August 21, 2020 HSC Marking

How to adapt your English essay thesis to an exam question

This article demonstrates how to best adapt an English essay thesis, using George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as an example. This novel is currently listed as a prescribed text in the English Stage 6 Common Module Texts and Human Experiences. A thesis statement is undoubtedly the most important part of an English essay. A band 6 essay will constantly be establishing relevance of points by referring to this core point. How then, does one adapt a thesis statement to work with an unseen exam question?

When your teachers assign you a question for your draft essay, they will in all likelihood elect to use a fairly broad question. This is deliberately done so that the first draft of your essay will not be written in such a way as to have all effects and links exploring a niche concept. Consider the following two essay questions.

Question 1: “Nineteen Eighty-Four narrates a human experience which causes readers to view their own world differently. Do you agree or disagree?”

Question 2: “To what extent does the exploration of human experience in Nineteen Eighty-Four invite you to reconsider your understanding of loneliness?”.

Question 1 is a prompt which one would likely receive as a draft question. It focuses entirely on the broadest of points in the rubric (the human experience and a reconsideration of the world in general terms). Writing a thesis for a draft question like this is good practice for the more complex ones which one should expect for trials or HSC level. Do remember though not to place too much importance on perfecting a draft thesis, as your thesis should always change on day of an exam to directly respond to the exam question.

Upon reading Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, responders undoubtedly undergo a passage of mental revaluation of their surroundings, due to Orwell’s bleak depiction of the human condition.

As a side note, notice that the syntax of the above example is reversed. This is done purely so that the thesis does not read too similarly to the essay question. For the same reason, students should use synonyms for key essay words in the thesis. Consider the following, more unchanged version of a thesis for question 1, and compare it to question 1 itself. Nineteen Eighty-Four undoubtedly presents a human experience which causes readers to reconsider their surroundings, due to Orwell’s bleak depiction of the human condition.

Question 2 on the other hand, is far closer to what one would expect of an HSC level question (and was in fact the 2020 Module A stimulus). With this stimulus, student’s must hit on four key points.

1. To what extent does: students must decide on the extent to which the author achieves something. This is usually best answered simply by using an adverb (Orwell powerfully insights doubt in readers as he…)

2. A Human experience: students must refer to some aspect of the human experience.

3. Reconsider an understanding: students must refer to how the author causes audiences to reevaluate something.

4. Core idea of loneliness: Besides hitting on the above two syllabus points, students must also discuss the two points in the context of loneliness George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four presents a bleak human experience through a
dystopian lens, which insightfully invites audiences to reevaluate their understandings of solitude. It is clear then, that in order to successfully adapt to an essay question on the day of an exam, you must be able to identify the key points the question is attempting to get you to answer. The most effective way to do so is to write a starting thesis from a generic question, and to then practice with past HSC questions. Using these tips, you should be well on your
way to perfecting the art of adapting theses on the day of an exam!

The syllabus for year 11 and 12 English can be found here

Past HSC exam papers can be found here


By Josh Pricken