Exam tips from an English Literature student
With the exam season upon us, it’s past time for me to start thinking about revision. University English literature exams are quite different from A-level exams, and recently I’ve been thinking about those differences and the habits that A-levels ingrained in me.
Starting revision far enough in advance is pretty important, especially with multiple subjects to study for. Yet for students of English, it’s often quite hard to form together a concrete revision plan, and this was the case for my GCSE and A-levels too. I’ve always found literature the hardest subject to revise. The thing about literature courses is that there’s not a concrete set of information that has to be learnt in the same way that you learn specific formulae in maths and science or the exact process that creates a waterfall in geography. Of course you need to know the books well enough to write about them, but what then? Making up an argument and memorising it doesn’t work because you won’t always be given a relevant essay title in the exam to fit it into. Instead you need to think about what an essay requires you to do.
Thinking back to my A-level in literature, there were some key things that I remember being important, some of which is still relevant to university study:
Always focus on the question – you have loads of great textual knowledge, that’s great, but the examiner expects that of you anyway. What they really want you to do is pick from your bank of knowledge things that are relevant to the question. It’s tricky, and I still find it difficult to do in university essays; most of the time I don’t even realise that I’m going off on tangents. Just make sure you always bring it back to the question. To really make it clear to yourself and to the examiner, I find it helpful to include keywords from the question/title in the final line of a paragraph, just to neatly round off the point I was making and link it back.
And please please please don’t underestimate the value of a strong introduction and conclusion.
Comparative essays – when writing an essay comparing one or more texts, be careful not to talk more about one text than the other. I found this hard when writing a particularly long paragraph making a point about one text, but this runs the risk of seeming unbalanced in a comparative essay. To try and combat this, if you’re making a point about one text, throw in references to the other, just to show you’re considering them both in relation to one another.
Take some time to plan before you write – man am I guilty of not doing this…*sweats*. When answering my final exam question, I had a choice of three essay titles (if I remember correctly). I started to answer one of them spontaneously, thinking I would find loads to say about it. Then I panicked, crossed out the two paragraphs I’d written and started another question. That question too proved to be difficult, and I crossed that out as well. Then I rewrote my original two paragraphs from the first question I tried and got on with it. I must have wasted about twenty minutes of the hour I had. The fact that I crossed out so much probably didn’t have any bearing on my final mark, because they were not supposed to mark anything that was crossed out, but whenever I think back on the experience, I feel sick. My point is, just plan your essay for 5 minutes rather than just diving straight in. Learn from my mistake…please 🙂
Know what is expected of you – what really sucked about A-level essays is that they wanted you to include certain percentages of context, critical interpretations, close analysis, etc. I don’t know if this is true of the current courses from the different exam boards, but if you’re unsure, ask your teacher. Just be prepared, know what you have to do in the exam, and never be afraid to ask for help from your teachers. That’s what they’re getting paid to do, and if they’re not doing it, bother them until they do.
Exams often seem unfair and out to get you, but if ever you feel overwhelmed, just remember that ultimately, what an exam is there to do is test you on your knowledge of a text and your ability to construct an argument. Be confident in what you know, and remind yourself that you know far more about the subject than someone who has never studied it (particularly useful in pub quizzes), and that knowledge has value that can never be measured by a few hours in an exam hall.