The single most common question I hear when it comes to HSC essay writing is whether or not to memorise them.

Some people swear by pre-written essays, while others use the pressure of exam conditions to pump out extended responses.

There’s strong arguments for both sides, and most people have a preference, but to figure out which way is ‘best’, we have to look at exactly what they offer.

Memorising HSC Essays

“Many teachers did not recommend having prepared essays, however in my experience I have found that this approach has been very successful. The key factor is that you need to actually tailor your prepared essay to the essay question on the day.” – Madeline, 97.55 ATAR

I’ll admit that I’m biased – I memorized all but one of my essays for the HSC and went into most exams feeling confident, so I’m all for prepared responses.

A lot of what makes memorized HSC essays strong is that you have time to refine them as you write and rewrite drafts in preparation for exams, and they give you a way to plan things down to a t.

At the same time, there are drawbacks to knowing your essays by heart, mainly because they don’t give you much room to adapt to unexpected questions.



Pros of Memorising Your HSC Essay

  • Confidence – having a planned response ready to go when you walk into the exam room is an instant confidence boost, because you already know what you’re going to write!
  • Refining – because you have to rewrite your essay a few times in order to remember it, you’re able to spot problem areas and refine your response each time, leading to a much more sophisticated essay.
  • Concise – being able to give yourself an approximate word count to aim for makes it a lot easier to map out a concise, to-the-point essay that you can reproduce in the exams.
  • Time – knowing exactly how much you plan to write takes some of the guess work out of time management and lets you manage your exam time far better. 

Cons of Memorising Your HSC Essay

  • Adapting – it doesn’t matter how good your essay is if it doesn’t answer the question, and if the question on your exam paper is nothing like the one you prepared your essay for you’re in a major tight spot.
  • Improvement – even if your prepared response suits the question, it often doesn’t fit perfectly, and many students don’t think to make small changes to their memorised essay in order to make it better answer the question.

How to pull it off: RATT

Step 1 – Rewrite (R)

  • Aim to write your essay at least 3 times (4 is ideal) before your exam and make at least one small improvement each time.
  • This follows the Rule of 3 – from our research with top performing state ranker students we found they would re-write out their notes and essays a minimum of 3 times!
  • The improvement you make each time may mean choosing a stronger quote for evidence or changing your conclusion.

Step 2 – Adapt (A)

  • Using past paper questions, try to adapt your essay at least 3 times (as part of the 4 rewrites) to different questions.
  • This will make it easier for you to adapt in the exams and prepare you for different question types.

Step 3 – Themes (T)

  • Break down your essay into the key themes or ideas your talking about, as well as the quotes/evidence for each theme.
  • Mind map or dot point this for easy recall and to use as study notes.

Step 4 – Time

  • Complete at least 2 (as part of the 4 rewrites) timed practice papers under exam conditions.
  • This way you can learn how your essay fits into the given time and manage it as such.
  • For example; if you have an hour, give yourself 15 minutes per paragraph and 7 minutes each for your introduction and conclusion.

Grab a practice essay you wrote (or an essay from your trials, etc.) and a question from one of the English Past Papers. Now spend 5 minutes quickly planning out how you could change or adapt your essay to suit the question!


Improvising HSC Essays

“I would recommend doing practice exams and revising material rather than attempting to memorise essays and creative responses.” – Lucia, 90 ATAR

There was only one essay that I went into in my HSC that I didn’t have a memorized response for, and I’ll admit it was daunting.

While I made it out alive, with a strong essay and a good mark, a lot of that came down to the fact that I had practiced writing essays for the subject beforehand.

This means that even though it’s considered and ‘unprepared essay’, there’s definitely a fair deal of work that goes into making sure you can deliver a strong response on exam day.



Pros of Improvising

  • Adapting – because you don’t have a set plan of what you’re going to be writing, it’s much easier to work to the question and deliver an essay that answers it properly.
  • Pressure – it sounds odd, but a lot of people actually work incredibly well under pressure, making ‘unprepared’ essays something they can take on easily, knowing that the pressure of the exam will motivate them to write an awesome response.
  • Preparation – not having to memorise an entire essay takes a lot of weight off your shoulders and makes it a fair deal easier to focus on overall preparation – knowing your quotes, themes, etc.


Cons of Improvising

  • Planning – having to come up with an essay on the spot can be really tough, and often means you’ll spend a fair deal longer planning your essay than if you memorized one.
  • Time – because it’s harder to know how much you’ll write, time management can be much trickier, and it’s very easy to accidentally run out of time.
  • Waffling – not the breakfast food! When you haven’t planned what you’re going to say in an essay it’s very common to begin repeating yourself or lingering on one point for too long – in other words, you waffle!
  • Blanks – everyone is scared of going into an exam and suddenly forgetting everything about the subject, and while this doesn’t happen that often, mental blanks during exams are one of the biggest downfalls of unprepared essays.
  • Evidence – it seems obvious, but a lot of people forget that they’re going to need quotes in their essays – meaning when it comes time to write they have no evidence to back up their ideas.

How to pull it off: PPET

Step 1 – Prepare (P)

  • Work out at least 4 key themes/ideas central to the subject and then dot point or mind map different arguments you could develop in an essay so that you have some plans in the back of your mind.

Step 2 – Practice (P)

  • ‘Unprepared’ doesn’t mean unknown, so write unplanned essays for at least 3 past paper questions, using the 4 ideas/themes from above as concepts for your body paragraphs.

Step 3 – Evidence (E)

  • Based on the 4 ideas/themes you’ve been writing about, collect a bunch of quotes/statistics/evidence you could use to back them up and memorise 1-2 pieces of evidence per theme.

Step 4 – Time (T)

  • Make sure that at least 2 of your 3 practice responses are timed so that you can learn how to manage your time in the actual exam. Try to check the clock after each paragraph to keep on track.

 Give it a try

Grab two questions from the English Past Papers and spend 10 minutes jotting down a super quick essay plan for how you’d answer each.

The Verdict

At the end of the day there’s merit to both memorised and unplanned essays – a lot of it comes down to your own preference and how you prefer to work.

I’ve always liked to micromanage, making memorised essays perfect for me, because they let me feel confident and in control during my exams. At the same time, I often envied people who could remember a few key ideas and then punch out an awesome essay in their exams.

If you work well under pressure and feel comfortable planning essays on the spot, then unprepared essays will probably work well for you.

At the same time, if you like to know exactly what you’re going to be doing before you step into the exam room, memorizing your responses can give you that extra confidence boost. It’s all about what you feel comfortable with and what you know you can achieve!



Have Your Say!

Are you an essay-memorising machine? Or can you go in blind and smash out record-breaking responses? Let us know what side of the debate you’re on!

[dilemma id=3512][/dilemma]

Have something to add to the mix? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!


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.