MonthFebruary 2018

12 Keys to Writing a Great Exam Composition

The view of an exam composition marker

Of course you want the highest mark possible on your exam composition.

I’ve been marking the BC English 12 provincial exam for many years—more than 20, I think.  I just finished marking the composition for this year’s exam and I decided to write about it while my thoughts are still fresh.

The best way to get a 6 out of 6 on your composition on the English 12 exam is to be an excellent writer.  Not everyone is an excellent writer. But there is much an average writer can do to give them a chance to earn the highest score of which they are capable.

Here are what I consider the 10 most important things to keep in mind when writing Part D: The Composition.

1. It’s all about conflict.

Don’t start your narrative with the alarm clock ringing. This is a very short composition, you don’t have time to lollygag–don’t write about life, write about conflict!

2. Don’t be like everyone else!

Markers read a lot of compositions—well over 700 per day. All have been written by English 12 students and are based on the same prompt. This can lead to a lot of “sameness”—same diction, same topics, same perspective, same approach, same structure.   It feels like you are reading the same five essays, hour after hour, day after day.

It stands to reason, then, if you can write an exam composition that is not like all others, yours will stand out. Most of my 10 keys are about how to make your composition stand out, in a good way.

3. Go with your fifth idea.

If the composition prompt is, “Beauty can be found in simple things,” do not write about smiles, snowflakes, kittens, rainbows or babies.  Everyone is writing about these things because they are the first things that pop into their minds. The solution is, don’t write about the first thing that pops into your mind—or the second. Get down your list.  When you get to oatmeal, socks or the word “and”–you have arrived.  I’m excited just thinking about an essay about the word “and.”

When the prompt was, “Surprises can make life more interesting” – over 90% were about surprise birthday parties.  Because of the lack of surprises when they opened the exam book, markers were ready to jump off the buildings by the middle of the first afternoon.

Oh, and don’t think that you are original if you argue that surprises don’t make life more interesting—negation of the prompt is not clever, it’s cliché.  Speaking of clichés . . . 

4. Don’t use clichés.

No matter what the prompt is, markers can always count on frequent encounters with all of the following:

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”
“Life can throw you a curveball . . .”
“Life is a rollercoaster full of ups and downs.”
“Life can hit you like a tonne of bricks.”
“Life is like a box of chocolates . . . .” This one always includes the appropriate textual or parenthetical citation.

By using clichés, you are screaming to your reader that you are an average writer, at best.  And you may be an average writer, there is nothing wrong with that, but there is no sense advertising it.  And who knows, if you are deliberate about not using clichés, you just might infuse a bit of freshness that gives your exam composition a boost.

5. Don’t write about death.

It feels like at least a third of the compositions are about death. As markers, we are forced to vicariously experience the death of every family member in every possible combination from every possible disease. Then there are the accidents, usually car accidents. These often involve drunk driving and the loss of a best friend or lover.  Markers don’t like death essays, not because it makes the process too difficult emotionally.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

I am pretty sure that many English 12 teachers encourage their students to write a composition that is “emotionally engaging.”  This is not bad advice, but when students hear the words “emotionally engaging” they instantly settle on the death of a loved one, because they can think of nothing else that produces stronger emotions than the death of a loved one.

This is probably true, but most high school students lack the skill to sensitively deal with topics like death.  Consequently, these “death essays” become cliché, which is the opposite effect you are trying to achieve.  Save writing about death for when you are a more experienced writer, and you have longer than an hour and a 600-word limit.

6. Don’t preach.

Nobody wants to be preached at.  This is a “stance” issue.  Readers don’t like to be talked down to.  As a marker, I’ve been preached to about recycling and about how I should be Christian, and about why all religions are dumb.  I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to be tolerant.  I’m sick of lectures instructing me how to face the hardships of life and how I should respect the elderly.  I now know what I should think about every issue imaginable.

You can still write about these things but take a different stance—write about when you discovered the importance of recycling.  Or how faith adds meaning to your life.  Write about a difficulty that you experienced and what you learned from it.  See the difference? Rather than tell me what I should do and learn, talk about what you did and what you learned.

7.  Have a strong first paragraph.

Many first paragraphs read like the students are warming up for the real task of writing the essay. They throw down their first thoughts on the subject searching for the point from which they can push off into the first paragraph of their composition. The warm-up or the search for a point of departure should happen someplace else. Write for a few minutes on a piece of scrap paper till you find your direction, then carefully craft the first paragraph to set up what is to come. The reader makes all sorts of judgments from the first lines of your composition; first impressions are powerful—make a good first impression.

I have found that many student compositions benefit from simply drawing a line through the first paragraph.

I’ve read compositions that use “the word” five times in the introduction.  If the prompt tells you to write about beauty or surprises, challenges, maturity, change, dreams or relationships, consider not using that word in the essay at all. Or if you do use “the word,” use it in the last line of the composition.   As with all creative writing, it is better to show than to tell.

8. Be Specific.

Generalities are boring.

This is true for everything you write be it an email, an essay or a narrative. Don’t say, “We went out for my favourite meal,” say, “We went out for chicken wings and Shirley Temples.” Don’t write, “My boyfriend pulled his car into the driveway”; have him pull up “in the family mini-van” or “his red convertible,” or his “1978 windowless van with the words ‘Refer Madness’ airbrushed on the side.”  Specifics make a difference.  If you don’t believe me, ask your father.

9. Don’t write a “5 paragraph essay.”

First of all, by the time you are in grade 12 you should never write a 5 paragraph essay (although there is nothing wrong with an essay of five paragraphs). The body of a 5 paragraph essay consists of 3 examples from your life that show the prompt to be true.

So if the topic is something like “Certain situations lead to maturity,” don’t write an essay in which you briefly and superficially discuss three of the following:

  • entry into kindergarten,
  • the magic of puberty,
  • your parents’ divorce,
  • a torn ACL,
  • getting a driver’s license,
  • your first job,
  • or first kiss,
  • the death of a loved one,
  • or moving to, or within, Canada.

Pick one of these (except the death of a loved one) and meaningfully explore the factors and forces that contributed to your maturation.

You understand, of course, that by adding or dropping a paragraph to the essay I’ve just described does not fix the problem.

10. Punctuation, spelling and capitalization, etc.

There’s no avoiding the fact that the mechanics of writing are important. The good news is that all of the writing on the exam is marked as a first draft, so if you misspell the odd word, or miss a comma or two, your mark will not go down.

So it doesn’t matter if I don’t know the difference between “then” and “than”?  Or “there,” “their” and “they’re”?

Technically no, but no upper-level writer will ever confuse these words.  So by confusing them, you are proclaiming, loudly, that you are not an upper-level writer.

Work hard to understand basic usage and punctuation rules.

As for spelling, two words that, for some reason, come up again and again in the composition essays are obstacle and opportunity. For years I’ve been telling my students to make sure they can spell these two words correctly—because “obsticle” and “oppertunity” scream out that you may not be a competent writer.

11. Be yourself.

You are not a 47-year-old drug addict living in Detroit.

You are not a soldier storming the beaches of Normandy.

You are not a mother deer concerned about your fawn.

Like death, this sort of writing requires a maturity of thought and style that most young writers don’t have.

The thing is, you are the preeminent expert on one subject–YOU.  You know things about this topic that no one else does.  Play to your strengths.  Human beings, even markers, respond to stories–good stories, well told.  I recommend that you walk into your exam with three stories, true stories.  If it’s a true story, you can draw from an actual setting with actual characters doing actual things (and you can embellish a little).  And don’t just tell me what happened, tell me what you thought and felt as well.  But go even further–What did this event mean?  How did it change you?  You may never have thought about it, but think about it now.  This type of essay is generally called a personal narrative.  It involves a true story and some reflection about what the story means.  Consider practicing these three stories beforehand.  Then, when you see the prompt, adapt one of them to fit.  Or write a brand new one if you are so inspired.

So, for these reasons, I strongly recommend you write a personal narrative for your exam composition.

12. “In Conclusion”

Don’t end the last paragraph of your exam composition with the words, “in conclusion.”

In conclusion, I must tell you that I’ve read papers that have ignored half of my 10 keys to writing a great composition and they still earned a 6 out of 6.  They did so because the authors are great writers, but these 10 keys will give you your best chance at earning the highest mark of which you are capable.

I hope you read this post long before you take your exam–years preferably–because all of these things take practice.  Good luck, and I look forward to reading your Composition.

Is there any other advice you give your students?

What else has your teacher suggested for writing the composition?

Truth is a Fad

On a recent trip to downtown Vancouver, my wife and I popped into Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Georgia and Burrard.  I find it hard to resist a cathedral and always try the doors to see if I can get a look inside.  The door was unlocked and a pleasant woman offered to answer our questions.  I asked about the beautiful interior and she was delighted to tell us about the recent renovations.  There was even a photo album.

The original church was filled with local cedar, but in a previous renovation, the original wood had been covered.  The red cedar ceiling had been covered by fiber-board.  It was the same story with the floor.  With this new renovation, the foul fiber-board and hideous carpeting had been removed and the original red and yellow cedar, covered up for decades is once again gracing parishioners and visitors with its beauty.

Why had the natural wood of the ceiling and floor been covered in the previous renovation?  It seems preposterous that anyone could think that fiber-board and carpeting were an improvement on the natural cedar, but they apparently did.

Changing Fashions, Changing Ideas

This got me thinking about change, more specifically, changing tastes.  It’s a truism that fashions change, but they don’t just change; they change radically–what is all the rage in one time, is hideous and vile in another age.  This is true whether we are talking about clothing, church interiors or ideas.

The second truism is that we are completely aware of the first truism.  We are somehow convinced that the way we think at the present moment is, at long last, the end of changing “truth”–with today’s thinking, we have arrived.

Previous generations had it wrong, but we have figured it out.  As dumb as it seems now, there was a time when it was generally thought that wood ought to be covered by synthetic materials, and in fifty years the congregation will likely vote to cover the wood with synthetic polar bear fur.  So goes fashion.  So also go our ideas.

The Fashion of Truth

I look at some of the ideas that are spreading throughout culture, replacing the old ones, and I think they are beautiful changes.  Others are more like ghastly fiberboard and anemic pink carpeting obscuring beautiful red and yellow cedar.   And we take these new ways of thinking as absolute truth.  Consequently, in our conversations and disagreements, we condemn those with whom we disagree as bigots and freaks and ogres.  Given that our most recent truth is just a phase, perhaps we ought to be a little less certain about everything–a little less venomous.

In our conversations and disagreements we must remember that the way we think today, is a fad. Consequently, we ought to be a little less certain about everything--a little less venomous.

Doomed to Relativism?

I believe that there is something under the intellectual fads and whims of our culture that never changes.  Core ideas like courage is better than cowardice and it’s evil to harm a child for one’s own pleasure and the ocean is sublime.

Just because it’s new and in fashion, doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.  I say objectively because, although I’m not entirely sure which ideas are cedar and which are fiber-board, I firmly believe that there is an objective truth.  We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, we will continue to believe that we create our own reality, but I hope at some point we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.  And rip up the pasty carpet to expose the rich wood beneath.

We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, but at some point, we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.

Are students prepared for university?

Education has changed.  I’m teaching differently.  Student’s are learning differently.

How well do the new approaches to learning and teaching prepare students for university?

Back in the Day

When I first started teaching Literature 12 there were provincial exams.  These were content focussed.  One of the purposes of the exam was to ensure students were prepared for the rigors of university.  There was a prescribed reading list of over 40 literary works from the literary canon extending from Beowulf to a poem by Margaret Atwood.  Students were also required to understand over 100 literary terms and devices.  Back in those days, I did a lot of talking and students took copious notes.  Given that the exam scores would be used to rank students against other students, schools against other schools, teachers against other teachers, exam performance mattered a great deal on many levels.  So we worked very hard on exam preparation.  Students created very detailed study sheets on each of the literary works on the prescribed reading list.  These were collated into large packets and students spent hours reviewing this material.  At the end of the process, they knew a lot, and my students generally did very well on the Provincial English Literature exam.

“Nowadays”

I still teach Lit 12, but I do so very differently.  My class looks much more like a graduate seminar than a lecture hall.  Students discuss and unpack the literary works, rather than listen to me tell them what they would notice if they were as smart as I was.  Through this dialogue, students analyze, synthesize, evaluate, propose, inquire, challenge, concede, admire and they connect the ideas they encounter to life and society.  After we talk, we write.  They use their laptops for this task.  Sometimes they journal, other times they write an academic essay or a personal narrative; we mix it up.  My assessment has changed as well.  We no longer end the year with an exam.  We end the year with presentations–students explore a topic of their choice making connections literature, often beyond the material we worked over the course of the semester.

Are students today as knowledgeable as in the days of yore?

Last year, I dusted off an old provincial exam, one of the same exams for which I used to work so hard to prepare my students.  We didn’t review the material in class–students didn’t create review sheets for each other, and they didn’t study for it.  I passed it out one day and they wrote it.  I used to mark the Literature 12 exam, so the marks students got on this test were valid.  I was surprised that their scores were significantly higher than those of students of similar ability from 2 decades ago.  I realize this observation is anecdotal and does not meet the standards of a proper study, but I am convinced of the results.  My students know the literature better now than they did when learning was primarily focussed on content rather than projects and discussions.  With the new approach to learning, students are performing better on exams designed to measure university preparedness.

The beauty is, they don’t just know the content–they have a much broader and deeper understanding of the literature than they used to.   They can talk about it and bring it into dialogue with other artistic expressions and with life and society.  They are better readers and thinkers and moviegoers.  Almost all are reporting great success in university classes.

But not all reports are positive.  One of my students excitedly entered her Literature course at the local university this fall, and dropped it after only a few classes.  It was clear to her that, in this particular university class, the study of her favourite high school subject would involve transferring what she heard in a lecture onto an exam paper at the end of the term.  There is no doubt in my mind that she could have passed this course with an A.  Many of my less gifted students frequently do.

Do modern instructional techniques prepare students for university?

My little experiments shows that if students are expected to know the material well, then they are prepared for university.  If their university courses will expect them to be able to analyze and synthesize information and concepts, they are ready.  If they are expected to evaluate ideas; to challenge assumptions and be able to recognize a strong argument and concede, they are ready.  If they are expected to communicate clearly and effectively, both verbally and in various written forms, they are ready and very well prepared for university.

If students are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information that will be transferred onto an examination paper, then students are ill-prepared for university.
If, on the other hand, they are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information and transfer this information onto an examination paper at the end of the term, then perhaps my students are ill-prepared for university.

Does anyone really want me to change my approach to teaching literature?

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