All exam essay questions start with a question (rather unsurprisingly!) so this is where we’ll begin.

The question should be the starting point of your thinking and the focus of every word and sentence of the essay.

Whatever format the question is in, read it more than once and underline the key words to use in your answer.  

Remember: the question is not there to trip you up!   

The three main types of question format are:

  1. Comparison questions
  2. ‘Feelings’ questions
  3. Questions with instructions

1. Comparison Questions

e.g. Compare the ways in which relationships between mothers and daughters are presented in these two poems.

Though opinions vary on the best way to structure comparison essays, we are strongly in favour of dealing with the two texts together as much as possible, rather than treating each one separately.

Every paragraph should deal with both texts, identifying a major similarity and/or difference between them.

2. ‘Feelings’ Questions

e.g. Discuss the ways in which Clarke expresses her feelings for her daughter in ‘Catrin’.

If faced with one of these ‘feelings’ questions, always identify the emotions expressed. This can be done in the first sentence of your introduction and try to identify more than one emotion.

So we might answer the question above by beginning our introduction with the sentence:

In ‘Catrin’, Clarke explores a mother’s strong feelings of affection towards her daughter but also acknowledges the tensions and conflicts between them, as well as expressing a combination of fear and admiration of her daughter’s growing independence.

3. Questions with Instructions

Some questions come in the form of a bullet-pointed list of things that you might like to include:

e.g. How does the poet express his feelings on the birth of his son?

You might consider:

a)  the ways in which he describes his son’s body

b) his description of his own emotions

c) how his feelings develop in the last stanza

The golden rule when faced with one of these little essay menus is to follow the bullet points in the order in which they appear in the question.

If you follow them, you’ve got your three main paragraphs.

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Dr Jonny Patrick studied at the University of Oxford and is Head of English at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London. He has extensive experience teaching GCSE and A Level English as Head of Department at one of the UK’s top independent schools. Dr Patrick has also worked as an examiner, making his advice in our Essay Writing series a must-read for any English student who is aiming to achieve outstanding grades.

Save My Exams have partnered with Connell Guides, publisher of How to Write an Essay, to bring you the best resources for GCSE and A Level English.