breaking it down exam questions and thesis statements

They say the beginning of something is always the hardest part, and this is especially true for essays. You’ve read the question; you know what to want to say, but actually writing it out takes careful planning and a fair idea of where you want to go with your essay. The first point will be to decide whether to agree or disagree with the statement, and to what extent. Once you have done this, create your own statement that not only answers the question but gives your opinion on the issue.

Let’s try an example:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne)

Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

Now the first step would be to break down the quote. We immediately see that Donne has created an image of mankind as one, that we are all interconnected, or that we all “belong” to a certain group as we are all human. For arguments sake, we will take this as a positive metaphor that humanity is a group that includes all of us, as natural as the connectedness of a land mass – that no one is alone and the death of one can affect us all.

The next step is to pick a viewpoint. Do you agree with this? What about the texts you have chosen? Do they show evidence of a collective humanity? When you ask yourself these questions, keep in mind that whatever point you make, you will need to back it up. This can be done by finding techniques and examples in the prescribed and chosen texts, and also addressing the “why or why not” part.

Thesis statements agreeing with this quote will talk about the positive aspects of humanity and how the chosen texts explore why a sense of belonging is a good thing. This will invoke thesis statements that can easily be expanded on, such as:

  • The need to belong to a group or a community shapes our behaviour, attitudes and actions.
  • We search for a place to belong, not realising that it is our perceptions and attitudes and not the place that allow us to belong.
  • When we begin to understand the forces that drive us to belong we develop empathy for others and personal insight.

However, this is just one interpretation of the quote. Another exploration, for example, could go the opposite way, that we are tied into humanity and have no choice but to be a part of it.

The possibilities of interpreting this quote are endless, and this is the beauty of HSC English – it’s not always about what is right, but how one can articulate and express their point of view. Even in the marking criteria, teachers do not look for whether you have given a certain answer or whether it is correct or incorrect. The will consider how you take a point of view, write a succinct thesis and back it up with the points you make in your essay.