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 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 have thought about it, and 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:

  • 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!


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 well enough 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 > Booklist) 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. By 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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