In British Columbia there is an exam in English 12.  It’s on the way out, and it will be replaced with a Literacy Assessment.  Both of these assessments have a major essay where students are expected to synthesize the contents of two or more pieces of writing while responding to a specific prompt.

Here are 8 tips to help you write your best essay.

1. Understand the texts

One of the things this assessment is trying to determine is the degree to which you understand what you read.  Misunderstanding one of the texts is not good, so here are a few suggestions to help you understand the texts.

  1. Thoughtfully answer the multiple choice questions.  One or more of these will often indicate the points at which a text might be misunderstood.  If you think these questions over carefully, you may be turned toward the correct interpretation.
  2. Read the texts more than once.  Slower readers might not be able to give both texts a second thorough reading, but give each a quick re-read to see if you come up with better insights the second time.  This is particularly important for the poem, as poetry is generally denser than prose.

2. Address the prompt

If you don’t address the prompt, you get a zero.  So, address it, and don’t be subtle about it either; be really clear you are doing what you are asked to do.

Most of the time, the prompt will ask you to compare and/or contrast some aspect of the two pieces: How are two things similar–themes, characters, etc.? Which shows more preparation, dedication, courage, etc.?  Sometimes you will be asked to discuss how a character or the author in one reading would respond to something in the other selection.

I strongly suggest you annotate the prompt–pause for a moment and highlight the key words in the prompt and make sure you clearly understand your task.

Do what the prompt asks.

Don’t do something else:

    • Don’t evaluate goals.
    • Don’t write about conflict.
    • Don’t write about need.
    • Don’t write about determination.
    • Don’t write about nature.
    • Don’t write about diction, literary devices, or imagery.
    • Don’t write about what you’d do.

Even though selections may nicely lend to one or more of the above, resist the temptation and limit your discussion to the prompt.

3. Introduction and Thesis

The introduction need not be long.  You want to set up your thesis statement and in doing so, name the selections and identify the authors.

Your thesis statement comes at the end of your introductory paragraph.  The thesis statement is key.  And it’s all about the prompt.  Your thesis statement is the answer to the question implied in the prompt.

Consider this prompt:

Discuss the qualities that Erik Weihenmayer in “Blindly He Goes…Up” and Uncle Jim in “Versabraille” share in facing their challenges.

The implied question is. What qualities do Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim share in facing challenged?

Your thesis statement, then, will be something like this:

When facing challenges, both Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim are courageous, resourceful, and motivated.

With a thesis statement like this, you have almost certainly avoided a zero, and are well on the way to achieving at least a  16/24 on this question.

A last note about your thesis statement: don’t over state your thesis.  If the prompt ask you to assess which selection shows more courage, don’t say that the one is courageous and one is a complete coward.  The thing to remember is that both sides are usually defensible.  Good readers and writers understand nuance.   You will most likely argue that while they both show a lot of courage, ______________ shows more because ______________ .

3. Body Paragraphs–BE SPECIFIC!

This essay must be multi-paragraph.  The instructions explain that this means “3 or more paragraphs.”  Although it all depends on your thesis, you should be thinking in terms of at least four paragraphs.

Your English teachers have probably talked about topic sentences for years.  Now is the time to use them.  The first sentence in each paragraph will deal with some aspect of your thesis statement.  Using the above example, your first body paragraph will be about how each, Erik Weihenmayer and Uncle Jim, exhibits courage; the second will be about the resourcefulness they share, and the third will explore the high degree of motivation we see in each.

Support for your assertions must be specific.  In what specific circumstances was Uncle Jim courageous?  How exactly do his actions indicate he is courageous?

If you know how to use “run-in” or integrated  quotations, do so.  If you don’t, pay attention to these lessons in class.

Your paragraphs need to be a balance between references to the text and an explanation as to how they support your analysis.  A lawyer will not just hold up an evidence bag containing a bloody knife with fingerprints.  She will also explain how this evidence points to the plaintiff’s guilt.  You too will need to provide evidence for your assertions, but you will also need to provide an explanation as to how this evidence supports your assertions.

4. Organization

There are two basic approaches to organizing your essay: block and point-by-point.



Paragraph discussing Erik W’s courage, resourcefulness, motivation

Paragraph discussing Uncle Jim’s courage, resourcefulness, motivation




Body paragraph discussing courage of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Body paragraph discussing resourcefulness of Uncle Jim and Erik W.

Body paragraph discussing motivation of Uncle Jim and Erik W.


Sometimes the combination of the prompt and the literary selections lend themselves toward using block, other times toward point-by-point, but generally, average writers use the block and stronger writers use point-by-point.  Point-by-point can allow for a more sophisticated synthesis, but it should only be used by a writer that is capable of this level of synthesis.  After you read the prompt and the selections, make up your mind which you think would generate the best essay for you to write.

Make sure you use transitions between your paragraphs.

5. Synthesize!

The danger of the block organization is that you will write about both pieces, but fail to synthesize.  One solution to this issue is to have a good thesis statement–one that explicitly answers the prompt.  If you do this, at least one sentence in your essay is bringing the two passages into dialogue, so you’ve likely avoided the zero.

Synthesis in a point-by-point essay will happen automatically.

Most of the synthesis in the block approach occurs in the second body paragraph.  In your discussion of the second text, regularly refer back to your discussion of the first text in support your topic sentence/thesis statement.

6. Don’t do Summary

As you discuss each selection in the body of the essay, don’t spend too much time summarizing the plot, or retelling what the poem says, or rehashing the ideas in the article.  Your audience, the markers, know exactly what happens in each.

Your task is to answer the prompt/prove your thesis.  Use the text to complete this task.  By summarizing what occurs in the story, poem or article, you may accidentally also address the prompt, but this sort of incidental success will be far less effective than a focused discussion of your thesis.

7. Nuts and Bolts

  • The exam instructions give a 300-word minimum.   With a decent thesis statement and adequate explanation, your essay will be about 600 words.
  • For this exam, you will be reading a story, an article, and a poem.  Make sure you refer to them with the proper label.  Narrative, excerpt or informational text work as well when appropriately applied.  It is usually not appropriate to call any of these passages a novel.
  • Use the word, but use synonyms as well.  “The word” is the main word in the prompt.  Upper-level writers will use this term sparingly, replacing it with appropriate synonyms.
  • Know the difference between then and than – if you don’t know the difference, go with than.  Because this is usually a comparison essay, that will be the right one most of the time.

8. Don’t write like this

Control of language is a clear indicator of a good writer.  Here is a sample of student writing:

It is only through close examination that the revelation of qualities shared by the protagonists becomes apparent.  It is through examination of the two stories that the reader understands . . .

This writer has said nothing in these 30 words.

The best way to get a six is to be a good writer who has the ability to read between the lines for or above the lines of the text.  But regardless of how good a writer you are, these tips will help you earn the highest possible score on the English 12 provincial exam and the future literacy exam.

See also: How to Write a Great Composition