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English exam prep: Extended responses

By Danielle Barakat on 22 February 2019NSWblogEnglishExam adviceAssessmentsStudy tips

Here’s the thing, whether you like it or not every single one of you HSC students will have to write an essay or 40 in the next year. English is compulsory for everyone which means you all have to be able to put together at least a semi-decent essay or extended response. Essay writing can be tricky enough without the pressure of an exam, but add in that time pressure and sometimes our brain can go into meltdown mode…

If you check out our Preparing for an in-class essay post, we go through how to construct and prep your essay for an in-class assessment. It's generally pretty similar to what you'd do for your exam so I am not going to go through that again. What i'm going to focus on now is how to go about writing it in an actual exam situation (i.e. Trials or the HSC). So let’s jump right in:

During the exam

1. 👏 Read 👏 every 👏 word 👏 of 👏  the 👏 question 👏 properly 👏

This point seems so obvious but is so often forgotten in an exam. It’s so simple. Just make sure you read every word of the essay question carefully. Make sure you’re following the instructions and paying attention to the little things that might actually be the big things. For example, do they want a speech or essay? Do they want at least one related text or no more than one related text?

Don’t skip this step and you’ll be off to a good start!

2. Draft a quick essay plan

Whether you think so or not, there’s always time to quickly plan out your essay in an exam. Do this. Every. Single. Time. It’s worth it, trust me. The fear and adrenaline of an exam might want to take over your brain at this stage and you might be urged to start writing as quickly as possible so you can just get your essay out of your head and onto the paper before you forget it. But stop. Take a few minutes and plan it out a bit first, You want to basically write down your thesis and the structure/order of your body paragraphs. If you want a bit more detail on exactly how to plan properly, check this out.

3. Time management, it ain’t no joke!

When it comes to managing your time in an exam you need to be wary of two things: the time you need to write your essay and the time you need to finish the entire exam. Now you’re probably sitting there going hang on, aren’t these the same thing? And the answer is no.

You have to leave yourself enough time in the entire exam to write a good quality essay. We think 45 minutes is ideal. So my tip here would be to try and optimise your time in the first two sections of the paper, especially in the creative writing section. Now we have tried and tested this, and it seems that you can actually bang out a really great creative in 30 mins instead of 40, which gives you some extra time for the essay section.

Now when it comes to having enough time to actually write your essay, these couple of weeks of studying will give you an indication of the time limits and your progress. For example, you should know that your intro and first 2 paragraphs take about 20 minutes to write. So if you’re 20 mins in and you’ve only written your intro and 1 body paragraph, you know that you need to pick up the pace a little bit. If you realise you can’t do it in the time, then head back to your plan and start thinking about sections you can cut down. But this is the last resort. If you manage your time properly, you should be able to write the essay that you want in 40-45 minutes.

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

This tip isn’t for everyone, but I know a lot of people will find this tip really handy. Every essay needs evidence and I am sure you’re all cramming your brains with quotes, dates or stats so it’s worth having a strategy in place to make sure you remember to include it all and don’t leave out anything important. So what I would do as soon as I could start writing in an exam is quickly jot down the keywords of some of the quotes that I knew I definitely wanted to include in my response. So if I had a total mind blank I would be able to just go back and jog my memory rather than sitting there wasting time trying to wrack my brain to remember it.

5. Structure is important

This point also has a lot to do with planning (clearly you can see some of my OCD shining through in this post) but it’s super important when it comes to extended responses that you consider the structure of your answers. Make a structure during your planning and stick to it. That’s super important. Keep your paragraphs structured too, whether it’s PEEL, T-V-E or some other acronym that your paragraphs are set out to, stick to this so you can ensure you’re making clear, concise points and have enough time to get everything in before those 2 hours are up.

6. Take a minute

Mind blanks are really common for everyone in exams so don’t freak out and think you’re the only one who suddenly can’t remember anything when they open up that exam paper. This is a pretty stressful feeling and can sometimes be very overwhelming, but remember everything is in there, it’s just the stress and adrenaline that’s blocking your mind. So take a minute and breathe. Stop writing and let the anxiety exit your body before you end up writing a whole paragraph just to realise it’s a whole bunch of nothing. Waffling effects the clarity of your essay, and remember the marking criteria? It’s about having a logical, concise response. Give yourself a few seconds to try and think of your argument again and in most cases, it does start to come back to you. If you really can’t remember the point you were trying to make, either move on and come back later or just cut your losses, conclude that point and move on. Sometimes it’s the only way.

7. Keywords and source material

Not every essay question in an exam gives you stimulus or source material (like a quote) that you need to include in your response, but for the ones that do it’s crucial that you don’t just ignore these. Make sure you read the material and actually try and understand the relevance of the material in regards to the question they’re asking you. Here are a few examples:

  • If they ask you to discuss, this means you need to pinpoint the issues raised by that statement and provide examples and analysis for and/or against each of those issues.
  • If they ask you to explain you need to relate the cause and effect and make the relationship between things evident, by examples. You also need to provide why and how these things are related.
  • If they ask: to what extent, this one is a little bit more in depth. Here you will have to make a judgement call about what they’re asking. So for example, if the question is ‘To what extent is this view represented…’ then you need to make a judgement about how much the themes and ideas in your texts support the given statement. This doesn’t always have to be black and white, you can argue both sides just as long as at the end you make a conclusion and have enough evidence to back up everything you’re saying.

How you use the source material in an exam is really going to depend on the NESA key term that’s used in the question. These can all be found here. So make sure you know what these words mean and how to use them to incorporate the stimulus given.

And we’re done!

Just remember that writing essays in exams really comes down to being as prepared as possible and having a really good strategy in place. This is why practising now is going to get you ahead of the game. Manage your time, plan out your response and properly answer the question and you’ll be on the path to smashing it.

Happy essay writing... 😬

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