If you could have a set of keys that could unlock English Literature and give you the best possible chance of getting into some of the top universities in the world you would use those keys mercilessly to your advantage; you would unlock every door that had remained closed until the gates of heaven itself opened up to you; you would walk straight in, head high, coquettish, courting all the attention that was rightfully yours.

Well, sorry to say, no such collection of skeleton keys exist. If you want to get into the top flight of education, indeed, if you want to get into the top flight of anything, you have to work hard at it. There is, truly, no alternative to hard work, determination and the desire to be the best that you can.

Sure, the study of any language requires a certain degree of flair and fluency, a sense of style and a treasury of well crafted thoughts and phrases, however, the bottom line remains the same – acceptable performance and excellent performance are the direct result of the effort invested in their attainment. Excellent results require sustained effort.

So, if all that is required is effort, what will you find on this lens that will help you towards success in your exams?

Well, firstly, the secret of how to structure an essay that will impress the most frugal of exam paper markers. Secondly, a whole host of tips on how to tackle those difficult, unexpected questions. And lastly, because I like the simple elegance of triumvirates, a quick review of sites that could be invaluable in helping you to prepare for the exam.

English Literature

Curing Those Blindspots

Before we get down to thinking about structuring essays it is possibly important to note that studying A’ Level and Higher Level English Literature presents a number of challenges for most people. Everybody, without exception, has blindspots in their knowledge. Studying helps to reduce the scotoma in your appreciation of a subject but, when all is said and done, a course in literature is not going to make you an expert. Heck, a PhD in the subject will only make you an expert in a very narrowly defined area afterall, so a pre-degree course in literature is always going to leave you unprepared in some respects.

Having said that, the more you do to cure those blind spots the better your grade will be. The syllabus will already break the subject into digestible thematic areas; your task is to understand those themes, contexts and genres as best you can. A good knowledge of a theme, and of the context in which a book was written, will help you when it comes to analysing the text. Simply gathering knowledge about a specific text is insufficient for the award of the highest grades. Top grades are the result of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, or in other words, for displaying evidence of an ability to interpret texts in ways that add to what we already know about them. Retention and regurgitation of facts may suit some subjects, but, in the study of English Literature, a more analytical relationship with the materials is required.

Reading English At Oxford

In order to read English at Oxford you first need to impress an admissions tutor of your ability to closely read and interpret texts. This process takes the form of a 90 minute exam. The exam paper features six previoudly unstudied poems or extracts from prose or drama upon which the candidate is asked to complete this task; these extracts are from texts that are not currently on the syllabus and which are unlikely to have been read as supporting material. All students enter the exam with the same chance; no-one can prepare, cram or be tutored on the contents of the paper. The exact advice from the exam setters is as follows:

“Select two or three of the passages (a) to (f) and compare and contrast them in any ways that seem interesting to you, paying particular attention to distinctive features of structure, language and style. In your introduction, indicate briefly what you intend to explore or illustrate through close reading of your chosen passages. “The question is obviously very open, and gives the candidate the ability to approach the text from any number of directions. The examiners, however, are particularly looking for the way that candidates shape and articulate their responses. Linking these unfamiliar texts together, synthesizing them and evaluating them is the cornerstone of the process; therefore, practising these generic skills during your course is what you should be concerned with.

For those uncertain about the nature of close reading the university has provided some basic guidance and drawn upon the work of Elaine Showalter to explain the actions expected of such practice.”The close reading process, or explication de texte, that we use in analyzing literary texts does not have to come with the ponderous baggage of the New Criticism, or with political labels. Before or along with attention to factors outside the text, students have to understand something about the verbal, formal, and structural elements of the words themselves.”Or in other words, pay attention to the vocabulary employed by the writer; make some reference to the context; discuss how the texts are structured. Look for imagery, allusion, intertextuality, syntax and form. The examiners will be looking for more than a simple comparison of the texts. Be perceptive and demonstrate a high level of fluency.

Structuring Your Essay

As the exam is only 90 minutes long and a fair portion of this will be allocated to reading it is advisable to have a potential essay structure already in mind.

Obviously the first place to start is the introduction; take the time to consider what your essay is going to focus on and introduce your approach to the reader. You can afford to be just a little bit quirky here; enough to get the reader interested but not so much that the direction of the essay is obscured.

Follow the introduction with a first paragraph that sets out a close reading of one of the texts. Describe how the author has attempted to construct specific meanings within the text and link these directly to the broader question that you have decided to examine. Similarly, in the second paragraph, use a point of discussion of the first text as a spring board for a discussion of the second and subsequent texts. You should attempt to achieve some kind of balance within these first stages of the essay; think about how the writing constructs weighted and counter-weighted arguments.

The fourth paragraph should present the main thrust of your ideas. Bring the texts together in harmony, or clash them together like colliding atoms; state your case but be sure to entertain the reader. Evaluate the works as a whole and try to support the notion set out in your introduction.

Finally, conclude with a paragraph that succinctly restates how your close reading reveals something about how the extracts work together to create a complex picture of reality. It is not necessary to resolve dichotomies during the conclusion but your final paragraph should show how your critique of the texts has reach a resolution.

Top Tips

Writing is undoubtedly an art. Finding the right word, producing the most apposite of phrases, making the quotidian seem unfamiliar, all of these require an immersion in words and writing that few can truly claim to possess. Therefore, if you want a clue to unlock the mysteries of writing then it probably makes sense to ask the best in the literary trade. Therefore, here is a quick distillation of some of the very best advice from the world’s top writers.They are not exact quotes, what would be the fun in that. Consider them, instead, to be joyfully succinct paraphrases:

  • Cultivate a sense of beauty and you’ll be fine! – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Best sellers are largely the result of educational misadventure – Flannery O’Connor
  • Jane Austen makes me grumpy; no not grumpy, mad. – Mark Twain
  • Holy Schmoly. When it comes to writing, what the right hand giveth the left hand taketh away. – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
  • I really am much stronger than I seem. Just picking up a pen and writing is enough for me to cause the massive iron core of the earth to alter its shape and thereby reverse the magnetic flux of the polar regions. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Where to now?

For those of you looking for a bit of help to guide you on your way, and especially if you are sitting English Literature exams this year, here is a site that will keep the cogs of your mind well oiled. Good luck and if you get accepted be sure to not eat all the cheese.

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