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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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Essays of the worst kind – know your enemy

You have a question, pen, paper, and a set amount of time to turn in an A+ essay. Then multiply that by 2, 3, or even 4 depending on how nice your teacher/examiner/lecturer is.

How do you do it?

Well it starts right now.  For the Southern Hemisphere, Term 4 has started and exams are just around the corner for both high school and university. Kill Facebook, tear yourself away from House, Glee, the view out the window, and whatever else you have found that is so much better than study, and let’s hit the books.

Unlike other examination methods, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to studying for an exam essay. One of the reasons essays are set in exams is because it is one of the best ways for a marker to assess whether you understand what you have been learning the over the year or semester. The reason they don’t just give you another assignment essay is because, as my Management lecture says, it is harder to cheat in an exam. Don’t take that as an invitation to try and prove him wrong!

Anyway we now have a purpose, demonstrate our understanding of the subject. In order to do this, you must first know what you need to know. Sounds simple but you hear it every year, “I didn’t know that was going to be in exam…” So find out. Most lecturers give away hints, tips, and the rough topics that their essays questions will cover. After all, they would rather read hundreds of beautifully structured persuasive essays at 4am in the morning, than sorry attempts that try and bluff their way through a question (and subject) the writer didn’t understand.

Sometimes however, you don’t have a nice Management lecturer who pretty much tells the class what the essay questions will be. Most courses have learning outcomes, so find them, read them, know them, understand them. Use these learning outcomes to break the subject into topics that you could be asked to write an essay on. If it is an English essay, then you will be looking at the themes and characters of the work you are studying.

One other thing that can aid you in focusing your study is looking at past paper questions, but be very careful about making too many assumptions based on what topics were used in previous exams. Christabel was an unfortunate surprise for many of us in the IGSCE English exam!

What you have done is taken the large overall topic and broken it down into areas of focus. This may remove topics that you don’t need to know for the exam, which is great – you don’t want to do any more work than is necessary! Use these topics to plan your study. Instead of saying, tomorrow I will spend 45 minutes studying English, plan that you will spend 45 minutes on the character Bosola from The Duchess of Malfi (only ever read this play if you have to!).  This leads us nicely onto next week’s post – now we know what we need to know, how do we study it?

How do you find and work out what you should study for your exams?

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