This post is an updated and scattered collection of all the midnight thoughts I’ve had since bidding my Form 6 class farewell a month ago, that I wish I’d either told them more often, or remembered to tell them.

Make sure you get a booklet of paper for rough work right at the start. I’ve had a lot of students who – as the first thing they do in the exam – quickly write out the verb endings across a range of tenses, particularly the ones that they know are problematic for them. It calms you down and focuses you before the time actually comes to begin the exam.

Soon you'll be free!
Soon you’ll be free!

Know your timing. You can’t steal time from another question to finish off the one before it. That never works. Have a strict schedule and stick to it. That should work out as no more than 30 minutes each for each of the two long comprehensions and the essay; no more than 15 minutes for the page with the short comprehensions and no more than 15 minutes for the note/diary entry; no more than 20 minutes for the dialogue/formal letter. If you do that, you have 10 minutes to play around with at the beginning and end of the exam during which you read the paper, scrawl a few ideas for the essay, check if you know any words off the top of your head for the dialogue (or formal letter) and note (or diary entry) and then begin; you also leave yourself time at the end of the exam to finish any questions that you couldn’t finish within their allotted time and to read over your answers.

Look at this post to remind yourself what needs to be done in the three different synonym-finding sections of the exam.

The essay: predictions are impossible. You’ve got to realise that they’re looking for your opinion above anything else! Don’t regurgitate learned-off essays that you hope are on-topic but actually aren’t. Make a plan before you begin the essay! Read this post for a compilation of my advice on the essay (opinion piece) question.

Here’s some tips on the reading comprehension too.

Read the questions carefully. There was a real stinger in the French exam last week, where the diary entry told candidates that the situation was as follows: your parents are away so you decide to have a party. Write about X, Y and Z eg the planning/the music/the food/the guests (I don’t know the exact details) and the aftermath of the party ie the diary entry was focusing on the past tense. Unfortunately, from the wording at the beginning, a lot of students thought it was to be written in the future. Don’t let this happen to you. Read EVERY instruction carefully – even if you’ve done this kind of question a hundred times before, the preamble might have changed slightly, so take the time to make sure you understand the question fully before you launch into it.

I often recommend to my students that they do the note – it’s just a personal preference that has proved worthwhile for many classes in the past. But what if, tomorrow, the note looks awful and the diary entry seems simple? (hint, if that’s the case, you’re probably missing something in the diary entry) Anyway, if that’s the case, then go with whichever one you feel you will get more marks on. At Ordinary Level, you will probably have the time to do both and let the examiner decide which is better. At Higher Level, you shouldn’t have that kind of time if you’ve given each section the time it deserves.

May the force be with you!
May the force be with you!

When you get out of the exam at 12.00 (because of course, none of you will leave the exam early), remember that you have to make it back for the aural exam at 12.10! If you can, consider skulking off for 5 of those 10 minutes and listening to some Spanish that you might have downloaded onto your phone/i-pod, just to get your ear in. Failing that, quickly look over the weather words, or beam at your teacher who will be hanging around hoping to hear you say it was really easy! Don’t get involved in a post-mortem when you have 20%/25% of the exam still to go. You need to stay focused for the listening.

Do the exam in pretty much the order it is presented i.e. long comprehension, two short comprehensions, second long comprehension. Then move onto the written section – you want to have as much Spanish in your head as possible before you begin to produce it. As long as you do the written section last, you are working in the right order, after that it is your personal choice which to do first, dialogue / note / essay, but I would recommend doing them in that order. In that way, you have left the requirement for the most formal language to the end. Remember not to go over time on the essay – it is worth 50 marks, the same as the dialogue (30) and note (20) put together.

Check your exam for typical errors such as:

  • Verb endings
  • Make sure that you have actually conjugated the verb (changed it into the correct tense) rather than just writing it in the infinitive.
  • Agreement between nouns and verbs, nouns and adjectives
  • Correct use of tenses
  • Irregular forms of tenses especially in the preterite, and remember that the conditional & the future share the same irregular stems.
  • Making nouns that are plural in English plural in Spanish, when they aren’t e.g. la gente, la familia, la clase, la policía, el gobierno.
  • Mixing up masculines and feminines e.g. el día, la mano, el agua, el tema, el sistema, el programa, la juventud, la sociedad, la gente, la clase, la gente mayor, la gente joven.
  • Gustar and verbs like it e.g. encantar, interesar, fascinar, resultar, aburrir, molestar…
  • Reflexive verbs – especially if you have to use them in the infinitive e.g. Me gusta levantarme temprano.
  • Answering comprehension questions that aren’t there e.g. “Where did the accident occur?” “At 3pm” – I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen good students throw away 3/4 marks just by misreading the question.
  • Leaving blanks – this is pointless – there is no negative marking – at least venture a guess, otherwise you’re guaranteed to get zero on that question.

What should you do tonight?

  • Revise verb endings
  • Check you know the structure for the essay, the note or diary entry and (if you’re doing it) the formal letter.
  • Look over false friends.
  • Look over vocabulary lists and lists of synonyms.
  • Look over these high frequency words – the kind of thing that can trip you up in a reading comprehension – courtesy of Stephen French (that’s his surname, not the only language he deals with!).
  • Revise your nice fancy sentences with which to open and close the essay and don’t forget a few nice subjunctives thrown in to sweeten the examiner.
  • Do some mind-maps for possible essay topics (essentially brainstorm both ideas on the topic – in English – and vocabulary to deal with the topic – in Spanish). This is far better than trying to write out and learn sample essays.

I hate trying to predict anything but have you thought about the following?

la salud – health, probably something more along the lines of fitness / obesity / health issues that the individual can control.

la familia – family eg importance of family in times like these (could draw upon recession)

la educación / la enseñanza – education / teaching – what’s your experience of it, is it good in Ireland? Should university students have to pay for further education? Should the Leaving Certificate be changed the way the Junior Certificate is being changed?

la emigración – might you consider emigrating in the future?

la política – Why are young people not interested in voting? Do we need a new style of politics?

Europa – Why belong to it? Does it bring more benefits than disadvantages? What are they? Do you consider yourself more European or Irish?

responsabilidad social – Do you consider that you have any kind of responsibility toward the state or other citizens? eg paying household tax etc? Why or why not?

El trabajo – What kind of jobs will the young people of today face in their lives? How will you be/have you been prepared for it by your experience in school, on the internet, in your day-to-day lives?

The fact is that ANY topic could come up in the essay section – giving your own opinion and trying to back it up with real life, current examples is a good way to make any argument stronger.

All of these things should keep you busy till bedtime! Remember to stay calm, breathe, focus on each question as you’re doing it and don’t panic if one section seems difficult. You can only do your best, and you do that by working steadily through each question.

¡Suerte! Good luck! For some of you, this is your last exam so give it your all and don’t be rushing out early – give it all the time it needs. For others, there are still a number of exams to go, but each subject deserves the time the State Exam Commission has given it, so take your time in there and make the best of every question, no matter how challenging.

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