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10 Tips on Essay Writing Technique for Exams

Knowing that you have to write an essay as part of your exam paper might not fill you with joy (but if it does, then great – it will serve you very well!), but we have put together 10 top tips that will hopefully make it feel slightly less daunting for you.

Student who has finished his essay

Some of these tips are ones that you can do before your exam and incorporate into your revision, and others are things to remember when you’re in the exam hall, so hopefully they are helpful whatever stage of the exam process you’re in right now!


1) Revise Past Papers


Although this isn’t technically something that you will do during the exam, it’s a good idea to incorporate looking at past papers and mark schemes into your revision. By looking at past papers, it gives you an opportunity to see the style of question that you will most likely be asked in your exam, in order to then prepare accordingly.

One of the things you can look out for in these past papers is to notice the types of words that are being used, which are sometimes called ‘control’ words. These can be a variety of words, but some common examples are words like ‘Analyse’, ‘Describe’, ‘Explore’ and ‘Evaluate’. These control words are going to give you the clue you need to answer the question, based on what the word is asking you to do. With this knowledge, you can also take a look at the mark schemes to see how your exam board would expect the question to be answered. Most mark schemes should include the assessment objectives that are being assessed, any indicative content (suggested topics, themes and events), and how the marks are awarded. Hopefully this revision should arm you with confidence going into the exam as you already know exactly what is being asked of you.

2) Check your Assessment Objectives


Again, this is another thing that you would need to do before going into the exam, but knowing which assessment objectives (AOs) you are going to be, well, assessed on, is another excellent way to help with your writing. For example, if you know that one of your AOs is about context, then it’s really important that you brush up on your contextual knowledge! Do you know what the political situation was like at the time, and how did that inform events? What was happening in the author’s personal life at the time of writing?

Knowing which AOs you are expected to hit in your writing means that you won’t be wasting any time in writing about context (for example) unnecessarily, when all you need to focus on is form and structure! Checking which assessment objectives are going to be marked can also be a great way to learn how marks are going to be distributed (going back to our first point about checking past papers!).

3) Revise Some Solid Sentence Starters


It can feel a little daunting entering into an exam hall, and you may even feel a little bit anxious when you’re inside. Sometimes nerves can make us think that we have forgotten everything we have revised (which is not true - it’s all in there!), but by revising ways to begin your sentences and incorporating it into your practise, you will be able to get the ideas flowing much sooner! Good sentence starters can also help your writing to feel formal, as well as giving your arguments a much stronger starting point.


4) Read the Question (Then Read it Again)

I’m sure you’ve heard your teachers say this a lot, but the importance of this point cannot be stressed enough! When you’re in an exam, the chances are that you’re going to be feeling a little bit nervous, and maybe by the time you’ve got round to your essay questions at the end of the paper, you might be feeling a little bit rushed for time (more on this later), and this is when small mistakes can be made. However, by reading through the question at least twice, you are guaranteeing that you won’t have missed any crucial bits of information, or wasted your time writing about something you thought was being asked, but actually wasn’t.

For example, you might have a History paper that asked you about World War One between the years of 1916-18, but, for whatever reason, you mis-read it and wrote about the causes and the war from 1914. Although what you’re writing about may be factually correct, you unfortunately won’t be marked on it as that wasn’t what the question asked. But there is a simple solution! Read, re-read and, you guessed it, re-re-read the question. You can also circle or underline any key words within the question that you think might help you, for example any dates, character names, place names and even those control words that we spoke about earlier.

Student writing essay in exam


5) Write an Introduction

Although you may be familiar with writing introductions for coursework, they’re also a crucial component of any high-scoring essay question in your exam. This is for multiple reasons, but perhaps most importantly, they can actually be a tool to help you with your answer! An analogy that has been used for writing an essay question (although we can’t take credit for it!) is to think of it like you’re bowling. When you’re bowling, your goal is to get a strike, right? This happens by knocking down all the pins in your lane, which can only happen if you begin your play with a strong and steady throw straight down the middle. By thinking of the introduction as your throw, this will hopefully help you to see that how you begin your essay, or your play in bowling, will determine the course of the rest of your essay. By starting off strong and steady, you’re more likely to get a strike after the bowling ball has been set in motion.

So, how do you get your introduction to have that momentum that you need? One way is by using it to form your argument, and let the examiner know which direction you’ll be going in your essay. For example, if you get a question that asks you to ‘explore how far…’ you agree or disagree with something, you can outline your ideas within the introduction, perhaps by using phrases such as “Although some may argue that X was caused by Y, in this essay I will explore that Y was actually due to…”, which then gives you scope to explore all of the necessary routes whilst also showing the examiner your opinion.

Another way of setting your introduction in motion is to ensure that you reference the question within your answer, but without rephrasing the question. By using some of the key words within your introduction and your argument, you are showing the examiner that you fully understand what is being asked of you, and sets you off for a promising start! Remember, you want the examiner to be gripped and intrigued when they read your exam, as the likelihood is that they have read hundreds before yours, so give them something memorable!

The last tip for writing a successful introduction is to include, where relevant, any contextual information that is needed to ‘land’ you in the question. This might be a brief sentence to give background to an historical event, or some context about an author or playwright, but don’t go into masses of detail in the first few sentences! It is called an introduction for a reason – you are introducing your ideas!


6) Remember to ‘PEE’!


I know, I know, it’s a cheap joke, but PEEing is vital in your exams! If you haven’t heard of it before, PEE stands for Point, Evidence, Explain, and is the standard structure used for essay writing across multiple subjects. You may have been taught it using the form PEA, PEEL or PETAL, but they all do the same thing, which is to ensure that your answers are well-developed, well-formed and full of detail.

So what does it mean to ‘PEE’? Whatever the question is about, the first thing you should be writing, after your introduction is your ‘point’, which is exactly how it sounds! Your point is signalling to the examiner which direction you are going to go in; for example, if you had an English Literature question about violence in Macbeth, one point might be something along the lines of ‘Shakespeare presents the character of Macbeth as violent from the opening scenes of the play’. The examiner then knows that, in this paragraph, you will be talking about Macbeth’s violent nature from Act 1 Scene 2. Then, in order to back up your point (which you have to do throughout your essay), you need your ‘evidence’. This can come in the form of a quote; for example, if we were to continue talking about Macbeth, you might say something like: ‘This violence is shown in the Captain’s line “unseam’d him from the knave to the chaps”’. The evidence can also take the form of dates, sources, and any other factual evidence that you have to support your previous point.

Finally, we get on to the ‘explain’ part of the paragraph, which you might know as analysis. This is where you would use a variety of skills and techniques to analyse the significance of the evidence that you have presented. If we were to finish off talking about Macbeth, this is where you would put the skills that you have learnt in school into action, using things like close-word analysis, and investigating form and structure.

Whichever method you have been taught, structuring your paragraphs can not only help if you’re feeling a bit frazzled in the exam (more on this later), but they can massively elevate your writing and show off your full potential!


Student stressed whilst researching essay

7) Practise Good Spelling and Grammar


Although spelling and grammar (SPAG) isn’t going to provide a tonne of marks in your exam, in some cases the correct use of SPAG can give up to 5 extra marks, which is a lovely amount to have added on to your overall score!

There are, of course, instances where focusing on spelling might make you a little anxious as you may have some difficulty with it, but one way of making yourself feel more confident as you go in to your exam is to revise key words and their spelling, such as authors and texts, key countries and events and techniques such as rhetorical questions, for example. If you are able to incorporate this into your revision, it’s a sure fire way of making you feel as confident as possible before entering the exam room!


8) Try Not to Rush

Now, this may seem counterintuitive when your exams are timed, but there is a difference between speed and rushing! When we rush, that’s when mistakes tend to happen, such as misreading the question or forgetting to include certain points that you knew you wanted to include. One way of overcoming this is to make a plan before you begin your essay. This should only take a minute or two of your time, but it can make all the difference when you’re in full flow with writing and can have something to refer to in order to give you structure and direction. Try and allow yourself a little time at the end to do a quick scan of your essay to make sure that you haven’t made any glaring mistakes, and to add in any necessary quotation marks, commas or new paragraphs.


9) Be Prepared to be Flexible


This is really about making sure that you are able to maintain an ease in your writing and thought, allowing you to apply your knowledge to whichever question that comes up. Although your teachers and tutors can make an estimated guess at what might come up in an exam based on past papers, no one knows for certain until the day of the exam, which means that you will have to find a way of adapting your knowledge and any pre-planned answers to suit the question. It might even be that wording of the question feels a little odd to you, but if you break it down and allow yourself some flexibility, you will be able to make it work with the knowledge you already possess.


10) Remember to Breathe!


It sounds obvious, but it is so important to do whatever you can to stay calm in the exam, and not get overwhelmed by what’s in front of you. Take a few deep breaths before turning over the paper so that you’re in a good headspace, and remember to use those breaths if you are feeling a little stuck, confused or stressed throughout the paper. You’ll be amazed at how a little breathing can help clear your mind and open up lots of ideas that you didn’t even know you had swimming around in your head!

Happy students after exams

We hope you found these tips helpful before you begin your exams! If you’re still feeling uncertain about aspects of your essay writing, Titanium Tutors have a wide range of excellent tutors available – both online and in person – for any period of time. This could include a short burst of revision sessions in the run up to exams, to provide you with any extra support you need. Contact us here for more information, and keep an eye on our blog for more top tips to score top marks in your GCSEs or A Levels.



 
Cicely

Blog Post Crafted by Cicely


Cicely works on our Admin Team, and also tutors extensively.


In 2020, Cicely discovered her love of teaching, and has been tutoring English Literature and Drama ever since, as well as running a drama school audition help service with her friend and fellow actor to help prospective drama school students with their audition speeches.


Cicely has had her poetry published in anthologies and online, and in her free time is an avid reader. She loves living by the sea, a good podcast, and taking long walks in the countryside.



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