Posts Tagged Student

Introducing first impressions

Right from the start the marker is putting you in a box.

“We take it for granted we know the whole story – We judge a book by its cover and read what we want between selected lines.”

– Axl Rose

We do it, and so do markers. It is no different with your essays, whether they are written in an exam or done as an assignment.

First impressions are lasting impressions.

Therefore, the introduction is the most important part of your essay. From the introduction the marker is making judgements on:

  • Your grasp of the subject (how much time you spent asleep in class)
  • Whether you understand the essay question (if you don’t you’re stuffed)
  • Your competency in English (written academic English not your version of English)
  • Your level of intelligence (using a thesaurus doesn’t show you’re smart)
  • Your attitude (whether you have the time of your life writing essays)
  • The amount of effort you have put in (write lots of quality content; not lots of bullsh*t)

So after the first paragraph the marker can already put you and your essay in a box – it’s an A, B, C, D or N, A, M, E essay.

Make sure they are putting you in the best box because the rest of the of the essay, no matter how awesome, is unlikely to change your mark by much because:

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

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Exam warfare (Part II): generals' briefing

15mm Greek Hoplites painted by jwrait a long time ago...

So we know that preparation is important if you want your essays to win. We discussed how sitting an exam is a battle to win marks by persuading your marker. You’re the General – that’s your job.

So if you’re the General, what’s the essay? Your essay is your army. The war metaphor is one that I find useful because it provides an analogy for different levels of functionality within your essay. Here’s the extended metaphor (great for those of you studying English Literature):

  1. The whole essay is your army. If the essay is pointed in the right direction, answers the question, and the sub-parts work together well, then that is what will win the war for the marks.
  2. Paragraphs are regiments of troops. Each deployed regiment has a specific aim – they provide developed ‘mini-arguments’ and evidence to back up the overall thrust of the essay.
  3. Each word is a warrior and sentences are ranks of “word-troops”. There are different types of warriors, with different advantages and disadvantages. You want to use them in a combination that allows each to them to combine their strengths and minimise any weaknesses. We’ll go into diction, syntax, and other aspects of expression in future posts.

How do you organise your ideas to get the most marks out of them? We’ll go into more specific strategies at various levels in the army in future posts, but here’s one broad one to get you started:

Set your troops in formations based on concepts that you are discussing. Know what piece of “intellectual ground” the words and sentences have to hold – enable them to capture the key ideas and express them compellingly on paper. This clever manoeuvring and structuring will surpass the effectiveness of the individual words themselves.

There are different types of ideas/concepts/components that you should structure your essay around to get maximum marks, but for that you have to understand SEX (the sequel is here). To discover another simple trick that can dramatically improve your essays, go to “Cooking up the perfect essay”.

Now you’re thinking more like a General, you’ll be able to make the strategic decisions that earn more marks.

“Onwards and upwards!”

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The art of the essay ninja



Image via Wikipedia


Here’s another way to make you a black belt in writing essays in exams: hone your technical analysis skills.

Why is this important?

Technical analysis ability is obviously important for Literature essays where you are given an unfamiliar text in the exam. However, it’s a valuable skill for all essay-writers, including those who write on other subjects besides English Literature.

As every essay ninja knows, if you “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish…”. Similarly, if you “give a student a pre-prepared essay, you help them scrounge a mark; but give a student technical analysis skills and they can adapt, write on anything, and thrive.” Using memorised and regurgitated essays in exams results in insubstantial pieces of writing that don’t fit well with what the question asks. It’s a risky one-hit-wonder approach – you’ve got to pray that you’ll get the right question on the right text (or theory or topic in other subjects). It also takes ages to memorise the content. Using technical analysis skills saves time – which can then be used for other things!

Please note: knowing which questions are likely for the given texts is a very good thing, but it’s only the beginning. It’s an aide to focus your study on the most critical material. However, your study should aim to develop the skills to write well, not recall second-hand ideas well. Examiners what to know whether you can think, not just what you think.

How do you develop this valuable skill?

  • Have a list of techniques that you have memorised and understand comfortably. Can you explain each technique and think of an example for each one?
  • Give yourself a quick injection of Analysis practice using short texts: tear poems apart (not literally – although it’s tempting at times).
  • Master the art of scribbling bullet-point essay plans in the margins around a poem:
    • these should be quick to do, so that you have plenty of time to write the actual essay
    • they should be detailed enough to guide your whole essay
    • use short hand and key words
    • You also need to be able to read them!
  • Check your progress by asking yourself “Am I able to write a compelling essay based on the notes I’ve made?”

As always, do use this study method under pressure. Is there enough pressure on you to do that yet?

Keep studying hard – it’ll all be over soon. 🙂

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Deadly deadlines: studying for exam essays

Studying for Exams

Studying for Exams

“You can’t study for English exams”. I’ve heard this supposed axiom uttered many times. Well, actually, yes you can study for English, although I agree that the strategies are quite different to those for other subjects. Here’s a quick overview of some that I’ve used, they can be adapted to suit other essay-based subjects too. We’ll go into more detail on these in future, but here are some pointers to start off with.


1) Know the themes of the set texts

2) Know the important techniques used in the texts

3) Memorise some quotations

4) Hone your technical analysis skills

5) Practice writing under pressure!


On that last point: there is absolutely no substitute for this! You will be examined by having to write an essay under time pressure; so practice writing an essay under time pressure. Exams come with deadly deadlines, so your study strategies should address the critical issue of TIME PRESSURE. For all other study tasks, spend only the smallest amount of time necessary to get to this all-important practice stage. You will not be asked to carefully craft beautiful study notes in the exam! To ease the burden slightly, I suggest you start this phase of your study by writing practice paragraphs and then doing a few full essays closer to the exam.


Yes, I know writing academic essays under pressure can be painful initially, but once you get into it, it really isn’t that bad. All you think about is what you’re writing and the time that’s left; you don’t have room in your mind to mull over how repulsive the exercise first seemed. Besides, this is one of the most effective ways to study, so you don’t need to spend so much time studying overall to get the same result.  Thus, it will actually free up your time to do other things. That’s what I like – “work hard, play hard”.


All the best for you studies!

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