Dealing with the essay question (1)

Look at things from a different perspective.

Writing essays for exams involves setting aside – to a certain extent – your own personal preferences in order to choose what is the best side from which to approach an argument and accepting the constraints imposed by the time you have in the Leaving Certificate exam – in Spanish, that’s about thirty minutes.

There is no one way to write an essay but over the years, I have found that each of these steps has helped different students to improve their essay-writing, most particularly in terms of the content and structure of the essay.

When you go into the Spanish exam, you have four reading comprehensions to do: a long one on what I always consider a more “approachable” or “accessible” topic (often – recently – somehow education-related), two short ones, and a second long one on something more topical like drugs/alcohol/bullying/electric cars (2010)/child slavery etc.

The essay question – also known as the “link question” or “opinion piece” is attached to the second long comprehension, in that it appears at the end of the questions on this comprehension. However, you should NOT fall into the trap of thinking you can or should link the content of the essay to the content of the comprehension. Nor should you lift phrases or sentences from the text.

You need to produce original content, not just regurgitate ideas or phrases.

When you get into the exam centre on the day of the Spanish exam, make sure that you get a booklet for rough work (you should do that for every exam). You can then quickly scribble down any of the things that are just on the top of your head whether that be verb endings, an opening sentence for your essay or note, a closing sentence that you might be able to use, a subjunctive phrase that you’re going to try to stick in or anything else that occurs to you before you open the exam paper.

When you open the paper, remember that the very first comprehension is on the novel (so only do that if you have studied the novel with your teacher) and take five minutes to skim the entire paper. Register what each of the comprehensions are about, read very quickly through the dialogue and maybe scribble onto your rough paper any words that you see that you know are difficult/constructions/verbs that you know you’ll have to use, read through each point of the note or diary entry, then look at the two essay titles. Try to understand them before you begin to do the paper; your brain is an amazing thing – as you’re working on the comprehensions and other parts of the exam, your brain will be working away subconsciously on ideas for the essay.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be really clear on the what both essay titles mean. Then you’ll be able to decide which you prefer, and after that, whether you agree or disagree with the title. You’ll really have a choice of four titles. But, life being life, it could be that you only fully understand one of the titles. If that’s so, that’s the one you need to do – don’t take a chance on an essay title you don’t understand. Of course, worst case scenario, you mightn’t understand either. If that happens, leave the essay till the end in the hope that something will help you understand the title (usually the titles are taken from sentences within the second comprehension, so if you find the phrase or sentence in the comprehension, sometimes the context will make everything clear).

Brainstorm the topic before you write the essay. This will probably happen in three stages – when you’re doing your quick scan of the paper and you see what the topic is about; as you go through the paper doing the other sections and ideas occur to you; in the three or four minutes you dedicate to planning your essay just before you write it.

Before you get into the exam hall, to prepare for your essay, have an opening few sentences you could apply to any topic. Likewise a closing.

After that, you need to look at the structure of your essay. I tend to advise on a five paragraph essay, though this will, of course, depend entirely on you. When I correct my own students’ work though, I look for good structure, because structure aids content. So what do I want from these essays?

An opening – tell me what you’re going to do in the essay

Three paragraphs – where you develop what you’ve told you’re going to do, giving examples from life/society, referring to something in the past and the future, and generally building up an argument that you can believe in (this is where your mind-map will come in handy, because you’ll see where different ideas can be put together to build paragraphs).

A closing – remind me what you said you were going to do in the essay! Point out how you’ve done it.

Within the essay, try to consider the essay title’s effect on:

1. YOU – you personally/ your family / your friends / your school / your neighbourhood etc.

2. Ireland – Dublin/ Irish society / the government here / young people in Ireland / school-goers in Ireland etc.

3. The world – Europe / other countries / young people in other countries / governments in other countries / current affairs in the world.

Alice: And how many hours a day did you do lessons? The Mock Turtle: Ten hours the first day, nine the next, and so on. Alice: What a curious plan! The Gryphon: That’s the reason they’re called lessons, because they lessen from day to day.

Then also think about the language you’re using:

Imperfect subjunctive



Future (both the “going to” and the “will” forms)


Present Perfect



If you even get to use three or four of those tenses, you’re proving to the examiner that you have a command of the Spanish language. Using a past/present/future also forces you to consider the causes (past) and effects (present) of the title (frequently some kind of problem). If you can come up with some sort of solution (future & conditional), you’ll have run the gamut of the tenses. The icing on the cake, of course, is being able to throw in a subjunctive or an imperfect subjunctive, but those tenses are not the be-all and end-all of an essay; I have read excellent essays that didn’t use the subjunctive at all.

As a disclaimer, these are only suggestions. Some of you will already deal very well with essay structure, content and language. These are suggestions, not rules or guarantees. My strongest advice, though, would be:


Something to work on: go through your past papers and take each title year by year and brainstorm it thoroughly. Look up some vocabulary that might be useful and see how your opening & closing could be adjusted to write about each topic.


12 Replies to “Dealing with the essay question (1)”

  1. Thanks once again, Susan, for excellent exam support information. I will share this information on Twitter — so that even more students can benefit from your experience and excellent advice. Many thanks.

  2. I sat the Spanish Leaving Certificate at higher level this year the opinion piece I did was ” Irlanda ha cambiado mucho en los últimos diez años.” I mentioned various aspects of changing life in the preterito, preterito perfecfto, imperfecto, condicional, subjuntivo and futuro, my piece was the lenght of a page. Should I get close to full marks? what percentage of the piece concerns grammar ?

    Thanks Robert.

    1. Hi Robert,

      The truth is it’s entirely impossible to tell without being able to see your essay.

      It sounds like you’ve used a good range of language and if you’ve touched on various aspects of what’s changed, then that’s a plus. If you look on any Leaving Cert Marking Scheme, you’ll see that the essay question is worth 50 marks. 25 of them go for language, 25 go for content. Grammar obviously falls into the language section, as does range of vocabulary used.

      I always advise my students to write as much as possible – but handwriting affects how long “a page” actually is!

      As I say, impossible for me to tell, and especially as I don’t know your work, but fingers crossed that it’s good news for you come mid-August.

      All the best,

  3. Hi there, this has really been helpful as i’m sitting the exam this year! Out of curiosity when will you been posting sample introduction sentences etc? Just i think they could be of great use!! Thanks again! 🙂

    1. Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for the comment. I’ll add it to my list of ideas for posts and will definitely aim to have it in time for Christmas exams…
      Let me know if there’s anything else you think might be useful.
      Good luck with the study!

  4. muchas gracias por estas ideas, Susan! acabo de descubrir este enlace y me parece muy util
    . Ten por seguro que lo usare en mis clases…

  5. Roughly how many words is a good length? I think my teacher said between 70 and 130, I’m not sure. Mine end up being longer, one I did today was 270. They’re always around and about 200 anyway, or more.

    1. Hi Serena, I always think that around 200 is a good amount. It’s hard to write a well-developed essay in less than that, though 270 might be pushing it out a little too far, and you might be better taking time to plan well than using the time to write lots and lots.
      Hope that helps!

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