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How to write 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 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.
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
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
You will be penalized 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 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 memorized them: make sure that they
are relevant to your answer.
Organize 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.
Exam Writing Tips
There are a few key things to keep in mind when working on essays in the MA exam setting.
• Over the course of the exam, you should demonstrate familiarity with poetry, drama, and fiction,
as well as with literature from a variety of literary periods.
• You should discuss works from different literary periods in each question (except your third
question, as dictated by the list you chose).
• It is important to make an argument in each essay answer.
• Keep in mind that your readers are familiar with the reading list. Extensive plot summary is
unnecessary. Instead, analyze the details from the texts you discuss in order to support your
• You will write a stronger essay if you can demonstrate some clear connections (or important points
of contrast) between the literary texts you discuss, rather than simply writing a few paragraphs on
each without comparing them to each other.
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