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 answer and so helps to create the final impression:

  • save a new, controversial (but relevant) point to 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!
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