Every GCSE student in the UK, and many A Level students, will have to write at least one or two exam essays in the coming months – and probably several more. They tend not to be designed to catch you out, or test you on anything you haven’t learnt, and on most of them it’s even possible to get full marks.
There are some obvious things to bear in mind – bring working pens, if it’s a 2 hour paper with 2 equally weighted questions, spend about an hour on each, and keep an eye on the clock – but there’s also some less obvious things.
So what’s the key to nailing these essays?
- READ THE QUESTION!
This is the most important one. If you don’t read the question – and read it properly – you cannot do very well. Take some time to figure out exactly what it’s asking you to do. Don’t look for a keyword, then write everything you can remember about that topic. Don’t ‘discuss’ when it’s an ‘analyse’ question. And definitely, definitely, definitely don’t answer two questions when it’s an either/or paper (and don’t answer one question if you’re meant to be doing two).
- ANSWER THE QUESTION!
Don’t answer the question you WANT, answer the question YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN. If the concluding line of a paragraph can’t be directly linked back to the question, there’s a good chance it’s not relevant. It’s often worth making that link explicitly, to show the marker you know the connection between your point and the question, even if it seems blatantly obvious.
Don’t put in that brilliant comparison to another text if it isn’t relevant (it’ll just look like you don’t understand the question). Don’t digress and talk about something else, just because it’s interesting. Certainly don’t verbatim copy another essay you’ve done on the subject if the exam essay you’re supposed to be answering is a totally different question.
This sounds obvious, but a remarkable number of people refuse to do it. Take 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning to plan – and structure – your exam essay: paragraph by paragraph, point by point, quote by quote (if it’s English). THIS IS NOT TIME WASTED. It means you won’t realise mid-essay you’ve forgotten something key that was meant to go at the beginning, and it can help you time the rest of the essay (eg, realising you have about 7 minutes of writing per paragraph). It will also help you know what to say in your introduction, and how your conclusion is likely to go.
Knowing roughly what you need to say before you actually start writing will help you say it, and in a clear and orderly fashion.
- Keep it simple
You are not writing a thesis. Or a novel. Or a pitch to NASA. You are writing an essay assessing your ability at the age of either 16 or 18, and no one is expecting you to be providing brilliant new insights on the topic. Indeed, the Point – Evidence – Explanation (PEE) formula for writing a good paragraph is sufficient for the vast majority of GCSE and A Level essay questions. The most important thing is to be clear about what you are saying, and why it’s relevant to the question.
Of course, use technical vocabulary where it’s relevant, but you don’t need to get verbose for its own sake. You’ll lose more credit misusing technical vocabulary than not using it at all, so stick with what you’re sure about. Don’t make radical, previously unheard of claims about a subject that aren’t backed up by what you already know…they are almost invariably wrong, and will make you look very silly, and like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
- Don’t waffle
A brilliant essay at this level does not need to be long; do not worry about length, worry about focus. It will always be possible to say everything required to get a top mark in the time allocated, but not if you waffle, repeat yourself, or start going off on wild, unrelated tangents. If you’ve covered everything you want to, and said everything that you think is relevant to the question, then that’s enough – don’t worry about beefing up the answer with trivial extra information because it looks too short. If you have a few minutes left at the end, it’s much better instead to proofread…
Some people will write right up to the final seconds, and that’s fine, if it’s your style. However, if you have a couple of minutes to spare at the end, proofread. It’s amazing what you can miss along the way, and the mistakes you can make when your brain is buzzing with answers, and sometimes working faster than your writing hand. It may be spelling errors, loose grammar or forgotten full stops, but it’s worth ironing out these minor mistakes if you have the time. Spelling, punctuation and grammar is important, and it’ll make the essay look that much sharper.
- Don’t Panic!
Don’t freak out if it’s a question you weren’t expecting. Don’t have an existential crisis because that one essay you really planned for hasn’t come up. Don’t put your head on your desk and sob because you can’t remember a quote.
Take a deep breath and do your best – you’ll probably realise you remember far more than you realised, and can shape a lot of what you know to suit the question you’re answering. You have a time limit, so no one is expecting you to write a word-perfect answer: just plan your essay, focus on answering the question and do your best…it’s probably much better than you think!
If you’re looking for an expert GCSE/A Level tutor to help out with essays, humanities, or any other subject for that matter, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the Temple of Minerva on 0208 819 3276, or send us an email at email@example.com
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.