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English 11-12

How To Prepare For HSC English Advanced Paper 1: Short Response Questions

In this post, we explain how to approach the short response section of HSC English Advanced Paper 1.

Looking for the New Syllabus Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences Short Response Guide? You’ll find our Ultimate Guide for How to Answer Common Module Unseen Questions, here!


Welcome to the second post in our Area of Study: Discovery series. In this post, we will show you how to prepare for the HSC Paper 1 Short Response Questions. The other posts in this series will show you how to approach the AOS: Discovery Module, how to write a Discovery creative, and how to produce a Band 6 Discovery Essay. If you are struggling for related texts for AOS: Discovery, we have suggestions that you can read in this post,  this posts, and this post that will help you out.

If you are after a broad overview of how to nail HSC English, you should check out our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English!

First, let’s look again at the structure of Paper 1:

English Advanced Paper 1 has three sections:

  • short response questions,
  • creative response, and
  • long response or essay section.

This post is concerned with section 1 the short response questions. This section should be guaranteed marks for the diligent student. But simple mistakes and poor time management can undo any good work from the other sections – the marks in section 1 add up quickly!

In section 1, students are presented with a set of three or more texts that they have not encountered before. They are then asked a series of questions that test their reading, comprehension, analysis, and written skills. What makes this section tricky are the unseen texts. The questions will range from being worth one mark to six marks out of a total of fifteen (the actual allocation of marks changes from year to year). The final question requires a miniature essay in response.

It’s hard to prepare for texts and questions that you haven’t seen before, but there are methods you can follow. Let’s consider some approaches to best tackle this part of Paper 1.

Preparing for the Exam:

While you can’t find out what texts and questions will be in the Short Answer Section, you can look at the ones from past papers. The Board of Studies website has all of the past papers of the current HSC format available for download on the NESA HSC Exam Paper Webpage. It is imperative that students familiarise themselves with the past papers and attempt to answer them. This will give you practice at analysing unseen texts and responding to the types of questions you will face in the HSC. The Board of Studies also includes marker feedback to the questions for all sections. The feedback for Section 1 is always quite comprehensive. After you have attempted a past paper, you must read the marking centre feedback to see what they were looking for.

Familiarise yourself with the AOS rubric and syllabus document (see page 9). The syllabus document offers definitions of discovery, explains processes of discovery, and offers possible outcomes of discovery. All the questions for the short response section will be drawn from the statements in this document. Studying the syllabus document closely will enable you to respond to the questions in the language of the module. This will speak directly to the markers’ expectations.

Sitting the Exam: Time Management

Planning your time for Paper 1 is essential. You have two hours to complete the section. That breaks down to 40 minutes per section and 10 minutes reading time. Often the unseen texts can be long. In the past, students have struggled to finish the texts during the reading time.

To help you overcome these challenges, here are some rules for time management:

  • Read the questions a couple of times before moving on to the unseen texts. This will tell you what to look for when you do look at the texts.
  • Don’t just read the texts, analyse them. As you read look for evidence that will help you answer the questions. The questions usually ask you to address specific ideas in each text. This is done to guide you to the examples you need to collect.
  • Try to identify several examples in each text. You need to respond to at least one question on each text, and then write a miniature essay on a at least one of them. Collecting as much evidence as possible on your first reading will make that easier.
  • Use your maths skills to calculate how much time to allocate to answering each question. Each mark is worth about two and a half minutes of your time. This means that for a two-mark question you don’t want to spend more than five minutes answering it. By this rationale, you want to be spending about twelve and a half minutes on a miniature essay worth five marks. If you don’t finish the question in the allotted time, cut your losses and start the next one.
  • Start with the question worth the most marks. Be strategic and guarantee yourself the most marks that you can. Starting with the five or six-mark question guarantees you a share of those marks. If you do run out of time before finishing one or two questions from the section, it is better that those questions are only worth one or two marks rather than a third of the paper!

Analysing the Texts

Don’t rush the reading of the unseen texts during the reading time. Reading the questions will guide you as to how the text should be read and analysed. The questions will ask you to discuss how a composer represents a specific idea from the syllabus rubric. You want to identify that idea in the text, and note how they represent it. Always look for at least three examples from the text. That way you have enough evidence to respond to several questions.

It is essential that you can recognise a wide variety of literary and poetic techniques prior to sitting the HSC. You want to focus on higher order techniques such as metaphor, motif, and irony over simple techniques such as alliteration. Your ability to spot higher order techniques will make analysing the texts far easier. You should practice on random short stories and poems you find on the internet. If you are unsure, ask your teacher.

Answering the Questions

In your responses, you need to answer the questions clearly and concisely. The exam constraints mean that you have no time to spare. You also must ensure that you are answering the question asked. Before writing a response, reread the question to ensure that it will be a direct answer. Do not recount the text, since this will generally not constitute an answer to the question. Instead respond as succinctly as possible to the question. As a rule, if the question is worth one mark, use at least one example and an explanation of its technique and effect. If the question is worth two marks, use at least two examples.

Remember, the markers are looking for detailed explanations of how an example represents an idea, not how many examples you can present. You need to respond to the ideas in the module. To do this effectively try to use terms and phrases from the AOS rubric.

The Extended Response Question:

The final question for the short response questions is usually worth between five and six marks and requires a miniature essay in response. It is important that you structure your response accordingly. This means you need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, all in miniature form.

The question will usually ask you to compare or discuss two texts (although the 2015 exam demanded a detailed focus on one text). Your introduction needs to briefly introduce your chosen text(s) and their relevance to the question. Try to include terms or phrases from the AOS rubric in your thesis, as this will directly address the module concerns. Keep your introduction under two sentences.

Your body needs to expand on these ideas. It is important that you use topic sentences to introduce your ideas. If you must discuss two texts, you need to choose between writing a divided (a paragraph on each text) or integrated response (discussing both texts in one paragraph). Whichever structure you choose, you need to present two or three examples from each text and discuss them in detail. If the question asks you to contrast them, don’t forget to discuss the texts in relation to each other. This will usually entail discussing how one text represents an aspect of discovery more effectively than another. Ensure that you relate your examples to the question, don’t just list technique, example, and effect.

Your conclusion needs to summarise your argument and relate it back to the question. Make sure that you restate your thesis. This needs to be at least one sentence, if not two.


 Reread Your Work:

Try to plan your time so that you have a few minutes left after each section to revise your work. It is a good habit to develop, as it will give you the opportunity to catch any glaring errors before you submit your work! Those are the types of mistakes that could cost you a Band 6 result.


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Written by June Heo

June launched the popular Matrix Blog in 2011 to make high-quality resources accessible to all students. Before working at Matrix she was a news producer at Sky News.


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