Countdown to the English Exam – Part 1

By Lauren White in Study
29th of September 2016
English exam

Fun fact! The English exam is LESS THAN 3 WEEKS AWAY!

…did I say fun? I meant terrifying…

But on the plus side, just think: in less than 21 days, you’ll probably never have to write another essay in your life. And you can forget about all the quotes you’ve memorised and all the examples you’ve been revising…

The only thing standing in your way is that dreaded 3 hour marathon of an English exam on October 26th.

So what can you do between now and then to maximise your results and get through the next few weeks as painlessly as possible?

Well, here are five tips to help you out, coupled with some super dramatic motivational quotes.

1. Know the English exam specifications


As my close personal friend and 500BC Chinese military philosopher buddy Sun Tzu once said, if you know what your VCE English exam is all about, and you know what you’re capable of, you’ll easily smash it. (I’m paraphrasing a bit.)

Your first port of call should be VCAA’s site of past exams. Everything from 2008 onwards will be relevant to the current Study Design, so take a look through all the Section B prompts for whichever Context you’re studying (i.e. ‘The Imaginative Landscape,’ ‘Whose Reality,’ ‘Encountering Conflict,’ or ‘Identity and Belonging’).

You should also go through all the Section C (Language Analysis) material to see what kind of things they might give you. For instance, you could get a speech, as in 2012, or a newsletter piece like 2008. You might be given a piece with a very explicit and obvious contention where the author is seeking to bring about a very definitive consequence, like in 2013. Or, you might get a very broad and abstract contention about general ideas rather than specific scenarios, like the 2009 exam. This’ll also give you a good sense of the length of the material, so be sure to write a couple of practice pieces to get a feel for how quickly and efficiently you can write.

Unfortunately, there won’t be too many past exams for your Section A (Text Response) texts since they’re all on a four year rotation, so you’ll only to be able to go back as far as 2013 at most. And if you’re studying a text that’s in its first year, there won’t be any past VCAA prompts at all! So instead, swing by our prompts thread and start working your way through all the sample topics for your chosen text.

Your ultimate goal here is to become so familiar with what VCAA could possibly give you in the English exam that nothing will surprise you! What’s more, every time you deal with an unfamiliar prompt, or every time you try and tackle an essay topic about a theme or idea you’re not so confident with, you’re effectively one step closer to being prepared for anything.

Just think: every prompt/topic/idea/bit of material that you cover now is one less possible surprise curve-ball for the examiners to throw at you.

But it’s also important to know your own capabilities and limitations. In the English exam, you will have to make decisions based on your understanding of the task, as well as your understanding of yourself. For instance, when you get two Text Response prompts, how will you know which one to write on? When you get your Context prompt, how will you choose which ideas and examples to draw from? When you get the Language Analysis material, what language features are you going to comment on?


Being hyper-aware about what best suits your writing style will greatly aid you in hitting those criteria. So try to familiarise yourself with the exam itself as well as your own strengths over the coming weeks.


2. Question everything!

This is also true on two different levels.

On the one hand – questioning prompts for Sections A and B is a great habit to get into ASAP, because I can guarantee that you’ll have to do this in the English exam if you want to push your essays into upper-range territory.

Simply put, one of the biggest factors that separates the mid-range Text Response and Context essays is the extent to which you’re engaging with the prompt, and being able to pick apart what a prompt is implying will help immensely.

The good essays are ones that can write about the key words in a prompt.

The outstanding essays are ones that write about the meaning hidden within a prompt!

As such, there are a couple of key questions you should try to ask yourself, like


– What does this tell us about the characters?

– What is the author saying about this theme?

– To what extent is this true of all of the characters?

– Why might this prompt be true?

– If this is true, then what?

– What is the overall point that the text is making about this idea?


– If this is true, what does this tell us about the Context?

– Are there any exceptions to this? If so, what are they, and why are they exceptions?

– Is this true in all circumstances? Why, or why not?

– What are the contributing factors or the consequences of this concept?

– What does this tell us about people and the world?


However, this rule also applies to English as a whole – if you don’t understand something, ask! Waaaaay too many people will get all the way to the end of the year before realising that they don’t know what they’re meant to be doing in a Language Analysis introduction, or that they don’t know how to write Topic Sentences for their Text Response essays. And while it’s never too late to learn, the sooner you start asking these questions, the sooner you’ll be able to improve and feel more confident?

If you’ve got a decent English teacher or a great network of friends in your English class who know their stuff, then maybe check with them. Otherwise, you can always use the English Q and A thread to your advantage.


3. Start now!

This one’s pretty simple, and I’m hoping the time pressure will compel you to do this anyway, but…

…no matter where you’re at right now or how confident/unconfident you’re feeling – start working on your weaknesses ASAP!

It’s heaps better to be working consistently over the next few weeks doing low-intensity but still highly efficient study, than to keep procrastinating and having to freak out, stress out, and cram like crazy at the last minute.

If you don’t know where to begin, ask yourself: “what’s my worst case scenario?”

Like, what sort of prompts or exam material would utterly terrify you or make you flip tables in complete frustration and defeat? Because right now, you have all the resources you need to be able to work on those possibilities. But once you’re in there, that won’t be the case. So if you can iron out a plan of attack now, you’ll be in a much better position by the end of October.


4. Explain your evidence

Another one of those separating factors between mid-range and high-range pieces is that the mid-range/C+ students will be able to put quotes in their essays, but it’s only the upper-range/A+ ones who know how to use quotes effectively!

If you’re like most students, you’ll probably be doing a lot of quote memorisation over the next couple of weeks. But remember that being able to recall and write down a quote is really only the first step of using evidence. Most of the marks will be gained in the process of explaining evidence and taking the assessors through your thought processes. And whilst you undoubtedly need those quotes there as your starting points, you shouldn’t neglect your other skills. The same goes for all of your subjects that involve memorisation, in fact. Usually, the assessors are more concerned with your ability to integrate and evaluate evidence, meaning that it’s worth practising those skills too.


5. Effort makes a difference

Finally, don’t be too disheartened or demotivated if your performance thus far hasn’t quite been everything you’d hoped. The three essays you will write in the English exam are worth more than all your SACs combined! Over 50% of your Study Score is up for grabs in the exam (since your SAC results will moderate accordingly), so thinking ‘ah well, I’ve only been getting Ds and Cs all year, so why bother trying to do better now?’ is totally ridiculous.

This is the time of year when you’ll be consolidating what you’ve learnt and tying all your skills together, and this is the most likely time for your grades to be steadily improving if you’re putting in the work. So study smart, and remember to make the most of all the resources you can.

Let us know if you have any questions about your upcoming exams, and stay tuned for more revision tips over the next few weeks!