‘Curious and committed’: How to get through a marathon English exam

VCE exams begin for some students on October 3. While it’s a daunting time for many, there are strategies that can help students prepare and make it easier to get through each exam. This story is part of our series designed to help Victorian students do their best.

The VCE English exam is a three-hour exam, consisting of three essays, while the literature exam goes for two hours. It can be a daunting challenge, but three English teachers have shared their tips on how to get the most out of the exam.

Merinda Bermingham, Haileybury’s senior school head of English, says it is important for students to reread their texts, invest enough time and become “curious and committed”. Three students from Haileybury received premier’s awards for English in 2021.

Haileybury College’s senior school head of English Merinda Bermingham.

“It’s never too late,” she says. “Reread your texts, interrogate their construction, how those ideas and worlds are conveyed sub-textually.”

Before the exam:

  • Re-read the texts
  • Attend revision lectures
  • Put up a poster of key quotes, use flashcards, acronyms or quizzes for quotes, but also practice the application of those quotes
  • Complete practice exams
  • Ask for feedback on plans before seeking feedback on full essays
  • Bermingham says students should be “writing, writing, writing” and be conscious of any progress they are making in the depths of their ideas and the fluency of their expression
  • If you get stuck and don’t know what your next steps are, give your very best practice work to your teachers
  • Create study groups. Brainstorm how to tackle topics, share work and extend each other intellectually and on the quality of written expression.
  • Bermingham says students should be reading, scouring the internet, listening to insights on every possible interpretation and then carving their own paths

Haileybury’s Clare Mackie.

Haileybury’s Clare Mackie, who teaches English, says the last month is a time to shrug off all fears and anxieties and try and develop individual and unique perspectives on texts that will intrigue an examiner and make them excited “about what you think as a young person, not just what a study guide thought”.

“It’s not over yet. Even if students … feel like maybe English isn’t their best subject, there is still time and the exam is quite significant in terms of their overall grade. It’s not over until the end of that exam.”

How should you prepare?

Have a look at the assessment criteria on VCAA website for literature and for English.Bermingham says students should slowly build up to the exam’s required three-hour timeframe.

“You might sit down for 10 minutes to break down a topic, reflect and put an essay topic together,” she says. “Then I might give myself 30 minutes to do an essay plan and write my introduction and one body paragraph. Then a full essay in the 50 or 60-minute mark. Then start to do two sections together, a and b, or b and c.”

Credit:Jim Pavlidis

Some tips from previous exams:

  • Read assessors’ comments on high-scoring examples on the VCAA website
  • Make sure you write clearly. If an assessor can’t read your writing, they can’t mark you
  • When referring to a book, novel or play, high-scoring responses showed an understanding of stagecraft, poetic form and narrative voice
  • Be careful not to use terms from other subjects, like media, linguistics or psychology, if they don’t apply
  • There’s no one way to write the essay, nor an expected structure and students can show their insights in different ways
  • Proofread your work
  • Respond to the question. Formulaic responses rarely succeed. Don’t try to memorise essays or passages

What to bring to the exam:

  • You can bring a dictionary, but only to the English or EAL exam. The dictionary must not contain any highlighting, annotation or tabs. It must not contain a thesaurus nor be electronic
  • Pens, pencils, erasers, highlighters and rulers
  • Clear water bottle

The night before:

Maribyrnong Secondary College teacher and president of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English, Emily Frawley, says the night before, re-read any notes you have made, eat a good dinner and go to bed early.

Look after your wellbeing so you are in a calm and confident headspace going in.

Reading time in the exam:
Frawley says to use the reading time to settle any nerves and plan responses in your head before writing time begins.

“Consider writing the question at the top of each page and refer back to it to ensure you haven’t lost sight of the question you’re answering,” Frawley says.

  • Use strong verbs
  • Make sure you read the question carefully and answer the question that is asked, not one you have studied for

If you are having trouble:

Frawley says to write what you know. “Assessors look for what they can reward, they don’t deduct marks. If in doubt, writing something is better than writing nothing.”

Tips from 2021 English Premier’s Award winner and former Haileybury College student Rufaro Zimbudzi:

Student Rufaro Zimbudzi at Hailebury College last year.Credit:Wayne Taylor

  • Brainstorm with friends and talk through the nitty-gritty. “In the exam, you aren’t able to plan on a piece of paper … I wanted to get used to doing it all in my head.”
  • Find the best way you learn. Zimbudzi says she learned through conversation. “For English and writing, we forget that discussion is the way ideas are formulated.” Having conversations about the texts “was a really good time-effective way to study because it didn’t feel like I was studying. It got my brain working and had me thinking critically.”
  • Zimbudzi rooted her responses in current day events, with recent articles to make them topical. “Stuff that is happening now in this society and generation, it made me feel part of the action and change and motivated me to keep researching and reading.”
  • To memorise quotes, she repeated them or thought of them as song lyrics.
  • Instead of doing three-hour timed practice essays, Zimbudzi did essay plans or timed 15-minute paragraphs, before working up to a full hour-long essay. She says sitting for a full three-hour practice exam wasn’t for her.
  • Try and get passionate about it, read for enjoyment. “I found I felt so much more articulate, all that stuff we take for granted, everything that is overcast by the idea of marks or your ATAR, but there is a lot of real-life value.”

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