literally lauren's End of Year Study Guide
Congratulations everybody, and welcome to the fun part of the year! No longer will you have teachers breathing down your necks about SAC dates and homework commitments. Though you might have the occasional practice essay due, the next few weeks will be all about your self-directed study.
So how the hell do you do that?
If you've read a few of my posts you'll know I'm a big advocate for self-aware study, that is, knowing what you're doing and why you're doing it. There's no sense writing 6 practice essays all on a similar topic, and making the same mistake on each one. Before the inevitable 'how many essays should I write?' questions come flooding in, I thought I'd make this guide to help you through the process and increase your productivity and decreasing workload.
First step: know what you need to work on. I've said this quite often recently, so let's break it up into something more manageable:
I'll discuss each of the essay types in order (though incidentally this isn't the order you should write them in for your exam) then some general queries towards the end. If you feel I've missed anything important, PM me and I'll add it to the list
SECTION A: the glorified book reportWhich text should I choose?
Out of the two texts that you've studied this year, pick the one you think you'll do better in, regardless of how popular the text is or how long it's been on the list. Factor in these sorts of details if you need, but ultimately you're individual strengths will be a much more influential factor. Some texts are naturally suited to more Views and Values discussion, whereas others have a lot of structural devices to unravel. In the end, trust your instincts and go with whatever you prefer.Understanding the criteria1. detailed knowledge and understanding of the selected text, deomstrated appropriately in response to the topic.
2. development in the writing of a coherent and effective discussion in response to the task.
3. controlled use of expressive and effective language appropriate to the task.
'But wait,' I hear you say, 'those barely tell me anything, it's all just VCAA jargon.' Yeah, I always found these (and most of the study design for that matter) fairly unhelpful. Hence my simplified version:
1. Your writing must be relevant. Address the topic in its entirety, including the quote if there is one. And please, for god's sakes, write on the right book.
2. Your ideas should be good. If the assessor can get to the end of your essay on, let's say Owen's War Poems
, and the only conclusion you draw is 'Owen thinks war is bad' then you're unlikely to score well.
3. Your writing must be good. This doesn't mean cramming in a bunch of flowery language, but rather, your expression should be clear and concise, your grammar and syntax should make sense, and your vocab should be appropriate to your discussion. This last one is relatively minor, and, like handwriting, you only really lose marks here if it's impeding clarity.How do I develop my interpretation?
By this stage you should have moved beyond what the basic study guides are telling you. Try to have some sort of opinion about the characters as this will make it much easier to argue your contention later. Be careful though, if you've been told there are errors in your interpretations then it might be worth going back and rereading the text to see where you went wrong. You don't have to come up with some revolutionary idea, but try to look at things from a slightly different perspective. This can also help you when discussing alternate interpretations, which can be a good way to boost your mark.
Fortunately the more sophisticated interpretations often don't require a lot of writing, just a lot of reading and thinking. IF you're lucky enough to be studying a classic text then there should be a bunch of resources out there. For others though, thinking will have to be your first resort. Ask yourself why you like/dislike the characters that you do. Are any of them irredeemable, or without fault? How does this text link in with a socio-historical/ authorial context (spoiler: all texts do somehow, that's one of the criteria for being on the booklist. Do some research if you haven't already.)Methods for memorising quotes?
POST-IT NOTES, EVERYWHERE!!
Whilst everyone will have their own preferred methods for memorisation, immersion is always a good way to go. Sticking stuff up all over your bedroom walls (and the rest of your house if your parents are cool with it) is useful for almost all subjects, so get plastering. This is a system used by some of the world record holders for memorising decks of cards; they'll put each one in a specific location around their home, and then it'll be easier to recall a certain story in relation to the cards, or for our purposes, that the Ghost of Christmas Past hides under the coffee table or that Juror 3 is hanging from the ceiling Mission Impossible style.
Rather than just having blocks of chronological excerpts though, I'd recommend ordering quotes either by character (words said about, or by each major one) or by theme.
Personally, I broke up my text into 4 major characters, plus one extra group for all the minor ones. Then I went through and used a colour coding system for each big theme. I also had a list of structural devices I could use, but this is significantly smaller for most texts so memorisation isn't as much of an issue. After that point, writing practice essays should help drill these words into your head.Improving on Intros and Conclusions?
If these are a weakness for you, don't worry, they barely matter beyond giving a good first and last impression. All your intro has to do is mention the text, your contention, and possibly a key evidence-based argument or two. Yes, you can have a couple of pre-written ones in mind, but be flexible when you see the prompt. Assessors have a keen eye for rote-learning, so don't bring up points just because they sound good or got you a double tick from your teacher. Remember, relevance is the first criterion.
Conclusions don't have to be to complex either. Three or four sentences just to round off your contention and end on a high note should be enough.What makes a good topic sentence?
There are a lot of ways to do these well, and a whole lot of ways you can go wrong, so I'll list the latter in the hopes that you can minimise your mistakes and end up with a format that works for you.
- DON'T summarise the entire paragraph. Topic sentences are designed to open up the discussion, and whilst it's good to reassert your contention, you don't want to make your discussion redundant. Plus, it can be hard to sum up later if you've already said everything. Keep the sentences angled around the prompt, and just mention which specific points you intend to address
- DON'T summarise the text. This goes for your entire essay generally, but avoid it here especially. You want to start off strong, so don't hit your assessor with a boring recount and expect them to keep reading with any interest. Assume they've read the text, but need the ideas explained to them, that way you can skip all the boring bits.
- DON'T restate/reword each of your topic sentences for the intro and conclusion. I guess this belongs more in the previous category, but signposting your arguments isn't a bit deal for VCE. Whilst it can give your essay some cohesion, too much repetition makes the assessors unhappy markers.
- DON'T use too much evidence. English body paragraphs are like sandwiches,
they're pretty simple, but girls make them better
they've got general discussion/bread on the top and bottom with all the meaty evidence in the middle.
Really what I'm saying is your essay should end up looking like one of those sandwiches that Scooby Doo makes.What's the ideal word count/number of paragraphs
This is widely debated and most teachers will have their own recommendations, but by conservative estimates, your T.R. essays should be at least 800 words in order to cover a sufficient amount of information. Most high scorers are writing closer to 1000, but as usual, quality>quantity.
Either 3, 4 or 5 paragraphs would be ideal. I tend to advocate 4 in order to cover enough ground, though anything more will require some fast writing skills in order to get through everything with enough evidence to back it up.
SECTION B ... vagueness incarnateWhich form is right for me?
Which ever you've been practicing all year would be ideal, but if you're thinking about trying something new, you'll have to put quite a bit of effort into honing your skills. As I've said before, the expository style is objectively safer, but a creative/hybrid twist can spice things up. Pure imaginative suits the skilled writers among us, but relevance can be a difficult criteria to fulfill with this one. I'm not sure how people can even write persuasively on such broad prompts, but if you do have strong opinions you want to argue then this can work. Some sort of hybrid is me personal recommendation, but play to your strengths, of course.How do I use the text?
If you're writing an expository piece, you don't need to use the set text in every paragraph. In fact, it's better if you don't. Try to bring it up early on to make it look like you're taking ideas from the text and building upon them. Perhaps one or two minor references throughout your piece where relevant. Beyond that though, you should be utilising your external examples to give your piece flavour.
Unlike Section A, quotes aren't a necessity (in fact I think they can be a little clunky; this is all about the ideas) so latching onto four or five parts of the text you find interesting should be enough.
For more creative pieces, your textual links can theoretically be idea-based, but this is extremely risky as there are lazy assessors who can't be bothered reading into your piece too much, so try to always have some noticeable connection.How many ideas/examples should I have?
Good expository essays will draw on at least 4 external sources, often using others as minor reference points. In terms of how many you should be preparing, I'd have a list of at least 10 you can discuss in a lot of depth, and approx. 20 you're confident with. Tabling up a list of possible prompts can be very helpful, so collate all the resources on your context, make a word document, then start grouping them under a few categories. You'll probably notice a bit of overlap (eg. 'Conflict affects people differently' and 'People's responses to conflict vary' are essentially asking the same thing) so whittle your list down to the bare minimum. My final version for context had about 25 prompts, and even though the '13 exam one for conflict was a little weird, I'd still covered similar stuff before. This will also help minimise the amount of practice essays you'll have to do; if you're confident writing on people's identity and how that changes, try to move onto the effects of belonging, or an area that isn't so comfortable.
Practice paragraphs might be more helpful that entire essays for this section. Trialing out new ideas often doesn't require an entire essay to get right, so if you have an example you want to work in, a paragraph or two should suffice.
For other styles, the number of ideas fluctuates dramatically, but I would suggest avoiding an overly simple message dressed up in fancy words. If you're writing a short story that can essentially be boiled down to 'conflict can be bad, but sometimes it's good' then you'll need a pretty engaging storyline to make that worthwhile.
For speeches, news articles, interviews and the like, give some thought to the verisimilitude of your piece. Does it actually sound like a newspaper article, have you used the form to your advantage? Or does it just sound like a context essay with a heading and date up the top? Obviously responding to the prompt is your priority, but don't just reconfigure a piece into a 'creative' format because you think it'll score better.Should I memorise a piece and just adapt it to the prompt?
Not exactly... this is different for the imaginative writers among us (you guys would have a hard time if you didn't have some preconceived idea of what to write) but for the expository-brigade, the piece you write in the exam should be unique. Of course you'll be calling upon ideas you've used before, but your discussion should be relatively fresh. This is why looking over a bunch of prompts can help immensely; you actually have to be able to discuss the context, not just recycle arguments.
So whilst you don't want to walk in there under-prepared and convinced you can write something brilliant on the spot, you also don't want to walk in with an inflexible idea of the four points you're going to bring up, regardless of what the prompt is asking.
If you've practiced adapting ideas to prompts already then you should be fine.
SECTION C teaching you to trust no oneIs there anything I can memorise for L.A.?
Not really. Definitions of persuasive devices shouldn't actually be stated in your essay, but they might help you to grasp the intent behind them. Aside from that, the exam is all unseen material, so whilst you can prepare and hope for the best for your T.R. and Context prompts, L.A. is going to require a lot more quick thinking. Should I do the VCAA pieces, or others for practice?
I would work through the VCAA ones just to give yourself a sense of the fluctuating difficulty level. 2008 was fine, 2009 was slightly long, but doable, 2010 was quite easy, 2011 has left deep scars on my psyche (you can skip this one if you wish,) 2012 was a bit on the long side, and 2013 was fine except for some slightly tricky techniques.
Beyond that, CSE and VATE are your best bet for practice exams that mirror VCAA's style, but you'll have to get copies off your teacher unless you want to pay for some yourself. Engage Education have some good free papers, and there are some resources on these forums if you're looking for extras.
Remember VCAA has never relied on a lot of outside knowledge (beyond the fact that e-books exist, or that climate change is a thing) and they don't actually give you newspaper articles. Whilst reading the paper is a good exercise and can help hone your ability to analyse while reading, the exam material won't require any prior understanding.
What you're practicing when doing L.A. is just your skillset, how you handle certain contentions, arguments, and devices.What's the ideal word count/number of paragraphs
Language Analysis can be a bit shorter than your other essays since you're not expected to cover everything in the article. 800 words is sufficient to obtain high marks, but obviously if you're a quick writer then stretching yourself into the 1000+ territory gives you more of an opportunity to gain credit. Just don't overblow it; they're testing your ability to be selective too. Mentioning every single rhetorical question isn't exactly impressive, so organise your piece as best you can to avoid repetition.
INTERPRETING FEEDBACK what do you mean this isn't a 10??From teachers
These people will have watched your academic trajectory all year, perhaps even longer than that, so they'll often have the best idea of your abilities. Most of them have years of experience, some are even assessors. That said, this isn't always the case. There are duds scattered around the state, so if you know their feedback is always unhelpfully vague and frustratingly contradictory, then it might be best to seek help elsewhere.
When it comes to working out what
they're actually suggesting you improve on, it can take some effort to untangle this from the web of coffee stains, bad handwriting, and weird teacher-code abbreviations. Consulting with your teacher should always be your first resort, if that's an option. At this level, most will appreciate you taking time to sit down with them and go through your writing, strengths, and weaknesses. Be considerate though, as they do have many others they have to tend do, especially at this time of year.
Otherwise, decyphering their comments may take some time, but I guarantee it's worthwhile.
Take note of where they put the ticks; this helps you work out what you're doing well, which is just as important as knowing what you're doing badly. When isolating your mistakes, try to rationalise them. Don't just say 'oh I didn't use that quote properly,' actually think about why
is was wrong, and what you can do to fix it (eg. 'I integrated it poorly, it didn't make sense in that context. I should have built up my argument a bit more beforehand, then embedded it fluently into the sentence...')From tutors
Though most can't boast the years of experience that regular teachers have, tutors can be helpful in taking you through your essay in the mind of an assessor. That's not to say tutoring is needed, especially if your teachers are happy to provide this feedback already, but either way, sitting down with someone and actually understanding the marking process can be beneficialFrom students/peers
Believe it or not, this can be an invaluable learning process. Not only are friends and peers helpful when discussing texts and interpretations, but they can also help you work out where you're going wrong. Get someone to read through your piece (even if it's a family member who has no idea what the criteria are, just for the sake of clarity and expression.) See if there are any parts where they felt lost or confused. This can be especially good if you know you have trouble with grammar, run-ons, or fragmented sentences.
TIME CONSTRAINTS wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff3 hours huh?
At the end of the year you'll have three hours for three essays, but you're not restricted to one hour for each. So you can use 70 or 75 minutes for one task if there's another you can get done in 45/50. But for any essay, 1000 words (give or take a few hundred) is usually enough. If you're writing too much more, a lot of it will probably be either reiterating/rephrasing points you've already made, or too far removed from the core discussion. There's no strict word count, but it will annoy your assessors if they have to read 7 or 8 pages when 4 would have been sufficient. To plan or not to plan
This is, of course, a matter of personal preference. Some people get by without writing anything down, others plan extensively and then churn out an essay in 40 minutes. If you are reliant on plans, try to minimise the amount of time you spend on them. Shorthand abbreviations will help heaps; there's no need to write out full character names of themes. Develop a system of codes now so that you won't have to waste time with full sentences later (eg. characters Amy, Morgan, and Lulu are simply A, M and L. Themes of justice, nature, and family are a star, a tree and a circle.)
EXAM DETAILS sorting out priorities - Hermione Granger styleOrder? CAB? CBA?
Language Analysis (C) will be the first thing you write, no exceptions. It's where you'll be spending most of your reading time, so it'd be a waste coming back to it an hour later when your brain is in a different place. Get it done early, annotate however you need.
As to whether Text Response (A) or Context (B) comes first, that's entirely up to you. Some people prefer to get A over and done with since you'll actually need to have quotes memorised, whereas B is a lot looser with the requirements, and easier to conclude if you run out of time. Others would rather get a Context essay out quickly in order to devote more time to thinking about their A response.
I'd planned to do CAB, but the A & B prompts kind of threw me, so I ended up doing Context first to boost my confidence enough and allow the A prompts to ferment in my mind before tackling one of them. In the end, flexibility helps.Should I bring a dictionary?
More optional, but yeah, you'll probably get thirsty and it can help keep your energy up. Just be careful to remove all labels etc. and make sure it's a clear bottle.What's the deal with watches?
You can bring in a watch (which I would recommend since you might be at the back of the room far away from a clock) but you'll have to take it off and leave it on your desk. You know, just in case you've smuggled in three essays under the wristband.
Digital watches are not allowed since they have alarm settings and/or beep on the hour. Some schools aren't so strict about this, but better to be on the safe side.Phones?
GETTING STRESSED dessertS gnitteG
I'm sure a lot of this will be stuff you've heard all year, but I'll reiterate it anyway because it's worth hearing. You are not your ATAR. You are not your Study Score. This system is unfair for a number of reasons, but that doesn't mean you can't learn to play by its rules and make it work for you.
Don't go overboard, or you run the risk of burnout.
Set manageable goals and study plans so that you don't freak yourself out by not making deadlines or being behind on your work.
To invoke the words of a particularly crass old ex-teacher of mine: "stress is just caused by giving a fuck."
In more palatable terms, being worried about your grades and your future is a good
thing. Letting these worries get the better of you, however, can be quite detrimental.
THINGS TO DO THAT AREN'T PRACTICE ESSAYS note: works best in conjunction with a hell of a lot of practice essays as wellGenerating prompts
I would highly encourage you all to try this task. For anyone doing a Section A text in its 1st or 2nd year, this will probably be a necessity given the sparse resources available. For those with 3rd & 4th year texts, you're task is trying to come up with new and original prompts.
A good starting point would be to begin with these four categories: characters, themes, structural features, and views & values.
-For charaters, list all of the major ones in the text, possibly some minor ones, or a general category for 'others' (eg. for prompts like 'The minor characters in A Christmas Carol have the most influence over Scrooge
' or 'It is the minor characters in This Boy's Life that show us the importance of family.
-Do the same for themes. Try to approach it from all angles; VCAA are trying to trip you up, remember. Even if you have a seemingly surface level theme like 'justice' or 'family,' try and make this more complex. Break the theme up into different levels, then start examinine all its different components.
-Some texts lend themselves better to structural discussion than others, but everything on the list has at least one or two key features to discuss. Think about the importance of the form/genre, or the way the characters are presented and depicted in the language.
-Views and values will require a bit more effort. Taking into account all of these above ideas, what is the author trying to get across, and how/why is this done? There might be an outright rejection or condemnation, or the message might be a subtler, more ambiguous one. Either way, having a solid grasp of the purpose behind a text will help immensely when constructuing a contention.
Attached is a basic table of the questions to ask yourself when coming up with prompts and focal points.
You can modify this format depending on your text. For example, Twelve Angry Men
might get a little cluttered if you're fitting every juror into the character box, so perhaps break them up into groups, or have a separate section altogether. Contrarily, there aren't really 'characters' in the poetry texts, so those thematic and structural boxes will require more attention.
When I compiled one of these last year, I ended up putting everything on a big piece of butcher's paper (stolen from the art room) and I was constantly adding to it right up until the exam.
This might seem like a lot of effort to go to, considering you'll only end up getting two prompts to chose from, but this is a really helpful exercise in terms of generating ideas and working out which areas of the text you haven't dealt with yet.
In the end, my T.R. prompt still surprised me, but it was a lot easier to think about what I was being asked to discuss, and how I could shift my discussion to familiar territory.Using others
Your peers can be of use in a variety of ways, so lets go through things temporally:
By reading their work, you'll be able to get a sense for where they were at at this stage, and where they ended up Study Score-wise. They can also be good to talk to about general exam preparation: what they did, what they found worked or didn't work, what their friends did, how prepared they felt, their impressions of the exam. Basically just a reconnaissance thing, but it can help put your mind at ease. Going over their essays and notes (if you have access to a past-year 12) can also be helpful, otherwise general databases online, AN or just googling sample essays is equally effective.
CURRENT STUDENTS/PEERS:These people are not your competition. They are your study-buddies. VCAA is the enemy, and you must conquer the beast together.
Bounce ideas off one another, mark each other's essays (nicely, but constructively) and debate topics. Even just general exam discussion (provided it doesn't descend into WE'RE ALL GOING TO FAIL madness) can help set your mind at ease.
This is slightly less common, but something I found helpful. My little brother asked me what the Context part of English was all about (this was probably August of my VCE year) and I realised I had no idea how to explain it. As my close personal friend Albert once said,
NB Grandmother=Brother for the sake of the anecdote.
The very next day I went to my teacher and we went through everything from the start, and once I felt confident in the task, it became a lot easier to manage. You might think it's late in the year to start clarifying the criteria or the task, but it's better late than never, and there are always gaps in your knowledge to be filled.
SWOT-VAC + DAY BEFORE THE EXAM C-Day geddit, cause it's a day before D-Day
Depending on your exam schedule, you'll probably be devoting a considerably amount of time during the SWOT-VAC week to your English studies. Don't ignore your other subjects though, especially if you're doing Psych, Eco, Bio, or Further. Your study timetable (or at least, the rough outline you have in your head of what you have to do and when) will depend on how confident you're feeling in each of your subjects. Even if you feel like you're set for English, I'd still recommend writing a bunch of practice essays/paragraphs/plans during SWOT-VAC since it's the last chance you'll have. When it's all over...?
Don't let the post-exam discussions mess with your head. Getting paranoid about whether you answered that prompt properly or misquoted that line in the L.A. article isn't going to do you any good. By all means have a chat with your friends and bask in the knowledge that it's over!
But don't forget, you'll still have another 4 or 5 exams to get through. You're allowed to kick back for a little while; maybe take the afternoon off unless you've got another exam that week. Allow yourself time to de-English your brain, then you can have a proper cathartic bonfire night for all those practice essays after the exam period has finished.