I know that this post will not apply to everyone, but I think that I would find it useful either going into GCSE’s or A levels- and whatever the equivalent may be wherever you study.
Back in Year 11, the wonderful me decided that I was going to take on three essay based subjects for A-level- this was a horrible idea, do not do unless you have a bionic hand and can recite a dictionary.
I have had my exam timetable and on one day, I have five hours worth of non-stop writing- wooh- NO.
Essay’s are really difficult because you could know everything there is to know about Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Russian Revolution or all of the British reforms from 1900-51, but if you cannot structure your essay properly then you have pretty much failed. This is often why I find my subjects so stressful because I am scared that a question might come up that I have no idea how to answer.
However, throughout the past two years, it is safe to say that I have picked up a few tricks of the trade when it comes to essay writing and hopefully, this skill will only improve as I go on to study history at University. I am not saying that by reading these tips that you will immediately gain full marks in every essay you write because if it is history then you need to know context and exact details, be that dates or names and in English you definitely need to go to an exam with your terminology and analysis hat on. But this should give you some basis.
So whether you are just embarking on your English GCSE, or tackling your final A-level year, this advice should apply to you all and I hope that you find it helpful. I am going to use one of my recent 10 mark essay that I got full marks on to make examples (it is in Classical Civilisations so don’t worry if you have no idea who Hippolytus is).
1. “You lose the ability to read and write, you take a breath and you?…” READ THE QUESTION! This was a famous quote from my history teacher last year and yes, when I get into an exam hall, my hands often get really sweaty, my throat goes dry and time seems to go faster than ever before. Amidst all of this panic though, it is really important to read the question carefully and make sure you fully understand what it is asking you to do.
“How far is the whole speech typical of the way in which Hippolytus is presented throughout the play?”
Take a highlighter into the exam with you and underline which of the words are most important in what it is asking you to do- at this point you have got to think like the examiner; what do they want to see from you?
2. Always make a plan. It doesn’t matter what your teacher has told you. If you are sat in an hour and a half exam and start writing the second that you get in there, you are going to run out of steam. It is much better to scribble out a few topic sentences so that you have a basic idea of what you are doing.
3. Make a judgement! Sitting on the fence in essays and not making a proper judgement will get you nowhere. Even if you really do believe in both ideas, you have to pick which point is the easiest to argue because nobody is going to come looking for you in ten years time saying, “you told me that you thought this was typical of Hippolytus, you were lying!” As long as you make a convincing argument, it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe it.
4. DO NOT use I. Please, please, please. Using I in an essay as in “I think that…” or “I agree with this…” is wrong! An essay is a formal piece of writing and your own thoughts are informal. Of course, it will be written from your own opinion but beginning an essay with ‘I’ just doesn’t make your argument seem very strong. Some other ways you can begin essays or sentences are: ‘Both of these arguments are…’ ‘The speech is typical of Hippolytus because…’ Of course these all depend on your question and the type of essay you are writing.
5. PEE, PQA, PEA, PQER, PEEL… Yes there are many more where that comes from. I hope that you are all well acquainted by now with the wonders of PEER (this is how I was taught first, so I will stick with it). For those of you who have no idea what I am on about, PEE stands for Point, Evidence, Explain and then later on Refer/Link. This is a really helpful structure to use and unlike many methods you are taught at highschool which they tell you to scrap at college, this method should stick with you.
For your point you should always be clear, and make it into one sentence so that you can’t divert onto anything else. When finding evidence, make sure it proves your point exactly and there is a lot that you can talk about- make sure you find three to four pieces of evidence. Explain is clear enough, analyse your evidence using the question to help keep you on topic. Finally, to close your paragraph, I always use a mini conclusion in which I refer back to the question and my argument for or against.
In the speech, Hippolytus presents his chaste character to the nurse by insinuating that, ‘even to hear such things makes me feel impure.’ Hippolytus prides himself on his chastity which is the cause of his lack of respect for women and disregard of Aphrodite in the prologue when he refuses to pray to her. This is, of course, what leads him to become a tragic figure; his lack of desire for anyone. These are his true beliefs and therefore, his mention of ‘impurity‘ rings true throughout the rest of the play.
6. Know the structure. Different exams require different structures; not all of them can be done with an introduction, a few paragraphs and a conclusion. Your teachers should tell you what the structure is for the exam you’re taking, but if you are unsure then just ask them what they would recommend.
7. Read. It sounds simple, maybe even obvious, but reading is a really good idea when you are taking an essay based subject. By this I don’t mean you need to reread your material for the exam- but please tell me you have read it at least once? There is nothing worse than someone turning up to an exam and admitting that they haven’t actually read the book that it was on. “B-but I watched the film- doesn’t that count?…”
What I mean is subjmerge yourself in books and if you are already an avid reader then maybe switch up your genre; start reading a newspaper, or an online column. This will suconsciously broaden your vocabulary and ability to write.
That is all I have for now, but if you found this helpful then I would be happy to do more like this about exam/revision technique. I hope that you all do incredibly in your upcoming exams.