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10 things to do before your VCE English exam

Monday 9th, November 2020

ATAR Notes - VCE

The below article is an opinion piece based on a previous student’s experiences, and should be taken as such.

This guide is not going to be filled with a bunch of DO-OR-DIE activities that’ll make or break your mark, but regardless of how you’ve gone in English thus far, there are some things you can do to lift your performance and hopefully boost your confidence for the exam!

1. Revise quotes

No matter what kinds of prompts VCAA throw at you in the exam, you’ll need to use quotes in all of your essays, and you can be penalised if you’re not quoting often enough or well enough. So go back to your Section A and B texts or, ideally, your notes and annotations, and just run through some key moments or ideas one more time. Maybe create a quote bank if you haven’t already, just so you know what you have to draw from. And if you realise there’s one particular character or theme that you only have, like, two quotes for… now’s your chance to fill in that gap! In the exam, you won’t have the text (or ATAR Notes) at your disposal, so if there are any details in your text that you’re uncertain about, or any concept you feel like you couldn’t discuss – THIS IS YOUR CHANCE TO ASK! Drop us a line here or in the English Q&A and we’ll be able to help you out!

2. List all the themes. All of them.

You. Yes you. Right now. List all of the themes in your Text Response and Comparative texts. Go. Do it. Now.
How many did you come up with? Doesn’t matter. It’s not enough. Do it again. Add an extra 10. Okay, do it again. Another 10. Keep going. Don’t stop until you physically cannot think of any other possible themes or key concepts.

What you’ve just done is a very helpful exercise in plotting out potential exam prompts. Your Section A prompts will almost always have or hint at a minimum of one core theme, and Context prompts frequently revolve around key ideas or key words. So be forcing yourself to list as many as possible, you’ll often end up uncovering a bunch of terms and concepts that you may not have otherwise thought about.

…which means, you’re effectively eliminating ways that the assessors can catch you off guard!

This is something I make all students do around this time of year, because once you’re feeling fairly confident with your text/pair, you want to try and uncover some of the secondary concerns or potential synonyms VCAA might throw at you.

You’re not allowed to just stop at a list of five themes either. Try and hit double digits, at least. Aim for 20 if you’re feeling ambitious. It may feel silly, but this can genuinely broaden the way you think about your text and your context. And you may get lucky and end up stumbling on the idea that the assessors include on the exam, so this is an excellent low-effort/high-reward activity to keep your mind occupied.


^advice for life.

But really – RIGHT NOW, you have access to a tonne of resources that you won’t have tomorrow morning. So make the most of them! Go through:
• Your notes from class
• Essays/SACs you’ve written this year
• Any handouts from class or notes your teacher has given you
English resources
• Other students’ essays
Past exams and assessor’s reports
Practice prompts
• Random internet links/videos about your text/pair

4. Don’t write essays

Unless you learn best by writing essays and you feel like it would legitimately benefit your knowledge and mental health to sit down and write a bunch of essays today… I’d seriously advise refraining from completing any whole pieces. Maybe it’ll help you to go through a prompt or two, or just do a quick one-hour time trial for your weakest section… but often this only ends up stressing students out. And realistically, if there are skills that you haven’t yet acquired, it’s sometimes more sensible to just say ‘cool, I’m probably not going to be able to learn and perfect this in a couple of hours, so I’ll just focus on what I know and do that really effectively tomorrow!’

You’re way more likely to burn out and get frustrated or panicked if you try and do half a dozen practice exams today anyway. What’s more, this is usually a very inefficient way to study, so instead…

5. Plan essays

Go through as many prompts as you can find, and just PLAN! Mental plans are fine, if you come across material you find pretty accessible, but you may also want to practise writing down some contentions and sub-arguments, or annotating some Analysing Argument material.

There’s absolutely nothing that writing essays can help with that you can’t accomplish by planning (except for timing concerns, but if your only concern right now is that it might take you a little longer than an hour per piece, then you should be totally fine in the exam! Finishing and polishing everything isn’t a requirement, so don’t stress if you feel a tad rushed!)

So instead of trying to churn through practice exams or past papers, just focus on planning strategies. I can personally attest to this being beneficial as I don’t think I would’ve written more than ~10 full practice essays in total throughout Year 12 English… but I must’ve done about 100 essay plans, so prioritise the latter if you feel like doing work today 😛

On a related note…

6. Sample reading time exercise

Okay, for this you will need:
1. Two prompts for your Section A text
2. Two prompts for your Section B pair
3. Two pages’ worth of AA material

Essentially, give yourself an exam’s worth of stuff to read, set the clock at 15 minutes, and go! No notes, no pens, no ATAR Notes – nothing! Just see how you go sitting there and reading/thinking about potential exam material as though you were in the real reading time tomorrow.

Consider what sorts of things you need to find or understand in order to get started writing as soon as possible. That way, you’ll know exactly what to prioritise tomorrow once reading time begins.

(This can also help de-mystify reading time and desensitise you to dealing with exam material, so if you’re prone to stressing out, this might be worth doing at some stage today!)

7. Sort out logistics

Have you got all your pens? All of them? Even the 20 back-up pens that you’re bringing just in case? Got a dictionary? (PLEASE BRING A DICTIONARY!) Got a label-less water bottle? Student ID card (if your school/exam hall requests that you bring yours)? Any optional stuff like highlighters or a snack to eat afterwards? How are you getting to the exam? What time do you need to leave to get there? However long you think it’ll take, give yourself an extra 15 minutes leeway just in case.

And what are you planning on doing for the rest of the day? Got some neat, motivational and/or relaxing videos to watch or songs to listen to? Planning on taking your dog for a walk or chatting to a friend tonight? What are you having for dinner? What are you having for breakfast tomorrow?

Plan it all out, and you’ll save yourself a lot of unnecessary worrying and running around later tonight or early tomorrow morning, plus you can give yourself a nice reward to look forward to afterwards!

8. English detox

After all that, you may just feel a little too worn down and ‘over it’ to bother doing any more work… which is totally understandable. So in order to keep your brain in good condition for tomorrow, just leave all your English stuff alone. Close your books. (*Don’t burn them… yet). Go for a walk, consume some nutrients, do a jigsaw – whatever! Just occupy your mind with other tasks so you don’t end up stressing yourself into performing badly. You should NOT feel guilty about not studying right now. Rest assured that you know what you know, and take some time out to focus on your own wellbeing!

9. Ask yourself: “what’s my worst case scenario?”

And for the final thought exercise of the day… what’s your worst case scenario? What kind of exam material would utterly terrify you and make you flip tables in frustration? Well, you have people and resources to help you deal with that scenario right now, so start there!

This isn’t designed to make you think ‘oh no, what if this happens??’ but rather, to think ‘okay, if I got something that was this bad… what would I do?’

It’s partly about exposing yourself to a bunch of difficult material now so there’s less chance of you being surprised tomorrow, but it’s also about ensuring you have the mental fortitude to work through this difficult stuff so that even if VCAA do manage to give you something utterly cruel and ridiculous, you’ll be able to beat them at their own game by doing your best!

10. Take care of yourself!

Last but definitely not least, take it easy! Feeling anxious to be done with English 4eva and get it all out of the way is a good thing, but feeling cripplingly worried and insanely stressed out isn’t going to do anyone any good. You shouldn’t be doing anything that’s only going to make you feel more worried – your state of mind is incredibly important, so treat it as such!

Tomorrow is your chance to showcase what you know. See it as a chance to show off and impress the assessors with your capabilities. If you can head in there with that kind of clarity, I have no doubt that all your effort will pay off.

So take some deep breaths and trust yourself! We’re all here for you! After the exam, let us know how you went in the VCE Exam Discussion 2020 section.

Best of luck, everybody!

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