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9 tips for writing essays in exams

By Lauren Condon on 5 October 2017Exam adviceHSIEEnglishNSWblog

Essay writing is enough of a struggle when there isn’t any time pressure. Add in a 40 minute limit and that’s pretty much breaking point for a lot of us 🙃 . Well don't stress too much because we're going to help out here with some tricks and tips for writing exam essays* that will actually show the HSC marker all of our killer ideas and skills. This might end up being a pretty hefty post so let’s get cracking straightaway.

*This basically works for things like speeches and long responses as well...

1. Pinpoint the instructions in the question

Before you even start writing, you need to be reading each word of that essay question super carefully. Make sure you’re following instructions and paying attention to the little things that are actually... big things. Do they want you to write a speech or an essay? Do they specify that you need ONE, at least ONE or TWO or more related texts? No excuses for skipping this step because you can just do it during reading time.

2. Draft a quick plan of the structure

Always, always, always plan your essays in an exam. Like… always. The kick of pure fear adrenaline when you start an exam can make it pretty tempting to get writing asap but save yourself a world of pain and take a few minutes to plan. You want to basically write down your thesis (probably one you’ve prepared earlier but tailor it to the specific question) and the structure of your body paragraphs. We go into a bit more detail on planning over here if you’re keen 👍 .

3. Manage your time in writing the essay and the whole exam

Two tips here (lucky you) but basically you need to manage your time in writing the essay and manage your whole exam time. So firstly, you have to leave yourself enough of the exam time to do your essay. If the exam is something like English Paper 1, you know that a third of the (two hour long) exam is an essay so you should be starting that essay with at least 40mins to go.

Hot tip: a lot of top students try to move through the first two sections of that exam fairly quickly so they have more time for a banging essay 💯.

When it comes to writing the essay, the structure you planned out will let you know if you’re on track or not. 40 minutes to write an essay and you have an intro, conclusion and four body paragraphs? Sweet. Well then it’s pretty clear that you should get your intro and the first two paragraphs done in 20 minutes. If you kind of messed up the timing of the whole exam and you don’t have your full 40 minutes then pick up the pace and if you can’t do that, time to make some quick decisions about what to cut.

4. Write out your evidence first so you don’t forget it

This isn’t a must but can be seriously helpful. Every essay needs evidence. It might be quotes, it might be dates, it might be stats. Even though you’ve definitely memorised these perfectly by the HSC (lol), it’s worth having a strategy for making sure you put all your evidence in. My personal tactic was, before starting to write the essay, to scribble that evidence (or just a keyword to jog my memory) down at the top of my planning paper or scribble it under the plan I wrote. That way, if I had a total mind blank when I got to writing a certain paragraph, I didn’t have to leave the evidence out or waste time trying to remember it.

5. Keep it structured

This one is pretty closely related to the point about planning but hey, can’t push it enough. The pressure of writing essays in exams makes it sooooo easy to start rambling and just chucking idea after idea after idea onto the page. Make a structure during your planning and be really strict about sticking to it to keep your essay as clear and strong as possible. Keep your paragraphs to a regular structure like PEEL/PEAL (point, example, explanation/analysis, link) so you have a clear idea of when you’ve written enough in each paragraph and when it’s time to just move on.

6. Have some potential theses and essay structures prepared

Memorising essays gets a little controversial but I think we all agree that you need to, at least, have a few ideas and potential essay structures going into that exam room. Some of us will try to remember whole essays word-for-word which isn’t officially recommended but as long as you are prepared to (and know how to) adapt it to the question then it shouldn’t be too bad. It’s really about finding out what approach works best for you but having some possible essays structures and flexible thesis ideas up your sleeve will make sure that you can write an impressive essay in just 40 minutes.

7. If you get stuck, your best bet is to pause for a second

Having a mind blank during an exam is not a good feeling because the clock is literally ticking and there isn’t a way you can magically force yourself to remember a quote or come up with an idea. It will feel pretty stressful but your best bet here is actually to pause and think instead of continuing to waffle on.

Waffling affects the clarity of your essay and the marking criteria about the ‘composing’ of your response. It also might affect how well the marker thinks you understand your argument so it’s always better to pause, give yourself a few seconds to try and reach a solution. If you can’t, either move on and try to come back later or just cut your losses, conclude that point and move on.

8. Don’t forget to anchor your essay with the keyword and source material

Not every essay will give you source material (a picture or quote that you have to refer to) but you will always have a verb or keyword in the question that tells you how to position your argument. When it comes to unexpected source material, here are some tricks and tips and when it comes to the keyword, let’s start by having a look at three questions pulled from the 2016 Advanced English Paper 2.

  • Discuss means you need to pinpoint the issues raised by that statement and provide examples and analysis for and/or against each of those issue.

  • How means you need to be providing really solid examples of contrast in Yeats poetry and explaining what that contrast says about personal concerns, political concerns and the relationship between the two.

  • To what extent means you need to making a judgement call about how much the themes and ideas in your texts support (or do not support) that statement. This doesn't have to be black and white, you can always say that the texts support that statement in some ways and challenge it in other ways as long as you provide good evidence and analysis to back it up.

All those instructing verbs and keywords came from just one paper so brush on up exactly what they mean and how to use them to anchor your essay. Addressing the keyword and source material really well will show your marker than you are actually answering the exam question, not just chucking out a pre-prepared response.

9. Remind yourself of what the markers are looking for

The overall best tip for writing essays in exams is to remind yourself what your markers are looking for. And no, that doesn't mean you just try to tell your mysterious, probably middle-aged NESA marker what you think they want to hear.

Instead, think about your essay sensibly. Your marker wants to see how well you understand the texts and how the authors communicated those ideas. They want to see how well you understand the concept of Discovery and all its nuances (hint: they’re written out here). And they want to see how well you can bring all these ideas together and communicate them in a logical, cohesive manner. Don’t get too caught up in fancy language or insanely obscure techniques - you’ve got this.

Remember

Writing essays in exams really comes down to being as prepared as possible and having a good strategy for the exam itself. Make sure you’re managing your time and keeping calm enough to write the killer essay you’d be able to come up with outside of the exam room. Happy essay writing… 😬

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