VCAA Examiner's Reports - Simple DO's and DON'T to Boost Your Marks

Published on
March 15, 2024
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What if you could read the minds of your exam markers? Assessor’s reports are basically gold mines for improving exam performance. They go through common student mistakes, how to fix them, and what good (and bad) answers look like, which is especially important in a subject like VCE English, where marking is highly subjective.

While we still highly recommend you read these reports for yourself – among other things, the sample writing is worth taking a look at – this list condenses the common, important advice from the last six years’ worth of reports. 


General Advice on Essay Writing


What you should do to score higher:

DO organise your time “so that enough time is left to proofread” (2017) at the end of your SAC or exam. 

DO answer the “actual question” (2019, 2020) “This is of critical importance and applies to all parts of the examination. It [is] disappointing to see clearly competent students failing to address the set question or twisting its meaning to suit their own purposes. Relevance to the topic is of primary importance in each section of the examination” (2019). “Students must answer the question on the paper.” (2020) 

DO choose your material carefully. You “must learn to judiciously choose textual material that is relevant to the set question and be brave enough to put the rest aside” (2021). 

DO make sure your handwriting can be read. “Basic handwriting legibility is emerging as a significant issue. Students need to be aware that assessors can only mark what they can read…. Students and teachers are encouraged to engage in classroom practice of pen-and-paper responses” (2021). 

DO plan. “Many very long answers were heavily descriptive and reliant on detailed and unnecessary quoting. Using the first five minutes of the time allocated to the task to plan a clear and coherent response would result in sharper, shorter, more controlled essays” (2022). 


What you SHOULD NOT do:

DON’T summarise. “There is little need for summary in any of the three sections. While the context of a particular point or indeed the text itself may need to be established, some students used too much of their available time presenting the plot. Students may assume that assessors have an intimate knowledge of the texts.” (2018) 
DON’T prepare answers. Not only does this “ignore the topic altogether” (2018), “previously learned and memorised elements” (2021) are unengaging as they can never be as fully relevant, rendering them less insightful than ideas geared towards the topic at hand. “There is a difference between ‘preparing answers’ and ‘preparing well’” (2020). 
DON’T use “unnecessarily extensive quotation”. “There is no benefit in retelling the story or summarising the author’s views and values in general”. (2020) 

Section A: Single Text Response 


There are many misconceptions about this component of the exams. Many focus on memorising quotes, vocabulary, answering questions. Examiners expect more than just quotes and plot summary. This section will summarise their advice and pet peeves in greater deatils.

What you should do to score higher in Text Response:

DO analyse using more than just quotes. You should demonstrate an understanding of the “diverse ways” (2018) or “many ways” (2020) in which multiple elements of a text convey meaning. For example, the “textual form” (2017, 2018) is extremely important, as in a graphic novel or film visual imagery is used to convey meaning. The 2019 and 2021 assessor’s reports mention the “construction elements” of a text, which includes poetic and figurative techniques, that can and should be used as evidence. 

DO use metalanguage, accurately and precisely. This “enables complex ideas to be communicated clearly and fluently” (2020), enhancing the quality of your essay. Metalanguage is especially useful for identifying techniques, such as figurative language or the range of film techniques employed by directors. 

DO be willing to “challenge” the topic (2019), presenting a contention which deals with the key ideas of the topic without entirely agreeing to the proposition. 

DO carefully, carefully consider the “wording of the topic” (2019, 2021). Not only is it recommended to use a dictionary to clarify the meaning of any uncertain words (2019), but analysing the “nuances of language in a topic” (2020) and the resulting “implications of the topic” (2020, 2022) are vital to a high-scoring response. It will guide your focus to an essay which is relevant and allow you to generate more interesting ideas if you strictly and intensely examine the words you have been given to work with. 

DO aim to connect your ideas and themes within your essay. This demonstrates a high level of knowledge, and is more likely to generate a “thematic discussion of the topic” (2019), instead of a list of examples, creating more interesting and fluid writing. 

DO acknowledge, in instances of studying a collection of poetry or short stories, that you are “commenting on the collection” (2019). It is important to present a “thematic discussion” (2019) of the entire body of work, not just selected pieces, to satisfy the demands of this exam section. 

DO use a “clear structure as a framework” to present your essay (2020). This means writing in an “analytical/expository form” (2020), using multiple paragraphs which are focused on arguments, that all link to a clear and sustained contention. Structure of the whole essay, and structure within paragraphs, is key to presenting your ideas with clarity. Your essay is, at its core, aiming to present analysis in order to form an argument, and your structure should aid you in this goal. 

DO express an argument. As basic as it sounds, the “need to present an argument” (2021) is often ignored, with students expressing lists of examples, or ideas connected to the topic, rather than presenting their own proposition in response to the topic. It is called a text response for a reason! 

DO make your conclusion worthwhile. Rather than viewing the conclusion as a summary, use it to succinctly present your “sophisticated reading of both text and topic” (2021). It is an opportunity to provide clarity to your ideas, and leave a final impression of elegance. 


What you SHOULD NOT do:

DON’T dismiss any elements of the topic. Ensure you have a “precise understanding of the words that comprise the task” (2017), and

DON’T “rewrite the topic to suit [your] own preconceived approach” (2018). This is the most consistent complaint of these reports across this study design, because it represents a fundamental failure of this task – in essence, you haven’t actually answered the one question you’ve been asked. 

DON’T use “a variety of polysyllabic words” because you think it makes you sound smart (2021). “To do so indiscriminately can sometimes impede communication” (2021), rendering your writing both pretentious and useless. Focus on presenting sophisticated ideas in simple language, rather than decorating simple ideas with sophisticated language. “Clarity is the key to effective communication” (2021). 

DON’T “memorise a response” (2019) of any kind. Even memorised introductions or singular paragraphs lack “connection to the set question” (2019), rendering them worse than useless: they have wasted your time. 

DON’T begin your essay’s introduction with  “lengthy, general observations about the text” (2022). At best, this just delays the beginning of your actual analysis, but at worst it wastes valuable time, and comes across as you “[lacking] confidence to directly address the question” (2022). 

DON’T try to talk about everything. “Inevitable, there will be content that students cannot discuss” (2020), so choose wisely, and choose what is most relevant. 

DON’T “conflate key ideas presented in the topic” (2020), or omit them. Once again, carefully considering all parts of the topic should be the foundation for your response. 

DON’T spend your time listing examples (2020). This is a task of analysis, and so evidence without an explanation of why it builds your argument will not help you form a high quality essay. “Those who simply discussed characters or plot points, without explaining how these were connected to the ideas and values of the author, struggled” in 2021.

DON’T “dismiss the topic” (2021). While challenging the topic is encouraged, it does not allow you to write something irrelevant to the initial topic. If the topic mentions one character, you cannot write an essay about a totally different character – there must be some mention of the key character. Similarly, a topic which mentions certain themes is not inviting you to write an essay that ignores that theme, and promotes a different one as the most important. Explore the ideas you have been given. 


Section B: Comparative Text Response 


What you should do to score higher in Comparative Text Response:

DO ensure you “examine distinctions” (2017) as well as similarities. “Often, it is the differences in the texts that offer thoughtful insights and development of the topic” (2017). 

DO use “precise topic sentences” (2019) to convey your argument and upcoming conceptual exploration. A topic sentence which just mentions the examples you will use, or very broadly touches on the themes you will explore, is nowhere near as useful as one which establishes the precise line of argument you will make. 

DO use metalanguage to “[illuminate] meaningful comparisons and contrasts, recognising that textual events and protagonists are effectively vehicles for highlighting ideas and issues” (2019, 2020). 

DO view topics extremely closely. “Topics should never be viewed as loose prompts, but rather as carefully worded questions that offer clear parameters about what is to be explored” (2021). The phrases “careful consideration”, or “close consideration of the wording” (2020), are used when it comes to reading and unpacking your selected essay topic. As the 2020 report eloquently states, “No words in a topic are redundant”. 

DO ensure you are exposed to “different styles” (2020) of essay questions. This is an element of preparedness.  For Section B, this means especially topics which use quotation instead of a propositional statement to prompt a discussion of ideas.

DO establish the concepts you’ll explore in your introduction. The Expected Qualities (ie the marking criteria for the exam) mention conceptual sophistication as a feature of a high-scoring response, and responses which “approach the question in a richly conceptual manner” were commended in 2020. Establishing such complexity in the introduction begins with the right impression, and ensures that your essay is geared towards a sufficiently thorough exploration. 

DO use a “tight and careful argumentative structure” (2021). “Structuring a clear and unified argument with which to resolve the chosen question…necessitated a clarity of intent from the outset of the comparative essay, as well as regulated and carefully sequenced topic sentences, leading to a logical conclusion” (2022). 

DO continue to evolve your argument throughout the essay. Crafting a “sustained and built upon” (2021) contention, which grows in nuance as evidence is analysed, demonstrates an organic and insightful thought process and strengthens the quality of your final conclusion. 


What you SHOULD NOT do:

DON’T think you are adequately comparing just because you use terms like ‘similarly’ and ‘in contrast’. “These in themselves are not comparison. They are only the framework for connections to be made” (2017).  To reiterate, “using the words ‘conversely’ or ‘similarly’ and then offering more information about the second text is not an effective means of comparing the two texts” (2018). 

DON’T offer too much textual information, at the expense of analysis. “Offering a general narrative about the texts” (2017), “an account of the attributes of protagonists” (2019), “excessive plot focus or lengthy descriptive passages” (2017) harms “the capacity to focus on the essential ideas and issues” (2020). In other words, it limits the thematic exploration of your essay, as spending too “much time telling the story or setting the scene” (2018) wastes the time that should be used unpacking language and making connections between the themes of your texts. 

DON’T try to cover everything. “Many students insisted on covering the breadth of the text, which did not leave enough time for detailed focus on the most important sections…[use] the text to explore the topic rather than trying to discuss the entire text” (2018). 

DON’T confuse ‘compare’ and ‘discuss’. Some topics do “not necessarily invite qualification. They [are] decisive and asking for conclusions to be made through comparison” (2018). If a thematic idea is named, and the instruction is to compare the two texts’ explorations, you cannot dismiss the given idea and write about another theme. 

DON’T waste your introduction by making it generic. “Opening with imprecision, such as ‘both the novel and the film came with many advantages, disadvantages, similarities and differences’, or with a dictionary definition – ‘freedom the condition of being free or unrestricted is key them explored … ’ – will be unsuccessful, as this does not suffice to outline a complex notion to be further examined” (2019). 

DON’T try to make the topic what you want it to be. If you only “address one key word in a given topic”, you will “thereby [miss] its overall intended direction” (2022), writing an irrelevant essay which cannot score as highly as one which is slightly messier, but much more relevant to the question you’ve been asked. 

DON’T attempt to make your writing more linguistically complex than it needs to be. “The expression used should facilitate a complexity of thought, without being pretentious, such that logical reasoning is continuously apparent” (2022). 


Section C: Argument Analysis

What you should do to score higher in Argument Analysis:

DO address the image. The Expected Qualities are specific in “defining the term ‘language’ as ‘written, spoken, and visual language’ and thus it [is] expected that students respond to any visual presented in the material” (2017). 

DO read the ‘Background Information’. This “sets the context from which the writers’ base their pieces” (2017), and allows you to more fully engage with the arguments presented. 

DO use comparison if you’re able to. While not mandatory in the examination, comparison can be used “to offer astute insight in how arguments and language were used by the writers to persuade” (2017). 

DO practice. Not that it should need to be said, but “students who scored most highly showed a confidence in analysing argument and language that comes with regular and authentic engagement with persuasive writing in many forms” (2017). 

DO write a fluent, contextual introduction (2018, 2022). “The best responses identified the overall purpose and intended audiences of the advertorial and letter, and used this as their context to structure their analysis of the key stages of the respective arguments and their purpose in positioning the reader” (2019, 2020). In essence, outlining the context demonstrates understanding, and allows for holistic analysis of the argumentative piece. 

DO analyse the construction of the piece (2017, 2018). “Students identify contentions, supporting arguments and relevant language use but [do] not always demonstrate understanding of how the argument develops and functions, how language is used to persuade and why it is intended to impact on the audience in a particular way. This is analysis” (2021). 

DO use “simple, accurate descriptors of tone” (2019, 2020). This also applies to tonal shifts throughout a piece. Complex vocabulary is not necessary, and using a word due to its sophistication, rather than its accuracy, harms the precision of your analysis. It is the analysis of “how the tone and/or tone change impacted the argument and audience” (2020) which will allow the nuance and sophistication of your ideas to be conveyed. 

DO comment on “language in context” (2019). Establishing the general connotations of a word is useful, for example, but linking it to exactly how it applies to the author’s argument is where it makes its true impact. 

DO note if there is more than one audience. Many articles have a “mixed audience” (2020), and recognising how different techniques appeal to audiences differently elevates your analysis, allowing it to be both more precise, and cover a broader range of persuasive techniques. 

DO be as specific as you can. Employ “a clear focus on particular arguments” (2020), and avoid creating a general discussion of what was said. 

DO focus on the “complexities” of the author’s argument (2021, 2022). Also mentioned in 2020, this practically means examining what wider motives the author might have for putting forth this argument and his/her ethical considerations. 

DO draw on pieces of language from across the article. Focusing on only one section of the article means losing valuable material, and likely indicates you have missed a key argument, or at least persuasive technique. “An ability to work across the material”, particularly when examining how one argument is dealt with in multiple ways, is “another mark of higher-scoring responses” (2022). 

What you SHOULD NOT do:

DON’T label techniques if you aren’t going to analyse them. Students “[listing] a series of techniques” was a complaint in every single assessor’s report for this study design (that is, from 2017 through to 2022). One piece of advice is consistently repeated in reference to this problem: “Identification is only the first step”. You “need to analyse how and why the argument is being developed in this way, and what persuasive impact on the audience is intended” (2019). 

DON’T skim over material. Particularly when more than one persuasive piece is given, “there is no expectation that discussions be equally balanced,” but “the material presented needs to be dealt with meaningfully” (2017).  

DON’T fall into summary. “Achievement in Section C [is] limited by student dependence on summary, restatement and paraphrasing, and their failure to analyse” (2021). To watch out for this, the pattern of comments such as ‘he speaks about’, ‘he then goes onto’, ‘he talks about’ and ‘he mentions that’ are clear indicators that the student is simply summarising and restating argument, not analysing it” (2020, 2021). 

DON’T use excessively long quotations. A “reliance on extraneous quoting” makes “lengthy paragraphs” which are “simply forms of summary and paraphrasing, with dozens of single words and phrases in quotation marks making up the bulk of the work. Students may be under the misapprehension that they are analysing language when they do this; in reality, they are simply copying from the paper. Any quoted language should be accompanied by analysis. Otherwise, the quoting becomes part of summary.” (2022) 

DON’T ignore connotations. “Why did the author choose to use these particular words? How did they add weight to the argument? What impact was [the author] seeking to have on his audience by using them?” (2020).

DON’T make evaluative judgements. This is “not relevant to the examination task” (2020) and, just to reiterate, it “has no relevance in examination analysis” (2021). 

DON’T list a series of tonal descriptors. “Gratuitous listings…caused some concerns. Students needed to show evidence of particular tone descriptors, link it to the author’s language choices and show how this impacted the argument and the audience” (2021). “Unnecessary”, “exaggerated” and “contradictory” listings of tone were also condemned in 2022. 

DON’T be general. “Too many students offered a general discussion rather than analysing specific impact on the audience” in 2019, and the use of “comments such as ‘grab the readers’ attention’ or ‘to get the reader interested’ are too generalised and vague” (2019).

DON’T structure your essay based on the chronological order of the material. Moving “through the material paragraph by paragraph…often [results] in excessively long and repetitious responses” (2022). 

DON’T write “lengthy, descriptive introductions” (2022). “These [add] very little quality to the analysis, and the student [is] wasting valuable time that would [be] better spent on examining the development of the argument.” (2022)




And, lastly, one final piece of advice – arguably, the most important. From the 2017 assessor’s report, the oldest in the current study design: DO “write with confidence”.