Stress. Pressure. Study. Grinds. Notes. More notes. Too many notes. These are just some of the words that are synonymous with the dreaded Leaving Cert. Indeed, it can seem like an unachievable task but to exploit the battered old cliché – ‘you really do get out of it, what you put in’. In this post, I’m just going to give some general tips on exam technique and timing and in my next posts, I’m going to focus on specific areas of Leaving Cert English.
Traditionally, English is viewed as one of the most difficult subjects on the Leaving Cert, but it doesn’t have to be!! Your teachers have probably told you that ‘if you put in the work, you’ll be fine’ and guess what? It’s true! The key to getting an A1 in English in the Leaving Cert doesn’t reside in the student’s ability to write like Shakespeare, but in their preparation! Writing from experience, the most important thing about doing the English exam is TIMING, TIMING, TIMING!
The only way to master this, is to sit down at home and do an exam paper from start to finish in exam conditions. This is an excellent method to finding out where you need to focus your attention and the more questions you do, the more efficient you will become with your time. Another thing I would encourage is not to wait for your teacher to assign you that Hamlet question; go and do it yourself and hand it up to your teacher to be marked! The more essays you can do and get marked, the better. With Hamlet, or whatever other single text you’re doing, remember it’s worth 60 marks so it take up a huge chunk of Paper 2’s marks! It’s so important to be prepared for any question that will come up! Try and prepare general essays on all the major characters and themes. I say ‘general’ because you don’t want to have to learn off 10 Hamlet essays word for word, do you?! Aside from this being a ridiculous waste of time, it could cost you dearly in the exam! You could have learned off a beautiful A1 essay about how Claudius is in a constant battle with Hamlet and end up using it to describe his relationship with Gertrude. It sounds silly, but it could so easily happen! If you’ve learned things off by heart, you’re more inclined to WANT to use it and this could be dangerous because you can’t apply the information you have to the question. You don’t even have to write essays on the major characters – bullet points are fantastic! Also, when you are doing these essays at home, remember that for 60 marks, you should spend 60 minutes on it AND NO MORE, EVEN IF THAT MEANS LEAVING A QUESTION UNFINISHED. BE BRUTAL – A MARK A MINUTE!!! (This seems ridiculous, but it works. After an hour’s work on Hamlet, you’ll have received most of the marks and you don’t want to spend more time on it and end up not finishing the exam).
Without doubt, the most speculated on aspect of the English paper and possibly the ENTIRE LEAVING CERT, is ‘the poets’….who is predicted this year?! DO NOT RELY ON PREDICTIONS! If you’re a geek like me, you’ll go ahead and study all eight and know each poem backwards, but this really isn’t necessary! Your teacher will probably have done at least five poets with you, and this is plenty. When you have all your poems done, get a huge sheet of card and write down the name of each poet with their poems underneath. This is a clever little trick for remembering who has written what, and I would also recommend learning at least one quote from each poem. The quotes don’t have to be perfectly transcribed! So many students see this whole quote learning business as an insurmountable mountain, but it doesn’t have to be! Take a poet a night, take five of their poems and just think about what is being said. Make sure you understand the poem because then learning a quote is simple.
Lastly, and possibly something that should have been said first is DON’T FORGET ABOUT PAPER 1! Paper 1 in English is legendarily ignored by students! It’s seen as a paper that you can’t study for, so there’s no point in doing anything for it. WRONG!!! While, okay, you technically can’t study for it, you can ensure you get top marks in English by preparing for it! The only way to do this is to do the comprehensions and part Bs over and over again! I, myself did this and saw a massive improvement from Christmas up until the mocks. Those little hard questions suddenly become accessible! The odd ones about style become repetitive! But this will only happen if you PREPARE and do past exam papers. REMEMBER: You are doing this exam for YOURSELF, so the effort you put in is all for you and not for the teacher! As a student, I know it is so easy to think that the teacher gives you two essays a weekend as punishment – but it really is to ensure you are well prepared! It’s not going to make a difference to your English teacher how you do! Be proactive and be willing to go that extra mile and anyway, this kind of self directed work will prepare you for college!
When it comes to the composition, so many students forget that THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION IN YOUR LEAVING CERT ENGLISH PAPER!! This question is worth a whopping 100 marks and if it’s an A1 you’re looking for, it’s imperative that you do well in this question. For me, I love creative writing, so I always chose the short story option, but you should obviously do whatever suits you best! I would try all the options eg short story, article, speech, or a talk before choosing which one I’m strongest at! The short story is a wonderful option because you can essentially have the bones of your story in your head and manipulate it to fit any title or include any given lines. However, like the comparative question, I wouldn’t advise anyone to write a short story and learn it off word for word. I had five short stories ready for my leaving cert and I was lucky because I got to use my favourite one but I had to manipulate it greatly to make it suit the title. Ironically, you can afford to be unoriginal here, have a few stories prepared and be able to change them if needs be! Like I’ve said before, just prepare a general outline of a plot.
English is a wonderful subject but it’s often seen as one of the more difficult ones to get a top grade in. English is possibly the most subjective exam you will do! Your hilarious joke in that essay might seem offensive to an examiner, so be weary of your audience. You can achieve an A1 in English without using long verbose sentences, and a lot of the time these can be pompous – simple is always better! When reading a question, be aware that it’s only a little suggestion to inspire you to write – you know all the information and this wonderful question will help give these thoughts a sense of cohesion. If you’re positive about the exam, stop and think about what is being asked and use your logic as well as your creativity, you should have no problems and will do extremely well!
Over the next few weeks, I’ll take the topics (drama, comparative, poetry etc.) and give specific tips about them and sample essays and guidelines.