English Week: How to Get an A in Hamlet

Author: Dan Keating/11 January 2017/Categories: Leaving Cert, English

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How can you get an A in Hamlet? Let's find out!

Every year the holy grail for English students is achieved by approximately 10% of candidates. If we all speak English and have been studying it forever, then surely there has to be a special technique to attain that “A” grade. Read on to find out how!


1. Understand what the question wants: In order to avoid the most common pit fall of summarising the play, have a clear understanding of the language used in the single text question. Every year I see students who are frustrated with their single text grade and cannot understand what went wrong. Inevitably it is that they have simply summarised the play in their answer, rather than actually analysed it. To make sure you answer correctly, take a look at the wording of the question and the instructions that are used every year.

Discuss or write a response 

This means they are looking for you to give your opinion, offer your insights, your thoughts and your analysis. It is also important that you make strong use of quotes to support your opinions. Avoid a summary of the play in your answer, or a list of examples. This was among the comments and recommendations given by the Chief examiner in his last report on the Leaving Cert English paper.


“The more thoughtful responses also analysed the incorrect judgements of the main characters. However, less successful answers read like a list of examples rather than a focused discussion of a theme.”


When I read the answer of a student who has achieved an "A" grade, what makes their answer stand above the others is their strong, well supported and analysed opinions. This takes practise. Make use of the past papers and we can correct them for you with detailed feedback specific to your learning and exam techniques.


2. Use the Key Words from the question: Underline the key words in the question and make good use of them along with their synonyms. This is important because the examiner will code your answer when correcting it. This means that when you make a point in your answer that is strongly focused on the question, your answer will be coded. This will obviously improve your marks for clarity of purpose and coherence of delivery. 

Learn when to quote in your exams.


3. Think like the examiner: This involves coding your answer. For example, take the 2011 Leaving Cert question on “Hamlet”:


“Revenge and justice are finely balanced themes in the play, Hamlet.” Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with suitable reference to the text.


When you look at the marking scheme, the examiners have been told to code UP every time they see “use of revenge” in an answer and AP when they see “abuse of justice” in an answer. A strong focused, “A” answer which analyses these issues, will have regular coding to reflect their focused discussion of this question. If your answer simply outlines examples of power or merely recounts the plot, then this coding will be missing, thus highlighting problems and resulting in a lower grade. In order to maximise your grade, begin to think like the examiner in your preparation for the question. Read over your answers and code them yourself. This is an excellent indicator of your strengths and areas that you may need to improve on.


4. Be aware of the Marking scheme and how it works in your favour:

The break down for the single text marking scheme is

Clarity of purpose (CP) 18 marks - To maximise this mark, make strong use of the key words in the question, but have synonyms too in order to avoid repetition which could impact on your EL grade.

Coherence of delivery (CD) 18 marks – This rewards a strong structured answer. Make sure you have a focused introduction which refers to the question and outlines your argument. The arguments you have outlined then become the topics for each paragraph. Finally, frame your answer with a concluding paragraph.

Efficiency of language (EL) 18 marks – In order to achieve these marks, you must make strong use of key words from the question and the synonyms of same. Have a list of good vocabulary to describe the main characters, the themes, issues and symbols of the play.

Mechanics of language (ML) 6 marks – This refers to the spelling and grammar in your question. It is essential to have the correct spelling of the basics, at least. Do not misspell Shakespeare, or “Hamlet”.

Each area of the marking scheme affects the others; they are not isolated areas, so if you score well in one it impacts the others positively.


5. A rough scaffold for any Leaving Cert “Hamlet“ answer is:

Intro – Make strong reference to the question and outline your argument.

Paragraphs – Each paragraph must analyse and discuss your opinion which has been briefly outlined in the intro. You can go into more depth here. 

You should have – reference to the question, your opinion and explanationquotes or reference to support your opinion in each paragraph.

Conclusion – Your answer must have a concluding paragraph. It shows your clear understanding of the rubrics of language and completes your argument appropriately. It should have final reference to the question and a final summative point reflecting your overall opinion.


Our Premium Revision eNotes, available with an A-Grade Account, has in-depth notes on Hamlet and many other topics that are on the Leaving Cert.


6. A final word from the Chief Examiner: He outlines what a successful answer is in the single text.

“Examiners noted that the best answers in the Single Text Section were anchored in a careful and assured examination of all aspects of the question. While unfocused narrative remains a minor problem, most candidates displayed an admirable flexibility in adapting their knowledge to the demands of the question.”


“Students should be aware of the dangers of unfocused narrative particularly in their response to a Single Text question. It is important to move beyond mere description of content.”


He is clearly telling you to think carefully about the question, plan your analysis and discuss your points. Avoid any temptation to recount the events of the play. Candidates who took this advice on board and wrote discursive pieces scored highly.



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