Exam essay questions

Exam questions for A and AS level are usually either straight essay questions or they are passage-based questions.

Exam essay questions


These questions often start with a statement presented as a quotation and invite you to write in response. 

An example might be:

‘The Pardoner declares himself to be a liar and a thief, but his tale is morally very effective.'
How far do you agree with this view of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale?

There is a great deal in this question to be considered. 

Identify the key words

First, a student needs to identify the key words and phrases in both the quotation and the question. In this example the key terms from the quotation are:

  • self-declared
  • liar
  • thief
  • tale
  • morally very effective.

In the question itself, the key words and phrases are:

  • how far
  • agree
  • The Pardoner's Tale.

The question as a whole

Make sure you are addressing the question as a whole, not just one bit of it.

The above example is concerned with the strange psychology of the Pardoner: 

  • That he gives himself away at every turn without apparently being aware of it (‘self-declared')
  • That he, apparently a preacher, is a ‘liar'
  • That someone seeking charitable donations is also a ‘thief'
  • That the part of the work which might be ‘morally very effective' is The Tale
  • That you might agree up to a point with what the quotation proposes, but not entirely, in which case your answer would need to show in detail ‘how far' you ‘agree' with it, and why.

In other words, your answer will have to consider large aspects of the work, analysing selected details to support your argument. This means that you will have to organise your ideas quickly if you are to do yourself justice in the time.

Prepare an outline as introduction

The best way to approach a question like this is to ask yourself briefly ‘What do I think could be said as an outline answer?' Now write this as your first paragraph / introduction. 

Given the sample question you might for instance write:

‘If we take The Tale as starting on l. 177 ‘In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye …' and ending on l. 617 ‘… Thou art so fals and so unkinde, allas' it is morally very powerful. When it is read in conjunction with the rest of the work, its moral power is shown even more sharply by contrast with the shabby character who is telling it.'

This would indicate the argument you are going to follow and it would alert the examiner to the fact that you have considered the question and know the tale well enough to make this outline statement.

Develop your argument

If you start with a statement outlining your ideas, the rest of your essay will be a development of the ideas you have just mentioned. This will automatically give your response a simple and clear structure; you will be less likely to drift off the point later on.

It doesn't matter if you decide later on that you wish you had included something else in your opening statement; the examiner knows that you cannot cover everything, and is looking instead to see how you handle the material that you can include in the time available.

Structuring your essay

You do not have to start at the beginning of the text and go through it in sequence (although it would be possible for a good answer to do this). The danger is that you will get half way through what you want to say, realise that there are only five minutes left, and rush the rest. Even worse, you could simply have to stop in the middle of a sentence. Creating a quick list, spider diagram or mind-map of the points you want to include, then deciding on the order you will cover them in, saves lots of time and helps you prioritise your limited time.

Be selective

After a general opening statement such as the example above, you can pick out those parts of the work that are relevant to your argument, write about them, and forget everything else.

A worked example

Ask yourself, ‘What is there about the tale of the rioters' search for Death from l.177-617 that makes it morally powerful?'

Points to mention could include:

  • The rioters' words and behaviour at the inn:
    • What does the Pardoner say is wrong about these?
    • How does he make that clear?

There are plenty of examples, but you need choose only one and examine it in detail

  • A passage warning about the evils of drink
    • The passage about snoring (‘Sampsoun, Sampsoun') introduces a slightly jarring note of comedy which suggests that, at this stage, the Pardoner has not fully worked his way into the subject.
  • The cumulative effect of the list of examples employed by the Pardoner to show the disastrous effects of drink:
    • The inclusion of classical examples among the biblical references might be seen as weakening the moral effects of the sermon
  • The effect of the account about the follies of the rioters' search for Death:
    • Include the serving boy's warning
    • Mention the self-glorifying bravado of the rioters
  • The blindness of the rioters to every point of view except their own:
    • Quote the strange encounter with the polite Old Man (is he Death?)
    • Mention the similar blindness of the Pardoner himself
    • Show that the Pardoner's blindness can be said to detract from the power of his sermon but can also be said to emphasise its power because of the almost comical contrast between the teller and the purpose of his tale
  • The stark power of this story:
    • Examine the dreadful betrayals of the rioters, leading to their ghastly deaths.

Having demonstrated The Tale's moral power, remind the examiner of the Pardoner's own immorality:

  • Refer to the earlier stages of the work:
    • Mention the appalling honesty of the sample sermon in l. 43-176
    • The Pardoner's attitude towards his imagined audience
  • If time, refer to the narrative after the story is concluded:
    • The pardoner's moral blindness in using his ‘patter' on the pilgrims
    • The appropriateness of the Host's reaction.

Link this back to the essay question, that though the Pardoner's intention may be dreadful, the performance can be powerful.

As a conclusion

  • Emphasise that the power of a well-chosen and well-told story can overcome even the moral and spiritual shortcomings of the Pardoner.

This outline demonstrates that:

  • An answer has to be selective
  • You have developed your opening general point in detail 
  • You have focused on the question throughout.

The examiner will read your answer and ask ‘How successful is this as a response to the question?' before awarding you a mark.

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