Have you got questions about HSC English? Don’t worry, we all did! But don’t sweat it, we have trawled through forums, asked people on Facebook and consulted the students we teach to find these HSC English Frequently Asked Questions!

These FAQ’s are aimed at all English students doing all levels of courses. If you’re looking for an FAQ specific to Standard, Advanced, or either of the extension units check our other English FAQs!

Q1: How do I get full marks?

Short answer: Fill all the criteria and answer the question perfectly.

Long answer: There’s no one way to get full marks on any exam, assignment or essay because what works for one person isn’t going to work for everyone.

English is incredibly subjective, and when it comes down to it, your success depends on how well you write and communicate your ideas. We can help you out with a load of different ways to get a Band 6, but as Elizabeth always reminds us, ‘There’s no such thing as a perfect answer’ and whilst she might sound like a Debbie-downer, there’s some truth in it.

Getting full marks can make you complacent, and can be highly unhelpful in helping you to make further improvements. The fact of the matter is that getting full marks isn’t the be all and end all of your studies so don’t obsess over that perfect 100%. Instead you should be looking at setting reasonable goals and working towards them.

If you’re currently sitting on a 70% average, aim to push it up to 75% or even 80% by the end of the term! It takes a lot of hard work, but by moving along smaller goals like this you’ll see greater improvement and you’ll actually be much more likely to maintain strong marks! There’s a helpful post on setting and achieving goals like these over here.

Q2: How do I choose a related text?

Condensed, the main things you need to be thinking about are topic themes, text type and literary meritWe have a whole article on selecting a strong related text over here:

How to Find a Related Text for HSC English in 3 Easy Steps

This means you want a text that has similar or relevant themes to the topic your studying, as well as being a different text type to whatever prescribed text you’ve been given. Literary merit is tougher to explain, but basically if your English teacher would scoff at the text, it doesn’t have literary merit (think Twilight and Captain Underpants).

Q3: What’s the best essay structure?

This is kind of a trick question, because the answer changes from person to person.

Generally there are 2 structures that work very well for essays discussing text comparatively, and these are the ones that tend to mark best in the HSC.

Structure 1 is an ABAB format that looks at two themes and how they compare across two texts. The A stands for the first text, B for the second, and you alternate paragraphs while discussing a set theme. For example if my themes were morality and wisdom, I’d write a paragraph for text A on morality, then a paragraph for text B on morality. Then you’d do the same for Wisdom; a paragraph for text A and one for text B. At the end of each B paragraph is generally where you comment on the contrasts and similarities between the texts.

Structure 2 is an ABC format, which is a little simpler but harder to do well, as you analyse three themes across both texts. In this case the letters stand for themes rather than texts, and you discuss both texts in one larger paragraph focussed on the theme. For example, if my themes were morality (A), wisdom (B) and empathy (C), I’d write a paragraph for each discussing how BOTH texts portray the theme as well as comparing and contrasting the texts. Because of how condensed this style is (to fit the extra theme) it’s much harder to pull off effectively.

Of course, this is all subjective, and if you feel that there’s a different way to write essays that works better for you then let us know in the comments section!

Q4: Does STEEL actually work or is it a useless acronym?

STEEL is love, STEEL is life.

If you don’t know what STEEL is, this is what you have been missing out on:

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No, but seriously? STEEL is actually an awesome paragraph format that teaches you how to effectively structure and balance your body paragraphs so that you write the best paragraph you can. It’s hard to take seriously when your teacher is just writing a bunch of letters on the board, but believe me, STEEL is a great tool to have.

By the time I got to the HSC I was using STEEL in every paragraph I wrote without even having to think about it, I just did it! Of course this was great for essays because I was writing on point body paragraphs, but it was also really useful for short answer questions as well. Plus, with a little tweaking you can actually apply STEEL to most subjects for essay writing, so it gives you a leg up there as well.

If you want to know how applicable it is, Elizabeth is in her fifth year of Arts/Law and currently studying at the University of Vienna, Austria and used STEEL on her Classical Literature essay on revolutionary literature of the 17th Century and she got a High Distinction for it. Take that!

I’ll say it again, STEEL is love, STEEL is life.

Q5: How many words can you write in 40 minutes?

Again, this varies.

I can write about 1,000 – 1,200 words in 40 minutes depending on how well I know my topic, how many practice essays I’ve written, how much sleep I’ve had and how heavy my pen is. I knew a guy who could memorise and rewrite 1,500 words essays in 40 minutes, and his handwriting was tiny which made it look like even more.

But then again, I also knew a guy who could barely get out 800 words on a good day and after 2 Red bulls.

Then you’ve got Elizabeth who can write 1,200 – 1,400 with a fountain pen (what a hipster!) but 900 – 1,100 with a biro.

¯_(ツ)_/¯

The fact of the matter is that time limits leave room for massive inequality, because people write at totally different paces and levels but there is no real way to amend this.

You really want to be aiming to write 1000 words in 45 minutes. That means about 250 words every ten minutes, or 25 words per minute.

It sounds like a lot, but considering the words you use most often are quite short (‘the’, ‘and’, ‘a’, etc.) it’s not actually that much of a stretch. You just need to learn how fast you can currently write and start building yourself up to write faster, which is something you can only do with practice. I’ve seen people tape marbles to their pens as weight training.

For every essay you have to write under time limits I recommend doing at least 2 practice essays with the same time constraints. It’ll teach you how to manage time and show you how fast you can write, so if you really can’t finish in time you can start cutting down, rather than just leaving a whole paragraph off the end of your essay. 

Q6: How can I memorise essays?

By rewriting them at least 5 times and using key words to jog your memory. That’s if you’re into remembering essays or not.

You’re never going to get it completely down word for word, but getting it as close as you can is your best bet.

It sounds harsh, but the only fool proof way to memorise an essay is to write it out a whole bunch of times in a few different ways. The point is really to memorise your themes/ideas, techniques and evidence so that you can move them around to suit whatever question you get. The 5 key writeups you should start with are;

  1. Type up a draft, edit it until it’s looking good.
  2. Write dot points for each of your body paragraphs.
  3. Handwrite the essay (no time limit).
  4. Dot point only your key ideas, techniques and quotes (separate to old dot points).
  5. Handwrite your essay under a 40 min time limit.

By the time you’ve done that you’ll know your points pretty well, but you’ll still need to practice writing it a few times adaptively. This means choosing a past paper or other question for the topic and rewriting your essay to suit it. That way when you get into your exam you’ll be able to answer the question properly, rather than just spewing out the exact essay you wrote at the start. 

Q7: What are all the literary/visual techniques?

We have an awesome set of lists that cover both of these topics!

Check out the literary techniques list here!

Click here for the visual techniques list!

Q8: How can I come up with a good creative writing idea?

This is pretty tricky. The truth is that some people find it really easy to just grab an idea and run with it, whereas other people can have good ideas but just don’t know what to do with them.

In general the best thing to do is look at other texts and see what makes their ideas ‘good’. Are you interested because of the characters? The setting? The plot? Does the atmosphere of the text make you want to keep reading, or is it more about the amazing descriptions? If you can choose one of these things and then build an idea around it you’ll be off to a better start than trying to grab an idea out of thin air.

That said, you don’t necessarily need a ‘good idea’ to write a strong story. Some of the best creative writing pieces focus on creating a sense of character and voice, and this is what makes them really strong, rather than some cool or whacky plot. If you can develop one or two characters with a really strong sense of voice you’ll be able to put them in pretty much any situation and have it be interesting.

If you need more help with creative writing, check out our massive Creative Writing Crash Course over here!

Q9: How messy can my handwriting be?

One of my best friends in high school had handwriting that looked like a drunk chicken had stepped in ink and then walked across his page. He got away with it mostly, but when it came time for HSC year our teacher took one look at it and said there’s no way that would fly on his exams.

As much as I wish I could tell you to be as messy as you like, your handwriting must be legible if you want it to be marked. That means if the markers can’t read it they won’t mark it, and with hundreds of essays to mark they’re not going to spend ages trying to figure out if that’s a ‘t’ or an ‘f’ you’ve written.

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If you know your writing is pretty messy you need to start trying to neaten it up and sort it out for the HSC. The best way to know how messy is too messy is by giving a practice essay (written under time limits) to a friend to mark and have them circle any word they can’t read. If there’s more than 2-3 words per page, your writing is still too messy and you need to keep trying!

Sometimes it comes down to having the right tools too! Elizabeth swears by LAMY AL-star Fine Nib Fountain Pen to get her writing even slightly legible (Exhibit A, above), but you might prefer your good old Bic Biro.

Q10: What the heck is Shakespeare on about?

It doesn’t matter what anyone says, Shakespeare always has and always will confuse people! It’s a mix of the old English, metaphors and play format (unless you’re studying his Sonnets) but generally he’s just a very confusing read.

The best ways to understand Shakespeare is to get an idea of what’s happening overall before trying to understand the little bits. I suggest watching the movie (which there are usually several of for each of his plays) and/or thoroughly reading through a summary on No Fear Shakespeare (it’s part of sparknotes). Once you actually know what the story is about and what you’re actually trying to understand it’s much easier to go through the text and know what’s happening.

If you’re still having trouble keep referring back to websites like No Fear Shakespeare, which explain the plays in simple English alongside the actual script. Obviously don’t forego reading the play itself, as these websites will help but they can’t be used when you’re actually analysing the work, so you still need to read the original.

Have a question for us? 

Flick us a message on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/artofsmart/), give us a call on 1300 267 888, or email us on info@artofsmart.com.au.


Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently studying a Bachelor of Design at the University of Technology Sydney and spends most of her time trying not to get caught sketching people on trains.