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 have liked to have been 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 approaches: 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 bold statement 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 language, are not appropriate in 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 so well that all its ideas are in your head and 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 a quotation, 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 sharper, more fluent and authoritative answer.
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