If you’ve applied to study English at Oxford or Cambridge, then you’ll have to take the ELAT (English Literature Admissions Test). Admissions tutors use the test to decide whether to invite a candidate for interview. The ELAT is designed to test candidates’ ability to respond sensitively to unfamiliar literary material. Candidates are given six poems or passages from drama and/or prose (fiction or non-fiction), and are asked to write one essay comparing two or three passages. When I was preparing to take the exam, I looked at some past papers and was alarmed by how complicated some of the passages seemed to be. Don’t panic! Here is a step-by-step guide to help you take the test…
- Don’t worry if you don’t recognise any of the texts. The passages have been purposely selected so that no student has an advantage over another by having studied it previously. This means that the passages will probably all be hopelessly obscure – but remember, everyone is in the same boat!
- What on earth is going on? The meaning of the passages is crucial. If you don’t realise that the speaker dies a few lines before the end, then the chances are that you’ll miss a lot of points you could make in your analysis. Read each passage through carefully until you know what is happening – don’t skim read! In English, each word matters, and if you read too quickly, you might just miss the one little word that makes all the others fall into place.
- What is the tone? I always find this invaluable when approaching an unseen text. It helps you finally connect with a passage: it might be about war, but is the writer sad or angry? This makes a huge difference.
- What type of language is being used? Once you’ve sorted the basic level of content, it’s time to delve into the choices the writer has made whilst composing the passage. Are they using unusual language? Are they talking about love but using the language of mechanics? Underline vocabulary from different ‘discourses’ (fields e.g. romantic, nautical, pastoral). They will help you get a feel for the poem.
- Are there any literary techniques? Going through the text and underlining similes, metaphors, alliteration, oxymorons etc. is a necessary task. However, it’s all very well being able to say ‘the writer uses a simile here’, but anyone can do that if they memorise a list of rhetorical devices. Explain what it does – does it emphasise their anger? Show the writer desperately searching for words to encapsulate the emotion they are feeling? Show their grief? Don’t just tell the examiner what’s going on in the passages, show them how the writer is doing what they’re doing.
- Ah, that tricky word, ever present from GCSE specifications onwards in the phrase ‘form, language and structure’. Don’t forget it here! If it’s a poem, what type of poem is it? Does your passage conform to it? Does the writer stretch the boundaries of the genre within which they’re writing?
- Choose your passages carefully. Select passages you feel are most interesting and you have the most to say about. Don’t try and show off by choosing the most confusing passage – it’s not worth it! Make sure your passages have enough in common for you to be able to make interesting comparisons and contrasts. In the exam, you’ll be able to choose between writing about two or three passages. I would advise that quality is more important than quantity, and unless you’re feeling very confident, I would stick to analysing two passages. Discussing two passages means you’ll be able to get lots of points down and closely engage with the texts, rather than constantly jumping around between different points of view in an essay on three.
- Plan, plan, plan. Planning is absolutely crucial for this! The great thing about the ELAT test is that the question itself stipulates that you should “compare and contrast [the passages] in any ways that seem interesting to you”. This means that you can inject some of your own personality into your essay – what strikes you about these passages? Once you have thought of a central idea that makes the passages similar or different, you can start to plan a response covering both passages and both similarities and differences. Don’t start writing until you know what you’re doing though – having a structure will enable you to write much more quickly and fluently in the long run!
- Detail is key. It might seem silly to say this to A-level students, but don’t forget to explain your points! Take each point as far as you can – give a specific exploration of the impact of one simile in its place in the passage, as opposed to listing reams of techniques the writer employs. Don’t be afraid to notice the tiny details and make a big thing out of something as small as the word ‘But’ at the beginning of a stanza. This kind of close attention to detail is exactly what the examiners are looking for.
- Proof-read. If you have time, proof-read your answer carefully for spelling mistakes and to see if there is space for you to add in any more details. No one likes this part of any exam, but it is just as important as any other part of sitting the ELAT. If your handwriting tends to go haywire when you’re under pressure (mine does!), this is your chance to make certain scrawled words more legible. Add in asterisks and arrows to enable you to include extra points and ideas – the examiner won’t think you’re a mess and that you can’t plan, but will be impressed by your continuing engagement with the text and desire to redraft a piece of work until you are satisfied with it.
Good luck everyone! Show them what you can do.
Laura Clash studied English Language and English Literature, followed by a Masters in Medieval English Literature, at Oxford University. She obtained her PGCE in English at Bristol University, and is now an English teacher in Cambridgeshire.