How to tackle WACE ATAR English like a pro

English can be confusing to study for since the exam isn’t as “straightforward” as subjects like maths or science. Here’s my advice on how to make it all a little bit easier!

5 months ago   •   4 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Patrick Tomasso / Unsplash

It’s inevitable: you’re going to have to study English at some point in your school life. Pretty much every uni in Australia requires students to have a certain level of English study. If you’re not a fan, it can seem boring, arthritis-inducing, and an all around waste of time in your already chaotic senior school years.

So why is English so important anyway?

It teaches you how to write. In uni and future employment, you’ll be making reports, analysing information, doing oral presentations - all things that high school English prepares you for!

It also teaches you how to think. Take maths, for example. Does the guy managing your local Woolies need to do multivariable calculus everyday? Probably not, but studying maths taught him to work through each problem logically and arrive at a solution. English does the same thing. It teaches you to critically analyse and interpret information; which is really important in today’s world, as conflicting ideas and opinions are being thrown at us from every angle.

English can be confusing to study for since the exam isn’t as “straightforward” as subjects like maths or science. Here’s my advice on how to make it all a little bit easier!

How to study for English

First things first: get a solid understanding of all of the terms in the syllabus. What’s the difference between a “convention” and a “language feature”? How does “voice” and “tone” relate? What do I do when a question asks me to “Discuss” instead of “Explain”? Knowing how to navigate these will let you write straight-to-the-point instead of waffling on for ten pages about irrelevant stuff.

The SCSA website contains the syllabus and a glossary of keywords used in questions (like “Discuss”). If you scroll down to the bottom of the syllabus you’ll find another glossary of terms specific to English ATAR (like “Stylistic features”).

You can also find past exams on the SCSA website. These are your most valuable resources, even if you’re in Year 11. They are the number one source for practice questions to use when studying.

From there, I used a different study strategy for each section of the exam.

Comprehending

In this section, you’ll get three texts (both written and visual) and three questions. Sometimes you’ll get two texts, and the third question will ask you to compare them. You should aim to spend 20 minutes on each question.

Here’s my method:

  1. Set a timer for 20 minutes and answer a question. I used the same format for each one: Thesis statement, then 2-3 body paragraphs. (No intro or conclusion needed - you want to be concise in this section)
  2. Get feedback from your teacher/tutor.
  3. Repeat.

The timer is the most important bit! It’ll prepare you for the quick thinking needed in an exam.

Don’t forget to take the feedback on board so you can improve with every cycle.

Responding

In this section, you’ll write an essay about one or more of your studied texts. Choosing the right question is the first part of the battle - some texts just aren’t as good for certain questions compared to others.

In senior school, there was no way I had the time to write full-length essays everyday! Here’s what I did instead:

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Choose which text to talk about and break down the question by highlighting keywords. Then write an essay ‘scaffold’: thesis, then topic sentence and evidence for each body paragraph.
  2. Repeat for as many questions as possible.
  3. Turn a few scaffolds into full-length essays for feedback.

By scaffolding a lot of questions, you’ll train your brain to apply your texts to any concept the exam throws at you. I found this was more effective (and faster!) than writing out full essays for only one or two questions; it helped me to avoid ‘regurgitating’ the same essay for completely irrelevant questions, which is what examiners hate.

However, it’s still important to write a few full-length essays - you don’t want exam day to be the first time you do this! Be smart about it, though. Every exam will have a ‘voice’ question, a ‘perspective’ question, a ‘genre’ question, a comparative question… if you write at least one essay for each main concept, you’ll be pretty well-prepared.

Composing

Time to get creative! There are three types of texts you can write here: narrative, interpretive or persuasive (look at the syllabus for examples of each type).

Get familiar with each type through practice. Also, play to your strengths. I found it impossible to think up interesting narratives in the time limit, so I leaned towards interpretive and persuasive texts. Persuasive texts are easier if you can’t come up with ideas: simply choose a topic that can be applied to many questions (such as climate change) and practice writing about that.

In your spare time, read, read, read! Articles, novels, open letters… by exposing yourself to as much stuff as possible, you’ll subconsciously pick up what they do well and reflect it in your own writing.

As always, seek feedback! Use it to improve with every text you write.

It’s exam time!! What now?

Take a deep breath! You’ve worked hard to get to this point. The day before, make sure you pack a LOT of spare pens. And get some sleep.

With one hour for each section, you’ll essentially be writing nonstop from start to finish (with quick breaks to highlight key words in questions, jot down your essay plan, annotate images, etc). This means the 10 minutes reading time is the most valuable ‘thinking time’ you’ll get out of the whole thing.

Use your reading time to make a ‘mental scaffold’ for each section:

  • Choose a Responding question and get a rough idea of your thesis and what each paragraph will be about.
  • Read the texts in the Comprehending section. Break down each question in your head and think about what evidence you’re going to use.
  • Choose a Composing question and decide what form your narrative, interpretive or persuasive text will take.

It’ll help you loads to already know (roughly) what you’re going to write, so you can spend the whole three hours getting it on the page.

Then, time to start writing! Responding is the most heavily weighted (40%), so don’t leave it till last minute - I’d complete this first, then Comprehending, then Composing.

Good luck and have fun tackling WACE ATAR English!


Written by Jhermayne Ubalde. Jhermayne tutors Chemistry and Human Biology ATAR and is currently pursuing medicine at UWA. You can view her profile here and request her as a tutor.

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