Exam Top Tips

Got an English exam coming up? Get some inspirations from our ‘top
ten’ exam essay writing tips.

A lot of writing an exam essay isn’t that different to writing
a coursework essay, so we recommend that you take a look at our
‘How to write an essay’ file as well.

1. Before the exam make sure that you are confident about your
spelling and punctuation. Make sure you can spell the names of the characters and the name of the author. Here’s a list of frequently misspelt words.

2. When you get into the exam, don’t immediately start writing.
Don’t even have your pen in your hand. Think and plan before you start writing.

3. Make sure you understand what the question really asks
– and respond to it. Don’t answer the question that you would have liked to have been asked (we read essays like this all the time). If the question is something like ‘How does Shakespeare create humour in this scene?’ you don’t necessarily have to
agree that the scene is funny – so long as you’re confident that you can prove your argument. In this case, you would have to
argue that lines or effects which might seem humorous were in fact not humorous at all. It would also be fair enough to say that although
there was humour in the passage, there was also irony, or suspense, or fear, so long as you tie this in to the opening question about
the humour of the passage. For example, you might demonstrate that the scene was also full of tension, and then argue that the humour
was heightened by the contrast with the tension.

4. Once you’ve decided your argument, jot down 5 or 6 main points which are directly relevant to that argument. Don’t
just include everything you’ve ever thought of about the play or the scene.

5. An exam essay, like any other essay, should have
a clear structure. After all, an examiner wants to see how clearly you can think, and how well you can make an argument. A well-structured
essay will make all the difference in your marks.

6. Now you can start writing the essay.
But don’t spend too much time thinking about the introduction. You need to
get started on the main body of your essay!

7. At A-level, don’t repeat the question word-for-word
as your introduction. For example, if the question is ‘How does Shakespeare create humour in this scene?’, try to avoid
an opening sentence that reads ‘Shakespeare creates humour in this scene in several ways’. Instead, try for a more interesting
introduction which shows that you have thought about why the sceneis humorous – perhaps ‘This scene, with its light-hearted
humour and lively characters, comes as a welcome relief after the murders we have witnessed in the preceding scene.’

8. If you find it difficult to structure an essay in an exam, go
for the easy way. Start a new paragraph for each
one of your points. Make sure that every point is backed
up by a quotation
, and the significance of the quotation
explained if necessary. For example:

Iago admits that he ‘love[s]’ Desdemona, but tries to deny that
this has anything to do with ‘absolute lust’ – although, as he admits,
he may be guilty of that too:

‘peradventure I stand accountant for as
great a sin’ (

If you don’t feel happy about using quotations, see our Quick Guide
to Quotations.

9. Leave enough time to write the conclusion to your essay.
Don’t just break off. However, the conclusion can be brief
– perhaps summing up the argument you have made in a sentence. If
you can, it’s a good idea to show the wider importance of the argument
you have made. For example, ‘We have seen that this scene is not
only humorous, but that the humour is increased by the tension.
Examining the scene in detail reminds us that Shakespeare wrote
for the public theatre of the day, and that as an experienced actor,
he was an expert in manipulating the emotions and expectations of
his audience in a way which is as powerful as it was then.’

10. And finally, remember that the examiners want you to
do well
, not badly. They want to read interesting essays
that suggest that you have really thought about the play or book
you’re reading – after all, your essay might say something
that they’ve never thought of themselves. So write a brilliant essay
and give your examiners a treat!