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6 Last-minute exam tips for English

By Simon Hennessy on 15 October 2019NSWblogUKblogEnglishStudy tipsExam advice

Your English exam is coming up, and it’s a bit of a unique one. I mean, unlike your other subjects there’s less to remember in terms of definitions and formulas, which is for sure a plus. But on the other hand, you know you’ll have to do a lot of thinking in there and there’s a lot more on-the-spot creativity rather than just having to recite facts or answers you’ve memorised (besides your quotes), which is definitely stressful.

While we can’t get in there and sit the exam with you, our English content team have put together a few handy tips which you can apply in your exam to give you a great chance of navigating your way to a successful mark.

1. Respond to the verb being used

One piece of advice you hear a lot is “read the question carefully.” Well, let’s be even more specific – read the verb carefully.

The questions in your exam are going to be instructions along the lines of “discuss this”, “identify that”, “compare these” … and so on. Each of these instructions is looking for you to approach your response in a particular, specific way. Making sure you know exactly what kind of specific approach you need to employ should be your first step in forming a response.

Your state will have its own specific way of defining these, what they like to call: cognitive verbs. For instance, in NSW, NESA’s glossary of key terms will tell you that ‘identify’ means ‘recognise and name,’ and ‘evaluate’ means to ‘make a judgement…’ And in QLD, Cognitive Verbs become your mantra. So make sure you know the right definitions going in, know how to apply them and just as importantly, make sure right at the start of a question you recognise which verb you’re dealing with and respond accordingly.

2. Plan your responses carefully

In many ways, the time you spend between reading the question and beginning to write is the most important. Why? Because this golden little window is where you plan your answer.

There is no set formula for what your plan should look like. Some people use mind maps, others lists; some have full sentences outlining paragraphs to come, others need only a couple of keywords that give them a structure and reminders of what is to come in their paragraphs. Whatever your perfect system is, making sure you take the time to use it is pivotal.

Your plan will act as a map for the answer to come, so it needs to do a few key things: indicate your thesis and how it responds to the question, and provide outlines of the supporting ideas and evidence in your body paragraphs all the way to the end of your essay. Don’t worry about this eating into writing time, not only will you be able to plan in about 5 minutes or so – it will make a big difference as the essay goes on, so it is well worth it.

3. Don’t force an essay that just doesn’t fit

While the option to memorise and just regurgitate a prepared response can seem appealing, it’s definitely not the best method. Unless the question you get matches up perfectly to the essay you have memorised, it just will not fit. No matter how good an essay is, if it does not respond directly to the question being asked, it is virtually useless.

If you have memorised a prepared essay and are determined to use it somehow, the challenge will be adapting it to fit the question you want to use it for. Be ready to tweak your memorised response based on the cognitive verb and specific subject matter of the question. Yes, this might mean changing your thesis so it fits. So, treating an essay as written in stone regardless of the question is something always to be avoided in an English exam.

4. Explore both sides of the argument

Many of the questions you’ll have to face in your English exam will be a response to a stimulus of some description: a statement about a text you have studied, a piece of comprehension, an image, and so on. While the question might not always explicitly tell you to explore both sides of the argument about the stimulus in your response, generally speaking, doing so is the way to go.

Let’s imagine you are writing an essay about discussing whether Macbeth was a hero or a villain. Even if you want to firmly make the argument for villain, devoting some of your response to the arguments in favour of his heroism helps you in two ways:

  1. It shows you understand all sides of the debate;
  2. It sets you up to argue why your points are stronger than the opposite view, rather than just strong.

While an argument may not always be as straightforward as hero vs villain, when expressing an opinion in your essays, there will always be an opposing side or sides to that viewpoint. Exploring the other side of the debate will always make your response that bit more impressive, and usually these questions will start with a verb that prompts you to debate and then make a conclusion too.

5. Avoid tangential writing

One of the easiest traps to fall into in an English exam is tangential writing. This means when, during an essay, you accidentally go off on a tangent that does not relate to the question without realising it. When doing an essay as an assignment, you’ve got all the time in the world to fix this, but in an exam, too much tangential writing can quickly become a serious problem.

The solution is to be aware of what you’re writing, as you’re writing it. It sounds simple, but it’s key. With each line you write, ask yourself – does this relate to the question? Does it support my thesis statement?

Everything you write needs to be part of your overall response to the question, so if you find the answer to the above questions is no as you write, then the sentence needs to change/go.

6. Make the choices you can before the exam

Because of the nature of English, you’re going to have a lot more choice in the exam than in a lot of other subjects. In many ways, that’s a good thing, as it gives you leeway for some self-expression. But you also don’t want to spend half the exam agonising over which questions to answer and how to answer them.

The solution is to make as many choices as you can before you go into the exam. For example, if you’re in Western Australia, decide which type of text – imaginative, persuasive, or interpretive – you’re going to write in Section 3 before you enter the exam hall. Having this choice not only lets you focus your energy on perfecting that particular style of writing in advance, but it also lets you use your time in the exam for planning a strong response rather than assessing every available option endlessly and picking one in a rush.


If you’ve been working all year, then you’ll bring plenty of vital knowledge and experience into your English exam. By remembering to put this handful of tips into action, it will be the icing on the cake that not only makes for a much smoother English exam on the day but also sees you get the mark you deserve.

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