As students prepare for their exams, questions that only assessors can answer often pop into mind. Unfortunately, most students don’t have access to assessors in most of their subjects, so we took your questions and presented them to a senior VCAA assessor who has extensive experience in marking the VCE exams that you will soon sit. Here are his/her answers.

We hope that your exam preparations are going well.

TSFX.

How can I achieve high marks in the exam? What practical tips can you give in preparation for the exam? I am really struggling with close analysis. any tips?

For Section A, learn a significant number of short and useful quotes. Evidence is really importance, as is your ability to demonstrate direct knowledge of the text. The best way to prepare is to do some Literature every day between now and the exam, even if it means on some occasions, just spending five or ten minutes on quotes. Re-reading your text is also very important, and if you haven’t written many practice essays, you should really make an effort now to do so. This will mean that there is much more material in your head which you will be able to assemble in the exam to meet the demands of the prompt. It’s also important to look at and unpack as many different prompts as you can at this stage, and to test them to see if you can use you chosen perspective with them. For Section B, once again it is practice at writing that you most need to do at present. More specifically, use this checklist to make sure that you are creating the right “recipe” in this section.

What kind of essays are awarded the highest marks? What is it that examiners are specifically looking for in a closed-passage analysis? E.g is it the originality of the interpretation, or is it eloquence? Are essays with a non-stereotypical structure awarded higher marks? Or is it a clever development of ideas?

There are two main things that are most important in Literature responses: sophisticated language and complex ideas. Make sure that you have the mechanics of language under control: spelling, grammar and punctuation. Your response needs to read very well as a piece of scholarly/literary writing in its own right – so, eloquence and articulateness are very important. In close analysis, you are writing a discussion which has a much freer “structure” than the expository essay you will write for Section A. In Section B, your ideas need to evolve, develop and connect in a logical and cohesive way, so that the further we go in reading your work, the more we are able to appreciate the depth of your analysis and insight. If you know your text well, you will also know what it is best to take from the three passages and use as your interpretation. This is where originality and your own voice come into play. Technically, you don’t need an introduction or conclusion for Section B because you are not arguing anything. You can write them if you want, but it is the quality of the actual analysis and your ability to see how language creates meaning which count. Some students, especially the stronger and more confident ones, just dive straight into a passage and begin analysing right from the first sentences. This means that, if the analysis is impressive, they are earning marks straight away.

What are the usual signs of a pre-prepared introductions for both section A and B? Also, how badly do examiners tend to penalise based on it?

The introduction for Section A can follow a formula and this should show straight away that you have understood the prompt and its implications and subtleties, and that you have a definite response to it which will be logical and well-structured. Introductions are important in Section A as a sort of roadmap to where you are heading, and as the first writing from you that the assessor encounters, but it’s really in your body paragraphs that you earn the most marks. Assessors never penalise students: they are instructed to reward, so if you are meeting the criteria, you will be rewarded accordingly, depending on the extent to which you do so. Technically, you don’t need an introduction or conclusion for Section A because you are not arguing anything. You can write them if you want, but it is the quality of the actual analysis and your ability to see how language creates meaning which count. Some students, especially the stronger and more confident ones, just dive straight into a passage and begin analysing right from the first sentences. This means that, if the analysis is impressive, they are earning marks straight away.

How important is it that we include quotes from outside the passages in section B essay?

It is important for you to show some knowledge of your text in Section B beyond the selected passages on the exam but you need to do this only once or twice in the course of your response as it’s not the main thing. You could use a quote or two in order to achieve this, or you might make a statement such as the following: In the scene which precedes this encounter and leads up to it, the two protagonists appear to …”; This tendency towards violence which is described in passage 1 becomes evident again towards the end of the play when…”. These are ways of showing that you have knowledge beyond the passages in front of you. By the way, quotes are very important in Section A!

What is the minimum word count for each essay? Also, how much should we aim to write (ideally)?

VCAA makes no specific requirement of the word count in your responses. However, if you think o the need for detail and sophistication in a top response, it clearly can’t be 500 words long which is barely two pages. In my experience, the highest scoring essays which are intelligently and skilfully written, are generally in the vicinity of 1,000 words or exceed it. Some students can write over 1400 words in an hour, but this they are few in number. Aim at least for 900-1,000. This means that you need to be very well-prepared so as not to spend too much time creating material in the exam – it should rather be a case of assembling it from all of the information you already have in your head.

If there is a short phrase (two or three words long) to add into an essay we’ve already completed, would you prefer for us to insert it in using a little cap (eg. ^) or would you encourage us to write it on another page and link it in using reference numbers? Also please let me know how you would prefer for us to insert a sentence into the same situation?

Always aim for clarity whenever you need to insert or cross-out. Assessors will try to read insertions in whatever form they appear, so choose the neatest way and they will cope with it more easily. You can’t be penalised for doing this, by the way.

I’ve been told by my Lit teacher that my essays are good, but that sometimes my conclusions can sound a little English essay-esque; is this something that I would lose marks for in an exam, or is the main focus on the essay itself? Also, for critical perspectives, is it worth using a perspective that not many people will use? I want to use a postcolonial lens for Heart of Darkness because that’s what I’m good at, but I’m afraid that I’ll score lower because more people will do it, therefore there will be more good essays in the mix, making mine seem worse. Or would it not have an effect on my mark?

In Section A, which is an expository structure, it doesn’t matter if your conclusion sounds a little formal. You can’t lose marks for this. Conclusions are generally regarded as the least important part of your Section A response, although should still try to make them round off your response in an intelligent and controlled way. In Section B, you don’t need a conclusion. You can just finish where you finish. You are not arguing a case, so you don’t have to draw together the threats of your argument. The main thing with your perspective in Section A is that you use it well to meet VCAA’s criteria. Many students will use a postcolonial lens for Heart of Darkness, which is very appropriate, but not all of them will use it well. A perspective is not better because it’s rarer than the mainstream approach – it’s better because of the successful way in which it is used to meet the criteria and enable the essay to work.

For passage analysis, how crucial is the links/comparison between the passages? Approximately how much per paragraph should be denoted to comparison? Is it necessary at all?

In Section B, it is very important to work across the passages and to use the language and concepts in them to create a strong synthesis of ideas. This means that you should be frequently making links and comparisons and that this will constitute most of your response. Students should avoid writing three or four mini-essays that are disconnected from each other; or approaching each passage as a separate extract analysis. What you need to create is a fluent discussion in which ideas evolve, connect and develop, and this should be done in a sophisticated way.

How do I structure Literary Perspectives to get high marks?

Although VCAA has no specific rules for this, your Literary Perspectives essay in Section A is best written with an expository structure: introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction for Section A can follow a formula and this should show straight away that you have understood the prompt and its implications and subtleties, and that you have a definite response to it which will be logical and well-structured. Introductions are important in Section A as a sort of roadmap to where you are heading, and as the first writing from you that the assessor encounters, but it’s really in your body paragraphs that you earn the most marks. Each body paragraph should be based on a topic sentence which is directly related to the prompt. You may know the TEEL structure already, and this is quite useful for a Section A essay. Make sure you deal with views and values in every paragraph, and that you include construction elements such as the writer’s language. The special extra item for Literature is your perspective which should be made clear in your introduction and then be used for analysis in all of your body paragraphs. Make sure you use a number of quotes throughout your response and that you link your paragraphs logically. Conclusions are generally regarded as the least important part of your Section A response, but you should still try to make them round off your response in an intelligent and controlled way.