A Level

Top Ten Tips for English Exam Success

1.  Know your set texts

Make sure you know your set texts back to front.  This will enable you to tackle questions with confidence, as opposed to desperately scrambling for relevant material.  Read them through once, annotating your copies, then summarise each chapter/scene in brief notes.  It might be a good idea to re-read at least part of each text over the Easter holidays, to familiarise yourself with them again.


2.  Follow texts up in other media

Go to the theatre or watch films or TV adaptations of your novels or plays to help you picture the world of your set text.  Many are available at accessible prices or will be in your local library.  It might also help you think about your texts in a different light.  Think critically about your further research.  If you watch different versions of them then think about the differences between each adaptation – why has the director made certain choices?  There might also be radio adaptations or paintings illustrating your texts which might illuminate certain themes.


3.  Quotations

If your exam is closed-book, you will need to learn some quotations to score top marks.  This isn’t as difficult as it first seems!  You are not expected to reel off entire soliloquies – a short phrase deployed where it is relevant, followed by some close reading, will enhance your argument.  Go through your texts carefully to find a few quotations that are relevant to main themes, and so therefore likely to be helpful in the exam.  Learn these by copying them onto post-it notes and sticking them around your house, on your mirror, above your light-switch, or on the back of the front door.  You will be surprised how soon they sink in if you see them every day – the trick is not to be too ambitious and try and learn too many!


4.  Unseens

Many exam boards test your comprehension and interpretative skills by giving you passages you have never seen before to analyse – ‘unseens’.  Reading a block of confusing text for the first time and being expected to discuss it can seem daunting.  Don’t worry!  The key is to practise.  Dip into books in the library or find poems online and read a section before jotting down some key points about the passage.  Think about what the writer is trying to achieve and how they do this.  As you read more, unseens will become less intimidating.


5.  Literary techniques

Score top marks in essays by deploying those key buzzwords – literary techniques.  We’ve all heard of ‘repetition’ and ‘alliteration’, but lots of students forget to use them because they feel they’re stating the obvious.  Use them – close read the quotations you use to show why that phrase in particular achieves a certain effect.  This depth of perceptive analysis will really impress your examiners, and demonstrate your command of the theory of studying English.


6.  Context

Knowing the historical and social context of your texts will enable you to explore whether they were radical or conservative at the time they were written – and then compare this to modern standards.  Understanding the context in which texts were written and received is a frequent assessment objective across exam boards.  If you’re interested in or are studying history, then this will be slightly easier for you – you might even be lucky enough to be studying the same period in both English and history!  If you feel less comfortable with the history behind your texts, then do some reading around the period to help you understand social norms.  Producing timelines can be very helpful so that you can keep track of key events around the writing of your text.


7.  Wider reading

Topping up your knowledge of historical contexts is not the only form of wider reading you can do.  Make yourself feel comfortable in the exam by reading related books – what else did your author write?  Was another text hugely influenced by yours?  Was it based upon another piece of literature?  Find out what else was going on in the literary scene at the time of composition of your text.


8.  Past papers

Make sure you know exactly what to do in the exam by familiarising yourself with past papers.  From these, you can gauge the kind of questions you will be asked and practise answering them.  Keep an eye on the number of marks and work out how long you should spend on each question.  Use the examination board’s website to look at the syllabus and mark scheme.  This will show you what the examiners are looking for to make sure you hit all of their targets.


9.  Planning

Ensure all of your hard work in the revision period is not wasted in the exam by planning your answers carefully.  You should include time for this when you work out how to structure your time in the exam hall.  Make sure you know what you are going to write before you put pen to paper; this might feel like wasting time to begin with but will be worth it!  Jot down the main points for your introduction, individual paragraphs and conclusion.  ‘The power of three’ is a very helpful way to structure many essays: three paragraphs with three points each.


10.  Checking

When you’ve finished writing your answer in the exam, it might be tempting to sit back and collapse with exhaustion.  Don’t do this – not yet, anyway!  Exam boards value accurate written expression very highly, and this is often the first thing to be lost when you are stressed and writing quickly.  Check through for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, and also make sure your handwriting is legible.  If you have more time, look for any points you could develop further.  If you find yourself with a spare five minutes at the end of the exam, don’t waste it!


written by Laura Clash (Oxford University)

By Laura Clash, A MyTutor Tutor

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