Guide to Understanding Essay Questions

Understanding Essay Questions


Revising for an English Literature exam is stressful so it is no surprise students look for any advantage. If a character appeared the previous year, would you avoid that aspect of the novel or script and revise other parts of the story? Would you ignore a poem in an anthology because it already featured in a question? Many students are willing to take these sorts of risks.

Of course, you should ask your teacher about the different themes and topics. Discussion boards are also full of useful theories and suggestions. However, this guide will take you through what you can predict and five essential things you really need to know about the exam questions.


At the end of the marking period, examination boards survey the examiners about their experiences with the paper. They are often asked if the candidates were able to understand the demands of each section and if the questions were accessible. Of course, essays should be challenging, but the examination boards want to make sure there were no unnecessary obstacles or ambiguities that would prevent you from demonstrating your understanding of the text’s important themes and characters.

Sadly, too many students try to interpret or second-guess the meaning of the question and then deliver a muddled response. Believe it or not, there is no sinister plot to design a horrible paper that will have students crying in the school halls across the country.

Do not waste your time searching for hidden messages because the task should be straightforward.

Consistent Phrasing

If you look at the sample assessment materials and past papers for a particular section, you will notice the wording of the questions rarely changes. Remember, the examination boards want to make the questions as accessible as possible. Keeping the phrasing consistent from one paper to the next should help candidates become familiar with the question’s style and, hopefully, avoid confusion.

Key Terms

Obviously, one aspect of the question has to change: the key term. This word or phrase might even be written in bold to emphasise its importance. For example:

With close reference to the writer’s use of language and imagery, explore how the poem deals with the theme of courage.

Instead of simply scribbling down every random thing you know about the text, the key term of the question provides a framework for your analysis. A top candidate will be able to select evidence that is relevant to the theme and supports their argument.

However, many students seem to think that repeating the same word over and over again is “bad” writing and, for this essay, might use bravery or even valour instead. These words are synonyms but their definitions are not quite the same. While courage suggests the character has to overcome their fears towards whatever dangers they face, bravery is the ability to confront those problems without feeling scared. Valour describes a character who remains bold and acts without hesitation. Of course, using these words could add precision to your interpretation, but you need to be aware that one is not a substitute for the other. Inaccurate usage could cost you marks.

Stick to the Question

When you are asked to find the value of x in a Mathematics exam, there is probably no point writing y= on the answer line. For some reason, English Literature students seem determined to contradict the question. Consider this example:

To what extent you agree Harper Lee presents Mrs Dubose as the most courageous character in To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you spend the majority of your time referring to Atticus’ defence of Boo Radley or Jem standing firm against the lynch mob at the jail, you are actually ignoring the evidence of Mrs Dubose’s courage in the novel. Put simply, stick to the question, which is testing your knowledge of Harper Lee’s presentation of Mrs Dubose.

It is also worth noting that the examination boards expect you to agree with their statement – they are not trying to lure you into a trap!

The Writer

Characters and themes dominate most discussions about exams, but the examination boards recognise that they are constructs of the writer’s imagination so they all use “presents” or “presentation” in at least one of their questions. For example:

Examine Chaucer’s presentation of the Pardoner and how his attitudes to God reflects his religious beliefs and knowledge.

In this way, the question is directing you to focus on the language and imagery the writer uses to depict the character’s religious beliefs. Instead of writing “the Pardoner is incredibly cynical”, your answer should be “Chaucer presents the Pardoner as incredibly cynical”.

Final Thoughts

If you have any theories or queries about the suggestions in this guide, please let us know in the comments section below.

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