Everyone assumes that English is just one of those things better left to luck. Better to not study for something that can’t be controlled and work on something more logical like maths right? However, whilst in a dream world that mentality may work, we have to put up with reality and understand that English is going to contribute 20% to our final marks.
Unfortunately, many students neglect this fact and pay for it dearly, there are countless examples of people who neglect English and achieve incredible marks in maths, physics or whatever yet only have a low band 5 or a mid-band 5 in English, which drag their ATARs lower than you would believe.
Thus, it is incredibly important that you work hard on English, especially the essays which contribute to around 70% of your External Mark for English. So, now that we realise English is probably the single most important subject in the HSC we have to figure out a way to break such a muddled and ineffective system.
Fortunately for you, I’ve found and tested out an approach to system that will have you working less but scoring higher than you did before.
Step 1: The Art of Being Concise
Comparing the number of pages you’ve written after the exam is a tradition that’s passed down from year to year, mainly used to boost the egos of the people who write in excess of 10 pages per essay.
Being concise allows you to get into the good books of the marker instantly. Why? Well, put yourself in the position of the marker, would you rather read a 5-page essay or a 10-page essay? Like all human beings, markers don’t want to work more than they need to. By being concise, you make them happy because they have less work to do.
Stuffing your essays with meaningless fluff and random ‘contextual’ or ‘framing’ sentences perpetrated by your teacher is more detrimental to your overall mark than beneficial. Instead get to the point as effectively and efficiently as possible. This will help you stand out from the crowd that continue to write essays where half of it contains empty words which contribute nothing to the overall discussion.
So by being concise you reduce the amount you have to write, whilst also reducing the amount the marker has to mark. It’s a win-win.
- Speaking your responses: By verbalising your essays, you’ll realise just how much extra information there is. Pay close attention to ums and ahs, when this happens it usually means there’s not much flow or there might be something unnatural in the written paragraph. By trying to get your writing to flow as well as spoken English, you’ll realise that your essays are shorter and also flow a lot better.
- Break down your essays: Start by taking one of your essays and highlight any word or sentence which doesn’t make a point or contribute anything to answering the question. When you first start off your essays are probably going to replicate a colouring book, but keep working hard to get this down to zero colour.
Step 2: Quotes
Isn’t it strange that almost no one compares how many quotes you’ve written in an exam? Why? Because quotes are small and seem fairly insignificant when compared to the number of pages you’ve written. However, quotes are probably just as important as being concise.
Quotes are basically the facts of your essay, they back up anything you say, and tell the marker that you actually read/watched/listened to the text, understood why those sentences were included in the text, and finally, that your arguments are not completely baseless.
Quotes alone are pretty powerful, but are aided better when you included techniques and analysis. For now, we’ll focus on techniques. Techniques are useful as they tell the marker that you understand what the author was trying to do when they wrote the text.
Probably the most common mistake people make when including quotes is that they state with words such as ‘in this quote blah blah demonstrates’ or something along the lines of that. By having such a lead up when stating each quote in your essay, you break the flow of the essay and also waste words on stuff that don’t add to the argument. Instead, try to incorporate your quotes into the sentence so that they actually sound like something that could’ve been included even without the quotation marks.
Furthermore, most people also write quotes in massive chunks that could probably serve as mini paragraphs themselves. This is completely unnecessary. Like with your own words, you should aim to be concise when quoting by only including parts that are relevant to your argument and also flow in the sentence that you want to include them in.
The solutions to both these mistakes are pretty hard to visualise so take a look at the example below:
“As the hope for “equality, fraternity, liberty” of the French Revolution descended into the ‘Age of Terror’, Frankenstein’s hope for completion of the Enlightenment project symbolically collapses in the grotesque monster, as using visual imagery, “the beauty of the dream vanished and breathless horror and disgust” metaphorically “filled my heart”.”
In the above sentence, whilst not perfect still uses multiple techniques whilst also utilising quotes that flow well and are fairly short. Note the last section of the sentence where the overall quote is broken in to two to add more techniques whilst retaining the flow of the sentence.
- Lists: You’ve read this countless times, but making lists of quotes and techniques are incredibly useful come exam time. For each text (should be 4) make a list of 20 quotes that you particularly found interesting, or that helped you realise something or if they sound deep and meaningful. Now, for each quote try to write down three techniques. If you can’t get at least three techniques per quote, then replace the quote with something else. Once you’ve completed the list try thinking about arguments that you could string together with the quotes. If you can’t think of anything then remove the bad quotes and add better ones. By continually refining your list you should have a very versatile set of quotes that you can answer any questions with.
Step 3: The Four Sentence Essay
Writing an essay should only take about 5 minutes. How? When the essay is limited to 4 sentences.
Every good essay starts with a strong thesis. A thesis is simple and concise statement that directly answers the question with what you think. A Strong thesis = Higher marks.
Constructing a strong thesis doesn’t actually take much skill. Essentially what you want to do is answer every part of the question and provide some originality.
Eg: Q: “Every text has an expiration date. Discuss”
A weak thesis would be something like: “Hamlet is a timeless text without an apparent expiration date.”
A strong these would be: “Hamlet’s timeless resonance is derived through its exploration on Hamlet’s moral dilemma allowing it to transcend contextual barriers.”
Both thesis statements are fairly short but one provides a bit more detail than the other. Instead of simply agreeing to the question like the weaker thesis did, you should aim to delve slightly deeper into the text and provide your opinion in response to the question. A good tip would be to limit your thesis to 25 words, you want it to be detailed but not too convoluted that your marker doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say.
Now that you’ve got your thesis sorted, the next three sentences should be fairly straightforward. These sentences are simply your topic sentences for your body paragraphs. Your topic sentences essentially tell the marker what your point is and state your opinion on the matter, essentially replicating the same structure as a thesis statement.
By having a 4 sentence essay you can organise your ideas concisely, ensure that your arguments actually make sense and make sure that you stick to basics. After you master the art of constructing an essay in 4 sentences, you’ll be able to start writing paragraphs properly in the next step.
- The 4 sentence answer: Imagine you got asked the essay question while rushing to a meeting. You couldn’t dodge the question so you had to answer it as quickly as possible. Try to answer essays questions with a maximum of four sentences. Try to write that all into a single sentence. This will help you write detailed thesis statements which will tell your marker everything they want to know in a simple manner. Further, by practicing this you become more succinct with your language and will be able to express yourself more clearly whilst using less words to do so.
- Reviewing:Once you finish your 4 sentence answer review it. Start highlighting and underlining words that don’t add value or are just there to sound impressive. Simple language with meaning will always beat irrelevant and fluffy terms that don’t apply to the situation.
- Relate the answer to quotes: To progress from the 4 sentence answer into a full essay all you need to do is add quotes, techniques and analysis. Use your list of 20 quotes from above and practice backing up the points you made in your answer.
Step 4: Acronyms
The countless acronyms that English teachers use in order to get you to write better are all pretty good in their own right, but almost always misinterpreted or misused as a result of poor explanation by the teacher or the lack of understanding by the student.
One common acronym is PETAL
Point: Your topic sentence
Example: Your quote
Technique: as it says, your techniques
Analysis: Breaking down the quote and backing up your point
Link: Linking between your three main topics
You’ve probably been taught that every paragraph you write has to follow the acronym either PETAL or something else. However, a common mistake is only applying the acronym once, meaning that you are left with only 1 quote/ analysis per paragraph. This almost never enough. Instead, what you should do is apply the middle of the acronym multiple times. So overall your paragraph would look something like this: P ETA ETA ETA ETA L.
Furthermore, many people remember to use multiple quotes yet forget to talk about the effect or analyse the quote. Without doing so your essay has zero substance and is essentially just an extended form of your quotes/techniques list. So to prevent that, try fitting ETA into a single sentence. To begin with you may find this difficult without letting the sentence run for far too long, but by continually practicing you can write cohesive and coherent sentences that tick of all the boxes.
- Paragraphs: Based on the 4 sentence answer you wrote in the previous step, expand on each topic sentence by using PETAL (or your chosen acronym). Aim to make three sub points to begin with and as you become more concise you can add a couple more points to further strengthen your argument. Ideally, you should be using more than 5 quotes per paragraph (mini quotes count too!)
Step 5: Training
Now that you have all the groundwork in place you can start practicing answering essay questions.
Time Pressure/Answering the Question:
With time pressure comes the tendency to start memorising your essays word for word without any regard for the question. Whilst this approach certainly works and there are countless success stories for it, there are also more failures as a result of such an approach. Without the appropriate practice in moulding your essay to countless essay questions, memorising your essays is a one-way ticket to a low band 5 mark. Thus, it can be concluded that word for word essays are fairly inconsistent at getting results meaning that you leave your marks to chance which is obviously something we don’t want to do.
Instead, by using the method above of creating quotes and technique lists and learning how to use them for analysis, you’ll be saving yourself countless hours to do something fun. However, some of you may still be uncertain about writing an essay without some phrases pre prepared so for those people I recommend create a template or a scaffold.
A Template/scaffold for paragraphs is essentially just a short dot point list of ways to express certain quotes well with good language. Write sentences that incorporate your quotes and analysis and can be changed fairly easily to refer back to the question. Now you have some well worded sentences that you can insert when writing your essays under time pressure. (This method is good to begin with when practicing but by the time you write your HSC hopefully your command of the English language will be so good that you don’t need such sentences to boost your writing)
So we’ve talked about what your argument needs to have; namely quotes, techniques and analysis, but we haven’t really touched upon how you should approach a question.
As aforementioned, your markers are humans as well and being concise will make their lives a lot easier. However, being original is also something that will make their lives easier as they are probably going to be more interested in reading your essay if you don’t make the same point as the 500 essays before yours. With your modules you’re restricted to one question per text which means everyone is lumped into the same pool.
To stand out here, you’re going to have to do something slightly crazy such as disagreeing with the question, or providing a unique standpoint on the issue at hand. By doing so you, your marker will realise that you have in fact read/understood the text to its fullest extent rather than simply reading a 20-page spark notes guide on the text. Arguing something different will allow you to stand out and perk their interest and if you can back your ideas with suitable quotes and techniques you’re practically guaranteed to be rewarded with higher marks. This tactic also works for creative writing. Stay away from clichés and choose the harder stimulus.
- Time Pressure: Having a deadline makes us do funny things. Sometimes we become insanely productive and can destroy a four-hour task in just 40 minutes or sometimes we simply fall flat on our faces. The same will happen to you when you first start practicing under time pressure. The first couple of times you won’t be concise enough or you might run of things to say but don’t worry, by continually reviewing each essay with your highlighter you’re only going to get better with more practice and soon enough writing this way will become second nature.
- Arguing it differently: Once you’ve attempted all the essay questions that you can get your hand on, re attempt them with different arguments. By doing so you’ll be able to practice arguing a different thesis. This will make doing something different in the exam room slightly more normal.
Step 6: The Exam
Finally, after all this preparation, you still have to sit the exam. For English you should realise by now that you have two papers to complete.
Paper 1 which is area of study has comprehension, a creative and an essay, you also have 10 minutes of reading time.
Here’s how to complete it the essay and creative in under 5 minutes:
- Read the question for the AOS. Devise a thesis and think of your three points – 1 -2 minutes.
- Look at the stimulus for the creative writing. Pick which one you’ll do and start devising a plan to either wrote a creative from scratch or adapt your prepared creative – 2-3 minutes.
- Use the remaining 5 minutes to read your comprehension texts and find the answers to the given questions
Paper 2 is the probably the harder paper where you’ll have to write three essays, one for each module, you also have 5 minutes of reading time.
Here’s how to finish it in less than 5 minutes
- Module A: Choose your question, devise your thesis and come up with three points – 1 minute
- Module B: Choose your question, devise your thesis and come up with three points – 1 minute
- Module C: Choose your question, devise your thesis and come up with three points – 1 minute
- Review your theses again and prepare yourself to write as quick as possible for the next two hours – 2 minutes
Since you’ve been laying down the groundwork and simulating exam conditions you should be able to prepare your theses in under a minute and your points are going to flow like second nature. Further, you’ll be accustomed to PETAL (or another acronym) meaning you don’t have to worry about the structure of your paragraphs or how many paragraphs (3 in case you didn’t know) that you need to write.
So there you have it, your guide to tackling the most important subject in the HSC, and finishing the exam within reading time.
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