Student at the library
November 30, 2020
4 mins read

The ins and outs of English exams

At some point, all UBC students will need to take a course related to English. Therefore, all students will eventually come up against the strange beast that is the English exam.

English exams are a curious thing. I mean, how do you study when you've already read the books? It’s all just interpretation, right? While interpretive essays might not require the memorization of dates and facts, a lack of preparation can lead to some trouble on exam day.

As with any final, the English exam comes with its own ways to study and prepare. Here are a couple of tips and tricks I've learned as an English Lit major that can help with the process:


Each term is packed with lots of information stretched over several months of class. I can’t recall what I had for lunch yesterday, let alone what I read three months ago! Given this, it’s beneficial to refamiliarize yourself with course texts.

I’m not suggesting you reread Moby-Dick the night before your exam, but it’s worthwhile to brush up on the course material. A real pro tip is to note which sections your prof has mentioned in class, and focus your attention on those.

While rereading, firm up your knowledge of the plot points, the characters, and the overall structure of the work. Make notes in the margins and underline passages that might be relevant during the exam (but keep in mind that some professors have rules against consulting marked texts when writing a final). In doing so, you’ll have a fresh understanding and a quicker recall when it comes time to take the exam.

Passage identification

Certain texts have passages that stand above all else—the passages that come to mind when we think about literature, the passages that ask “to be, or not to be?”. These passages are notable for a reason—they are rich in timeless themes and imagery. So timeless, in fact, that they might pop up on an exam centuries after they were written.

It’s common for English exams to have direct passage analysis sections, so it’s a good idea to study a selection of passages beforehand. Read them for their imagery, their use of certain poetic devices, their themes, and their importance in relation to the overall work. Even if the passages you’ve studied don’t come up on the exam, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of the text in the process!

An open notebook and an open textbook

Organizing key themes

An essential aspect of English study is the identification of a work’s themes. In other words, what messages is the author trying to convey? How does the author go about conveying them?

Essays are often built around thematic analysis, so I find it helpful to compile a list of the main examples from each text. Then, I brainstorm potential questions that could be drawn from each. For example, if you’re reading Macbeth, think of the ways that violence and ambition factor into the play, and how they could be worked into an essay. Just remember not to bite off more than you can chew—you only have a short amount of time to write!

Exam questions often ask for comparisons across multiple works, so note the similarities and differences between the thematic content of each text. I find Venn diagrams particularly helpful for this task. After all, if two books share a distinctly common—or a distinctly conflicting—theme, there’s a good chance it could come up in the exam!

Reading around the text

For each literary work, there’s an ever-growing body of review, interpretation, and analysis that surrounds it. With your exam-based essay, you’ll be adding to that collection. As such, I find it incredibly useful to read what other writers have said about the texts that will be on the upcoming exam.

I often take a look at the (fantastic) website Literary Hub, to see if there are any recent articles on the subject. Then, I’ll head over to UBC Summon (UBC Library's search engine) and search for content related to the respective book. While you can’t rely solely upon others’ ideas for your essay, you can use this as an opportunity to orient your approach and spark ideas of your own!

Game time

Okay, so it's exam day. You’re a little nervous, but you’ve studied hard and are ready for whatever comes your way.

Keep an eye on the time—three hours can pass by in a flash, so portion the time out accordingly. I generally start with the section that is worth the most points first and return to proofread and edit if I have time after completing the other sections.

Also, I know this goes without saying, but it’s important to read the questions carefully so that you don’t accidentally write two essays instead of one (as I did in my English 110 exam). It’s also a good idea to include a title with each piece you write.

If it’s an open-book exam—be careful! In my experience, open-book exams inspire a certain amount of risky hubris. The assurance of having the book to reference may lead one to feel like they don’t need to prepare ahead of time. Instead, let your knowledge take charge, and only rely upon the texts to find relevant quotes now and then.

Now breathe deeply, and give it your best shot!

Just remember, like anything, English exams get easier with practice—the best place to start is with some solid studying!

Beyond this article, there are plenty of resources to help with the study process. Check out the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication, one of the many great services offered by the UBC Learning Commons, and get feedback on your previous writing.

Header photo credit: Jamil Rhajiak / UBC Brand & Marketing