time off other questions in order to do it; you can’t get more than maximum marks on any one question, however brilliant your answer
  • You will not do well if you fail to answer all compulsory sections
  • If you are allowed your text in an examination and rely on leafing through it to find ideas in an exam, you will run out of time
  • Don’t repeat what you have said earlier: e.g., ‘So we see that …’ (followed by a summary of everything you have already said). You won’t get further marks
  • End with something memorable
  • Above all, never waste time!
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