Why you're losing marks in English, and what to do about it.

Ok, so you've put in the work, but somehow your mark isn't what you hoped for. And that's what sucks the most, because you've put in the hours just like every other subject and the hard work just doesn't pay off.

In my first term of year 12, I got 10/15 for my first assessment worth 25%. And it sucked. I thought there would be no way I'd recover. With such a huge hit to my ranking, causing me to go from rank 2/260 in year 11 to 108/260 in year 12, there would be no way I could make a comeback - after all, your ATAR is all about rank right?

It took a near miss with insanity, a million practice essays experimenting with different styles and badgering my poor teacher an awful lot, but I was in fact able to revive myself from such a mark and figure out an approach to English which allowed me to achieve a state rank in 2018, so here's what I learned :)


1. Not engaging with the purpose of the module.

Each module has a nuanced purpose to it, and therefore a band 6 essay requires analysis that engages with the text through the lens of the module it is written for. This might seem simple enough, but the syllabus only list out a few terms that are highly vague, so it's no wonder that students don't properly understand what it truly means to write a "Mod A" or "Mod B" essay - leaving many questioning why marks have been taken off when the analysis seems solid.

Ok, so what is the purpose of each module?

To start, the common module requires you to engage with the role of literature and storytelling in igniting a renewed perspective towards the human experience. Students very often overlook this key aspect of the common module and merely focus on the specific themes present in the text (such as totalitarianism, identity, prejudice, etc.) rather than how the composer's representation of such themes through the art of storytelling inspires us to reflect on the philosophical or political climate of our own human experience.

E.G.) You might end your introduction with a phrase like:

At the crux of Orwell’s portrayal of the human experience in his novel is the unveiling of the prosaic power of dystopian fiction to hold a mirror to our world, and thereby awaken our consciousness to the paradoxes and inconsistencies of human behaviour which continue to plague the modern landscape.

This does a few things:

  1. It references the power and purpose of storytelling: "the prosaic power of dystopian fiction to hold a mirror to our world"

  2. It links back to human experiences: "awaken our consciousness to the paradoxes and inconsistencies of human behaviour"

  3. It explains why a study of human experiences is relevant to us: "... human behaviour which continue to plague the modern landscape".

**NOTE: Even though this concluding sentence is specific to 1984, every text will have its own purpose and link back to the value of literature, so definitely follow the same structure!

Where exactly do you talk about this? The concluding sentence of your introduction and sprinkled throughout your body paragraphs.

2. Your essay points and themes sound like they came straight from SparkNotes.

In every essay, you must be weary of the way you frame your body paragraph ideas. You can most definitely use the generic themes that most essays explore in your essay (I mostly did too) so long as you do not frame your thesis and ideas in a way that is generic.

So how exactly do you do that?


Body paragraph idea 1 -

How totalitarian control and surveillance can suppress the human experience

INSTEAD explore:

The paradoxical power and fragility of language as a vehicle through which we shape human thought and identity.

And THEN link the ideas about totalitarianism and how the suppression of autonomy leads to the devaluing of the human experience etc. All the key themes – memory, history, surveillance, control etc. are all rooted back to this core concept about the dual power and fragility of language, as political authorities distort language, stories and thus truth as a vehicle to fortify their position of power.

**Since I can't attach documents, follow the steps below to download the free resource i've written on 1984 that further elaborates on this!


The best body paragraph ideas and thesis statements frame ideas through some form of paradox or dichotomy which exists in the human experience. Approaching your body paragraph ideas in this manner will show the marker you are clearly engaging with the complexities of the human experience, and also indicates a personal engagement with the text (since most students will be writing about the generic themes as they are!).

3. Not enough evaluative sentences.

If you're getting comments about not answering the friggin question, this is probably why.

If you get a "to what extent" does the statement hold true question - how do you show the extent that you agree?

The trick with questions like “to what extent” or “discuss the validity of the statement” is to actually partly agree and partly disagree. This sCrEAMs engagement with the question and the marker will appreciate your critical evaluation of the statement, rather than blatant agreement with it. If it’s not a “how” question, then the question is almost always specifically crafted in a way where you can both agree and disagree with it. The markers want to see you thinking deeply about the question and not just a regurgitation of your prepared essay.

Here's a guide for you to follow :

The perspective that *statement* is largely reflected in the (composer)’s representation of (ideas relevant to the human experience and the question in your text). However, whilst (part of the statement that IS true) is partly true of (composer)’s investigation of ( relevant idea, e.g. the human quest for autonomy), he/she extends beyond a mere exploration of (relevant part of statement)by also representing (the contrary of the statement which doesn’t hold true).

*statement* : you only need to include the parts of the statement that are relevant here.

4. Not enough quotes and analysis.

This one is pretty obvious, but time and time again I see students analysing like 2 quotes per paragraph, and allocating multiple sentences to analyse a single quote. This is NOT efficient and effective.

All the state ranking and full mark essays that i've seen all have one major thing in common. They are packed with analysis and quotes. In saying this - PLEASE do make sure to check with your school teachers what their standards are, as every English department has their own nuanced way of marking (as if the HSC isn't complicated enough already) and it's crucial you find out what they're looking for.

But as a general rule of thumb:

  • In a 3 para essay: 4-5 MINIMUM complete points of analysis in every paragraph (this means a quote, technique and an insightful piece of analysis on it)

  • In a 4 para essay: 3-4 MINIMUM complete points of analysis in every paragraph.

If you find that you are unable to fit this amount of quotes and analysis in your writing, then it's a sign your writing isn't succinct enough. There are a few ways to write more succinctly, but a closer look at your writing style is required to pinpoint what exactly is raking up your word count! Ask your school teacher or tutor about how you might want to go about this :)

Aaaaaaand that’s it folks! I really hope you got something out of this small article of mine and that you are all having a rockin day.

If you found value in this article please join me in a class! I would love to get to know you and pass on my knowledge of the English syllabus since I’ve only touched the surface of a few tips here in this article. Feel free to get in touch via our 'Contact Us' form and subscribe to our mailing list for more helpful blog posts like these :)

To preview my class material (the resource mentioned above), click here.

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