Exam Preparation: Time management in the English exam

Exam Preparation: Time management in the English exam

This week Insight writer and English teacher Melanie Flower gives tips on how to manage time during the English exam.

The end is really in sight, so close you can almost touch it. There is just one final hurdle for VCE English students – the epic three-essays-in-three-hours challenge. The final exam is essentially an opportunity to show off the extent of your knowledge in a limited time, making time management critical to success. While of course it is important that you know your stuff, and that you have revised carefully and thoroughly, do not underestimate the power of working efficiently, staying calm and managing your time effectively during the exam. Below are some strategies to help you do exactly that.


1. Know what to expect

This might seem obvious, and you have probably spent the last eighteen months going over the exam structure and expectations, but it is still worth making absolutely sure you know what to expect. You need to be clear about which texts you will write on for each section of the exam and how the exam will be structured. Familiarise yourself with the look of the English exam – check the VCAA website for papers from previous years as well as the 2020 answer book:


Knowing the format of the exam paper and the answer book will reduce the element of surprise, leaving you free to focus on writing your responses rather than on navigating the paper.


2. Use reading time effectively

You are allocated fifteen minutes of reading time at the start of the exam. Use this time wisely. While it may feel frustrating to have to read without making notes, try to see this time as a gift, a brief hiatus before you start writing. Carefully read the Section A questions for your chosen text (or texts, if you have prepared two) and consider which one offers you the best opportunity to display your knowledge. Read the Section B topics for your text pair and think about which one you prefer and how you could approach it. Finally, read through the text or texts provided for Section C, more than once if possible.

The fact that you are not allowed to write during reading time does not mean you are not able to plan (in your head), ponder the topics or identify key persuasive words. You can use your dictionary to check the definitions of unfamiliar words, develop your contentions, identify arguments and prepare yourself so that when you are able to start writing, you can begin without hesitation.


3. Allocate your time

In the VCE English exam each section is equally weighted, meaning that each section should be allocated the same amount of time. This means you will have an hour to work on each response. Make sure you stick to this time allocation. You might be tempted to spend ‘just another few minutes’ on one section, but any benefit of doing this will likely be outweighed by the negative impact of losing time on another response. Keep your eyes on the time, and make sure you know when you need to move on to the next section. Some students use the working pages or the front of their examination booklets to make a note of the times that they’ll need to begin each section.


4. Plan your responses

It can be very tempting to launch straight into writing your essays as soon as you are given permission to pick up your pens. Try to resist this urge – you will be able to write more efficiently and purposefully if you take a few minutes (no more than five) to sketch out a brief essay plan. This will allow you to put your thoughts in order so that once you start writing, you have a clear direction. Jot down key words, a focus for each paragraph, and possibly some quotes or examples. The plan will not be assessed, so it does not need to be impeccably presented or thorough. It just needs to be detailed enough to provide a framework to refer to while you write. A lot of time can be lost sitting at your desk trying to come up with that elusive third body paragraph – whereas if you have created a skeleton plan before you start, you have already done that thinking. In addition, taking a few minutes to plan helps you make the mental shift required to move between the various styles of essay required in the English exam.


5. Write – don’t erase

Every year examiners are frustrated and dismayed to see large chunks of text crossed out, or essays that have been abandoned so the student could start again. Planning can help avoid this, as it should allow you to discover possible pitfalls or challenges in your approach before you are fully committed. However, if you do find yourself wanting to start again, think very carefully before doing so, particularly if you are more than ten minutes into the time allocated for that response. The reality is that at this point you are unlikely to write a much better essay – it is far better to salvage the one you are working on. If you feel you have gone off topic, a carefully worded sentence can wrap up the paragraph and refocus your approach. If you have missed a crucial example or quote, use an asterisk to guide the reader to the end of the essay and include it there. If you do need to cross out words or phrases, put a neat line through them and move on.


6. Edit/proofread

When allocating time for each response, include five minutes per essay for proofreading and editing. This could be five minutes at the end of the hour allowed for each section, or you might prefer to combine this time and leave fifteen minutes at the end of the exam. This final read through will give you a chance to check spelling and grammar, and to make sure there are no silly mistakes such as attributing a quote to the wrong character. It also allows you to check the flow of your writing and the development of your argument: adding a few well-chosen linking words can make a significant difference to the fluency and coherence of your responses. Explicitly allocating time to editing ensures you have an opportunity to make simple corrections without too much time pressure.


7. Order of tasks

Part of developing a plan of attack for the exam includes deciding which section to start on. This is quite a personal decision. Some people like to start with the section they feel most confident about, giving them a psychological boost that will help carry them through the remainder of the exam. Others prefer to get their most challenging section out of the way while they are still feeling fresh and alert. The best way to know which approach will work for you is to have a go: complete practice exams under timed conditions and experiment with the order.

Very few people feel great excitement and pleasure at the thought of sitting an examination, and the long English exam can seem particularly intimidating. By approaching the task methodically, with a clear understanding of the requirements and a deliberate use of strategies that will support you, you can rise to the challenge. Preparation and a clear plan of attack will help you make the most of this opportunity. I wish all Year 12 students the best of luck for their final English challenge.


Need help preparing for the English exam? Make sure you purchase the VCE English SAC & Exam Guide by Robert Beardwood and Melanie Napthine. The Guide includes revision strategies and activities to help you prepare for the VCE English exam. From time management to proofreading responses, Insight’s VCE English SAC & Exam Guide covers all the knowledge and skills required for success in the English exam.

The VCE English SAC & Exam Guide is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

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