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Top 10 Mistakes Students Make in English GCSEs

So often students ask me questions like: "What's an easy way to get top marks?" and "What do you get the 8 marks for?" as if there is an easy mark-by-mark formula. Sadly for them, my answer always has to be that doing the work is the only way! 

The mark scheme for English has always seemed to be more subjective than most and it deals with students' abilities to access both skills - like science and maths - and creativity and concepts - like art. So yes, there are some 'quick-fix' tips to give yourself the best chance at not missing out on marks, but there are also easy wins that will take a bit of time and investment.

Top 10 Mistakes:

  1. Not reading the question properly: it is astounding how many students lose marks because they have misread the question. If you use evidence from the wrong part of the text, you lose marks. If you analyse a topic that is different to the one specified in the question, you lose marks. If you only refer to one text or one part of a text when you are supposed to refer to more, you (unsurprisingly) lose marks. A lot of students rush over the questions because they are afraid of wasting time, but it's worth spending a good few minutes reading and re-reading them, and highlighting key points to make sure you don't waste easy marks. 
  2. Not reading the texts: I mean, come on! It feels embarrassing to even have to mention this one, but I have seen so many students miss out on grades they were capable of because they just couldn't be bothered to give up a few hours to read the texts.
  3. Not re-reading the texts: exam boards explain that the most important thing in securing good grades in English Literature is knowing the texts well. Students that have only studied 'key extracts' or that have learned set quotations by heart and will apply them regardless of what the question has asked are penalised for this. It's worthwhile to invest time into going back over core texts as often as possible - there's a good chance that this will be the difference between a good mark and a great mark because you'll be more likely to pick up on subtler ideas.
  4. Flouting guidance on how long to spend on each question: Don't get in the way of yourself! It's not uncommon for students to spend ages on 8-mark questions in the hope of proving how well they understand a task, only to have no time to answer longer ones; the effort is wasted here as you get marks for quality not quantity. And all of this happens so often at the expense of longer 40-mark questions. Use your noggin and don't neglect the big mark questions!
  5. Not annotating the exam paper: and by this, I don't mean just highlighting the odd word or phrase that you might want to use in your responses. I'm talking about spending that first 15 minutes of an exam reading and re-reading the questions and extract, and selecting all the evidence you want to use and making notes about your thoughts and ideas as you plan out your ideas. Few things in exam season fill me with more joy than seeing a well-annotated exam script. 
  6. Not planning: argh! In order to get a good pass mark for your writing, your [insert text type here] needs to be clear. Which means that it needs to make sense and have a logical beginning, middle and end. More often than not, the students that don't plan, don't know how their [insert text type here] will end before they begin writing, and it's so easy so accidentally go off on a tangent and lose out. Which leads on to...
  7. Not proofreading and editing: Imagine a world where politicians gave speeches that were still a first draft, and newspaper companies had no editors, and there was no such thing as a blooper-reel because there were no outtakes from film and TV. Anything worth reading, listening to or watching needs to go through at least one edit. You get marks for quality, so you're making a big mistake if you don't check through for errors (we all make them all the time - whilst writing this I wrote 'mater' instead of 'matter' because I was typing quickly!) and correct them, and if you don't invest your knowledge into improving your initial draft. 
  8. Being scared (1): you'll notice a theme emerging here - that lots of things that cause students to lose out on marks are things that take time away from the process of writing. You mustn't be afraid to slow things down in the exams. If you are writing all the way through, then sure, you're likely to be telling your friends after the exam that you "wrote 10 pages and had to ask for spare paper!" but it's really nothing to brag about! Anyone could write non-stop for 2 hours if it didn't matter what they were saying! But it does matter what you have to say, and the purpose of these exams is to see what ideas you have, and to have ideas, you need time to think. So take that time and use it wisely!
  9. Being scared (2): and writing nothing. Or not writing down an idea because you're afraid it's wrong. Or it's silly. Or it's not the thing your teacher told you to put. Once you're in that exam hall, that's it. It's your big chance. Don't waste it being a scaredy-cat. If you're not sure about answering, have a go. The worst case scenario is that you don't get a mark for that idea; the best case is that you do. It's a risk worth taking.
  10. Not taking advantage of the exam paper: If you have read an extract and analysed it closely, your brain should be buzzing with ideas about how to use language and structure in an effective way - so use this knowledge in your writing responses! It's not an accident that the questions in a language paper are usually on the same theme, and I'd go as far as saying that examiners expect you to 'magpie' ideas from the text in your own answers.