For Secondary School students in Victoria, exam time is just around the corner! This can be a very daunting and overwhelming time for even the most prepared of students. Luckily, we’ve got you covered for your English exam. This article will run through what you can do to prepare for each of the three essays you will have to write in your English exam, step-by-step.

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Step 1: Understand what’s expected of you

This first one is a bit of a no-brainer, but it still needs to be said. In order to get a great score in each of your essays, you must first understand what the VCE English Study Design requires students to do in order to receive top marks.

Note that in 2020 the format is quite different due to the disruptions to the term. In this year's exam there are two language analysis essays to be written. One will be comparative while the other will focus on analysing a single text.

Check the study design for all your VCE subjects (Source: Unsplash - Glenn Carstens)

Step 2: Look at past exam prompts and texts

Looking at old exam papers from years past is a great way to get an idea for the kind of texts and prompts that actually make it through to the final exam assessment. Although, obviously, you won’t get the exact same text or prompt in your own exam, getting a ‘feel’ for exam-level questions is a good way to prepare for what they will throw your way in the final exam. Remember, the better prepared you are, the more you can maximise how efficiently you use the three hours.


Step 3: Read the past exam reports

The top examiners and English teachers in the State complete these reports. They are extremely helpful because they incorporate the key ideas in the study design and contextualise them into the process of marking so that you can take the wisdom and directly apply it to your own writing.

The following is an excerpt from the 2016 report:

“The highest-scoring responses revealed an assured capacity to closely analyse the text as well as to directly address and fully resolve the chosen topic. Such students were readily able to demonstrate high-level writing skills across the three assessment criteria: detailed knowledge and understanding of the selected text, demonstrated appropriately in response to the topic; development in the writing of a coherent and effective discussion in response to the task; controlled use of expressive and effective language appropriate to the task.”

From this passage, you can easily detail what the assessors are looking for in a great essay. This is a great way to ‘get in the mind’ of the examiners so to speak and deliver the kind of essay that is likely to get full marks.


Practice makes perfect (Source: Unsplash - Brad Neathery)

Step 4: Do lots and lots of practice essays/exams

If you English teacher is worth his/her salt, they will encourage you to submit as many essays to them as you can so that they can pull them apart and give you the feedback you will need to get a perfect score.

This will also allow you to better manage your time when you get into the final exam room.

I know three hours is a lot of time to invest, especially when it’s not even the real exam, it’s just a practice one.

However, doing this quite a few times will teach you how to remain focused for three hours and how to best use that time to produce the best work you can.

Perhaps you will take 2 minute ‘mini-breaks’ in between writing essays to proofread for errors and to think about whether the essay requires any editing.

Time management is key in this very long and arduous exam. If you’ve done it all before, you’re way more likely to hit it out of the park.

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Step 5: Have a few ‘template’ essays, which you adapt to the specific prompt

It’s impossible to predict exactly what prompts you are going to be given to respond to in the exam. You can, however, prepare a few different ‘templates’ on various themes within the text so that whatever prompt comes your way, you’ll easily be able to write 6 paragraphs on it.

For example, when I studied Colm Toibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ for Year 12 English way back in 2013, there were various themes within the book which I felt comfortable writing about. For example, ‘home, identity and belonging’ surrounding the protagonist’s relationship with her home country of Ireland and her newly found home in the U.S. was one area which I could write a strong essay on.

At the same time, however, I was also prepared to write about Toibin’s exploration of the concept of love, using the characters as tools to project his worldview. I had a large amount of quotes from the book memorised, which I could employ within my essays to make a fairly broad range of arguments.

This gave me both the confidence that I could make a convincing argument and demonstrate my understanding of the novel, while also giving me the flexibility to be able to respond directly to the prompt.

This made my essays feel both well planned and also not contrived. So within step 5 I would also add:

Step 6: Build up a ‘quote bank’ throughout the year for your texts

Read Step 5 to see how this is done. Now…


Create a catalogue of useful quotes from the texts you study (Source: Unsplash - Hannah Olinger)

Step 7: Go back over your essays, internalise them

An easy way to conclude an evening of solid study is to simply read 3 essays you have written for each section of the English exam.

This will help you memorise and internalise the viewpoints and arguments that you have made, in particular for the text response section of the exam.

You can also do this for the language analysis section of the exam, however, each argument made in this section of the exam will, of course, depend entirely on the articles and questions given to the student.

You can use your best language analysis essays, or even sample essays given to you by your teacher as a guide to help you understand the process of analysing articles.

Step 8: Don’t devote all your study time to VCE English Units 3 and 4

Although English Units 3 and 4 are important, as they always count towards your ‘top 4’ subjects when calculating your ATAR, don’t devote all your time up until this exam writing essays just because it is your first exam.

Most students get almost a month of preparation time in between their last official school class with their teacher and their first exam. This exam (apart from a few exceptions such as oral language exams) is always first. Therefore, you may be tempted to think you need to spend all your study time preparing for this particular exam.

In reality, your score in the English exam will depend a lot on your writing ability and how in-depth you understand the texts studied throughout the year.

There are certainly things you can do to be more prepared, such as those, which I have already mentioned.

However, writing too many essays may start to create ‘diminishing returns’, where each additional essay you write has less and less impact on the overall quality of your writing.


Study smarter - not more (Source: Unsplash - Sharon McCutcheon)


If this happens to you, it may be time to study smarter by getting help from the teacher, looking at the VCAA guides and memorising quotes and good arguments that you have previously made, rather than continuing to punch out essay after essay.

Especially when you consider the workload which getting a good score in more demanding subjects such as Maths Methods will be.

There may come a time when you will need to know when to be content with the level of essay you are producing, rather than trying to produce too diverse a range of different essays, based on many different questions on the text.

Step 9: Get yourself right mentally for the exam

This is perennial exam advice, just ask any teachers of any subject. Don’t cram, just review on the last review days. Review and relax.

Get a good night’s sleep.

Come to the exam room focused and hungry for success. Mindset will play an important role in a three-hour exam.

Eat well, rest up and review your notes.

Don’t write anything new in the last 3 days before your English exam.

Remember, the final exam is the product of a whole year's English study, not the result of the last few weeks of study.

Opening yourself up to using and applying knowledge taken on board throughout the year is simply the best strategy.

So there you have it. These are my 9 steps for acing that VCE Units 3 and 4 English Exam.

Good luck, students! A score does not define anybody but I empathise with your desire to do well, you deserve a score that reflects your efforts!

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An English Teacher by day, a writer and musician by night. Teaching is my adult passion the same way Pokemon was my childhood passion.