How do I revise for an English exam?

Trying to revise for an English exam can always seem like a daunting task. Though with other subjects it can feel obvious to know what to learn and easy to tell whether you’re ready for the exam or not, English can often feel so subjective that it seems impossible to know how to actually prepare. However, there are actually some really simply things you can do to help yourself be as prepped as possible. Here are my Top Tips for making English revision both more useful and less painful for you.

1.       Plan past essay questions

Personally this is the method I always find most useful. You’ll be able to find past papers online if your college hasn’t already bombarded you with stacks of past questions as my teacher always liked to do, and they really are incredibly useful. You don’t even have to do them in timed conditions; simply getting an idea of the types of things you’re going to be asked is great preparation, as  you’ll start to see a pattern in the sorts of things you’ll be asked. You can then map out your answers for likely exam topics, and when something similar comes up in the exam you’ll instantly feel more in control. I also found that doing a mindmap with different colours for quotes, critics and essay points was always a much more satisfying way of revising than just listing off random quotes all the time.

2.       Practice writing in time conditions

Yes this is one the most boring and time-consuming ways of revising, but it’s also one of the most helpful. Just writing one essay a week can be great practice for the exam. You basically want writing in timed conditions to feel like second nature to you when you walk into the exam hall, that way you’re less likely to panic when you turn the paper over and see the question. It can also be a really good chance to get feedback on your work to check whether or not you’re on the right track, so either ask a teacher or a lovely, patient friend to have a read through if you can. Best to get help and have to take constructive criticism now rather than waiting until it’s too late in the summer.

3.       Work out your key chapters and arguments

One of the best pieces of advice my teacher gave me in college, which is still seriously useful for my degree, is that in an exam, you don’t need to focus on the whole book. In fact, it’s far, far better to pick a few key chapters to revise and know inside out, rather than wasting your time trying to learn the whole book. Yes, you obviously need to be familiar with all of the plot and characters, but in the exam there definitely won’t be time to show off all this knowledge. Instead, as you start planning and writing your essays as revision, you’ll begin to notice that you can start using similar arguments and chapters for many of the different questions. For instance, when I had to write on Frankenstein for my A2 exam, I realised that Chapter 5 was useful for basically every key theme in the module- setting, characterisation, politics, science etc. Hence, I targeted a lot of my revision on learning all of the arguments, quotes and critics surrounding that chapter, which was reinforced by using it in practically every practice exam I did, and then when the exam came round it was easy to adapt the arguments I’d already rehearsed for the actual question.

4.       Read secondary material

Whether you’re expected to know critics for the exam or not, reading around the topic area can make a real difference in the exams. Things like York Notes are really, really good at summarising useful things like key chapters, context and critics, and can make your life so much easier, and they’re not hard to understand at all. If you do have to learn critics, then spending a bit of spending short quotes which can be used for a number of arguments is definitely worth doing, as trying to reel off large chunks of intellectual sources during the exam will be much harder for you, and will probably end up losing you marks, as you’ll be using up valuable time and words writing what the critic says, rather than actually analysing them, which is what the examiners really want to see. Understanding their argument and being able to engage with it is the best way you can prepare, and this will become easier and easier the more times you practice inserting their ideas into essays and plans. 

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