Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tips for English Departmental Exams

If you are one of my students, everything I’ve been teaching you have trained you to do well in these CUNY English departmental exams (if you’ve been listening and applying everything I’ve been teaching you.) Therefore, these tips are more like review than they are tips.

In the past few years, they may have changed the timing of the test or may have made some small variations in the format. However, the general principles or strategies necessary to do well in these tests have not changed. These are the strategies and principles of which I have always place primary focus in my teachings.

Depending on the English course (04,09,91,92, or 93 in Kingsborough), one of your English departmental exams will provide you with the reading prior to the test. (This is true for only one of the departmental exams, whether it is the one in mid-semester or the other one at the end of the semester. Questions or essay instructions are not provided until you get to the test.)

For the exam where you are given the reading beforehand to take home, here’s what you should do at home before going to the exam:

- Read it at least three times
- Annotate (when reading a second time) the reading to assure an in-depth understanding of the reading. Do this on the pages of the reading. Do not write notes on a separate piece of paper because you are not allowed to take a separate piece of paper to the test. You may make notes on the reading as much as you want, and take that reading to the test. One simple way of annotating is by summing up each paragraph with a phrase or sentence on the side margin next to the paragraph.
- Summarize the reading, starting the first sentence of the summary with the title, author, and the author’s main idea of the reading. (Again, do NOT write a summary on a separate piece of paper. You are not allowed to bring additional pages to the test. Write it on the back of the reading or anywhere on those pages where there’s room.)

Here are some final pointers or reminders:

- If you are given reading questions to answer on the exam, READ THE QUESTIONS CAREFULLY.
- Keep an eye on the clock.
- For reading questions, provide only the information and thoughts from the author. In other words, answer the questions as the author would. Do not include your own opinion or knowledge outside of the reading, if you don’t want to get it wrong.
- Answer questions with complete sentences.
- One of the reading questions may ask you to summarize the reading. (This is common in departmental reading exams.) If so, write the summary including only the author’s information, knowledge, and point of view. (See “summarize the reading” section above.)
- If the exam requires you to write an essay, you should include both the author’s point of view AND your point of view (including your knowledge, opinion, and experiences). You may agree, disagree, or partially agree with the author. You have the freedom to do so in an essay.
- Here’s a final reminder of the difference between an essay and summary. Summary includes only the author's knowledge and point of view from the reading and must not include your own opinion. Essay includes both the author's knowledge and your knowledge and point of view. (I’m re-emphasizing this because you’d be surprised at how many students still didn’t get this in my past experiences, as shown in their exam performance.)
- Here’s another twist. When they ask you to write an essay, they may ask you to include a summary WITHIN your essay. If so, do exactly what they instructed, but the summary should only be a small part of your essay (such as the first BODY paragraph.) If more than 30% of your essay is a summarization of the reading, it’s not good.

A final note for my students. Do not approach me to help you with the specific reading of the exam. It is against CUNY policy for me to explain the reading to you (probably because of fairness issues for all students, in terms of the big picture.) If you open-mindedly practice and apply what I’ve been teaching you, you will do better. On the other hand, if you still cling to your old ways that do not work and you are still going down the same street, don't be surprised if you fall into a hole again (like the story I've told in class.) However, it seems to me that most of my students this semester get it. Most of you have been practicing and applying the various strategies and will continue to do so for the departmental exams.

Copyright: © 2010. This document is the sole property of Amadeo Constanzo. You may use this article for free on your web site, blog, or other publication if and only if you include this entire copyright notice including the following links and statement. Other free teachings from Amadeo Constanzo can be found at and

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