What makes a good English exam answer?

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 not just jump at the first possible idea.

What has been asked?

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

Close analysis

If you are asked to analyse an extract:

  • Read it through two or three times
  • On your second reading, begin to underline key words and phrases
  • Make a plan of your answer, ensuring that you cover every point asked in the question
  • Concentrate on the passage and avoid irrelevant material.

A worked example of analysis can be found in Critical analysis: Analysing a passage

Wake up the examiner!

Be willing to think:

  • Do not adopt the first possible approach
  • Try to range widely but keep to the terms of the question
  • Be willing to dispute the terms of the question if you are given the opportunity (for example, in questions that ask ‘how far…', ‘to what extent' or ‘do you think'?)

Create a strong opening and closing

The examiner is going to be marking many similar essays. To send the examiner to sleep immediately:

  • just repeat the words of the question ‘This essay asks about … and I am going to …')
  • give a hackneyed dictionary definition of one or more of the terms in the question.

Instead, try to wake the examiner up. Try starting with:

  • a short controversial statement
  • a relevant quotation
  • a striking piece of evidence.

The main thing is to demonstrate that you have thought about the question.

A strong ending is important in that it creates the final impression the examiner carries away from your answer:

  • save a new, controversial idea until the end
  • or finish with a useful quotation.

Illustrate amply with relevant material:


  • Do not try to get by on ignorance and waffle – the examiner will spot it!
  • Use a good number of brief but relevant quotations, derived from your thorough knowledge of the text.

Think about your style


Develop a fluent style

Give some thought, however brief, to each sentence before you write it:

  • Does it say what you mean?
  • Does it make the point?

Be accurate!

Anyone claiming to be a student of English is expected to have a good knowledge of the mechanics of the language:

  • If you have problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation take action before the examination
  • You will be penalised for errors
  • Examiners award marks for ‘quality of language'
  • Try to leave time to read through your paper before handing it in.

Be succinct!

  • Say what you mean in the clearest and shortest manner
  • Leave yourself time to make new points
  • Avoid repeating ideas: if you find yourself writing ‘as I said earlier', be sure that it is really helpful to repeat the same point.

Use an appropriate tone and vocabulary:

Most of the exams (and essays) that you will write require a formal register of language:

  • Contractions such as ‘don't' and ‘can't', used naturally in spoken and language are not appropriate in this form of writing.
  • Also avoid slang or colloquial terms.
  • Make use of literary terminology – words like ‘form', ‘structure', ‘style', ‘image' ‘symbol' – where they are appropriate

Make good use of quotations:

  • You need to know your text well enough that all its ideas are in your head and that relevant quotations come easily to mind
  • When you use quotations, remember to try to blend them seamlessly into your own sentence structure
  • When you use quotations, make it work for you: a well-chosen quotation may, for example, enable you to comment on theme, style and character
  • Do not use quotations simply because you have memorised them: make sure that they are relevant to your answer.

Organise your time

Divide your time appropriately:

In an examination, you will almost certainly have several essays to write or sections to complete:

  • Decide on the order in which you wish to answer them
  • Make sure that you answer them all
  • Jot down ideas about any of the questions you expect to answer: don't hope to remember things – especially bearing in mind that you may be pressed for time towards the end
  • Give each question the appropriate time and don't exceed it: a brilliant but overlong answer is no guarantee of success
  • If you are allowed your text in the examination do not waste time in leafing through it in search of ideas: use it only for reference and checking quotations.

Plan your answers carefully

Have the confidence to take time to plan. You could usefully devote up to a quarter of the exam time to this process. It is worth it because:

  • you will save time in the end
  • it is much more efficient than sitting and trying to think of the next point
  • you will have a much more fluent, sharper and more authoritative answer.
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