How to plan an essay for an NCEA exam
You can just learn your essays by heart and regurgitate them in the exams, right? It’s fine to just ignore the planning box, right?
I mean, if you just got Excellence for written text in the mock, you’ll surely get it for the real thing, right? Right?
Markers read tens of thousands of essays about The Hunger Games. They can spot the essays that have been re-written with a few tweaks to desperately (but fruitlessly) try and twist around the question.
That doesn’t mean you should wing your essays, though. Because they can also spot those that haven’t been well-thought out or planned.
Think of the difference between one of Obama’s speeches and, well, you know. One is clear, coherent, and follows a logical structure to get strong points across. The other is a stumbling tangential ramble that can best be likened to watching an evil, orange, oppressive version of Dora the Explorer trying to get around with no map.
Fundamentally, good essay writing on exam-day comes down to following a strong plan. Basically, here’s how to be the Obama of essay planning.
1. Sussing your “comprehensive understanding”
‘A comprehensive understanding’ is something that pops up in a lot of marking schedules and assessment reports across pretty much every standard. That means it’s pretty important to take note of.
Having a comprehensive understanding means that you don’t just know the topic, you know know it.
When you know know a topic, you have enough of a foundational understanding to think on the spot. You basically have an internal bank of evidence to tap into depending on what form the question takes. Understanding you can apply to fully answer questions with a clear opinion and strong points.
It’s pretty difficult to know whether or not your understanding is sufficiently comprehensive, but that’s where effective study strategy comes in. Make sure you look at the MVPs of the NZQA website —past exams and marking schedules — and use them to your advantage.
Before going into the exam, you should have an idea of what kinds of questions will be asked and how the markers like you to answer them, paying special attention to the required lingo.
You should have practiced the fine art of linking evidence together to apply to a range of questions, and above all else, you’ve got to have experience planning different essays.
2. A range of evidence at your fingertips (and in the planning box)
Markers love it when you use the planning box. It’s not necessarily marked, but like, it makes them happy. This is how excited an examiner looks when they see a good planning box…
A common flaw in essay-exam strategy is to decide that you’ll learn to do, for example, the ‘symbolism question’. Fast-forward to opening the paper only to find either a) no symbolism question; or b) an extremely abstract symbolism question that wants you to link symbols with, like, the success of Shakespeare. Cue debilitating panic.
If you wanna avoid this, your comprehensive understanding has to encompass a range of evidence. There’s so many different angles of argument you can take with evidence in writing-based subjects. Whether it be A Clockwork Orange or the Parthenon – you can’t really be wrong.
There’s a whole world of secondary sources on Google that are just begging to give you different analyses of quotes, lenses, or author’s purpose theories.
For example, take the breadth of approaches you can use to explain The Great Gatsby. There’s the criticism of the American Dream demonstrated through setting and character, there’s the underlying religious message conveyed through symbolism and there’s historical context. I could go on.
When you get into the exam with a brain so full of F. Scott Fitzgerald (or your author) that you were giving lectures to people on the bus on the way over, write them down in the planning box as soon as you open the paper.
Then, you’re ready to start planning the essay itself.
3. Break down the question
Whether it’s level one Classics or level three English, you’ve got to break the question down before you can build your essay up.
The first thing to do is underline the key words.
Is it asking you to talk about a relationship in the text, or is it asking you to talk about a significant relationship? What makes a relationship significant? How can you prove that the one you’re discussing is?
Afterwards, take note of whether the question is split into two parts. Often, external questions will first ask you to ‘describe’ something and then ‘explain’ how this links into something else. This means that you have to first show what you know by providing evidence, before explaining how and why this is relevant to a bigger idea.
Finally, sometimes questions will ask you to ‘discuss the extent to which’ x is accurate or you agree with x. This means that you can’t take the statement as proven and write an essay about it. If the question is ‘discuss the extent to which the best villains are the ones we see ourselves in’ you’ll place yourself somewhere along the scale from 100% disagree to 100% agree. Then explain how and why you’re there.
To summarise, here’s the steps:
- Highlight the key words.
- Define or justify them if need be.
- Make sure your idea covers all parts of the question.
- Think about the ‘how’ and ‘why’.
- (If required) think about the extent to which you agree.
4. Create a thesis
Your thesis is the coat hanger that your essay hangs from.
Sorry, I was writing this while also shopping on ASOS, but you get the idea.
The thesis is the most important part of the essay planning stage, because it’s the purpose of your essay.
When your essay is marked, it’s based on how well the purpose comes across and how successful it was: basically, how well you’ve proven your thesis.
After breaking down the question and comparing it with the evidence you have in your mind palace — little Sherlock Holmes reference for the fans in the building — you should have some idea for how you’re going to answer the question.
A thesis effectively means an opinion that you’re going to get across and prove in your writing. Remember the Obama/Trump example from before? A key distinction between their speeches is that one president had a clear purpose that was logically argued, the other doesn’t.
When you’ve got an answer to the question and know what evidence you’re going to use to prove it, summarise this in one sentence. A great trick for doing this is to say in your head, “In my essay, I am going to prove that …” and whatever follows is your thesis.
Write that down at the top of the page and refer back to it often.
5. Three main points
Although this is debatable at higher year levels and not a requirement, a general rule of thumb is to aim for three body paragraphs. If you’re an OG fan and remember the English videos of 2017, you’ll know that TEXAS is a solid paragraph structure (watch the video for more on that).
This structure means every paragraph should have a topic sentence. The topic sentence is effectively the mini thesis of each paragraph: what is its purpose? Because it’s a mini thesis, the purpose of each paragraph is to explain a point that will contribute to proving your overall thesis.
Have I said “thesis” enough?
Each paragraph should have an independent purpose and piece of evidence. They should all link with each other to convince the marker that you have a comprehensive understanding of the topic and that your overarching idea is proven.
What this means is that when you’re planning your essay, after you’ve got your thesis, you need to write down three main points that will logically walk the reader through your argument.
You don’t just want to hit them with a bunch of side-notes or random evidence that doesn’t amount to anything at the end. Instead the essay should be like you’re giving a TED talk or a presidential address (a good one). Clearly state your argument, then grab the reader’s hand and walk them through it step-by-step.
For example, if your thesis is that Puss n’ Boots is the best character of all time, your three main points might be:
- He contradicts classic protagonist archetypes, making him a fully-fleshed out character.
- He balances good and bad in a resonant and relatable way.
- He’s a cat with boots.
After you’ve done that, you’re ready to write.
Basically, follow these steps and you’ll have set yourself up for an absolutely mint essay. And if you need any more writing tips and strategies, make sure to look at our other articles, like this one, or this one or this one.
Good luck, have fun, make the marker happy.