Scenario 1.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve figured out in advance how we’re going to get to our destination so I can sit back and enjoy the journey because it’s clear that you know where you’re going and that inspires confidence in me and helps me relax.

OR

Scenario 2.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You really have no idea how we’re going to get to our destination but you’ve driven some of these roads before and you’re happy to make it up as we go along and see what happens. Because you are gifted at improvisation and have a particular talent for marking every signpost along the way we do get there in the end and I’m pretty impressed even though I was nervous to begin with because I wasn’t entirely sure you knew what you were doing.

Scenario 3.

OR

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You really have no idea how we’re going to get to our destination. You have to just make it up as we go along because you really didn’t prepare for this journey in advance and now you’re sweating. We both know we’ve got a deadline and we’re both nervous that we’re not going to get there on time. We end up getting lost a bunch of times, you spend far too long on the first leg of our journey, you double back a few times and when the deadline arrives you don’t know what to do. Keep going in the hope that you’ll get there eventually or start your next journey, which also involves a time limit? The experience is frustrating and demoralising for both of us and in the end we give up without ever reaching our destination, which is disappointing.

Scenario 4.

OR

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve planned our journey carefully in advance but suddenly I spring the news on you that we’re not going to the exact destination you expected us to. Stunned by this news, you start driving anyway because you feel there’s no time to improvise a new set of directions and you end up on autopilot, just driving the roads you already know, following the directions you had planned in advance. We reach a destination just as our time is up but it’s not where I asked you to go. I’m annoyed because I clearly stated what our new destination was and you’re annoyed with yourself because even though we’ve arrived in time, we’ve arrived in the wrong place. You know it, I know it but it’s too late to do anything about it. We’re both frustrated and disappointed.

OR

Scenario 5.

We’re in a car together and you’re driving. You’ve planned our journey carefully in advance but suddenly I spring the news on you that we’re not going to the exact destination you expected us to. You hide your disappointment from me, confident that the new destination isn’t a million miles away from our original plan, and you quickly sketch out a new route. You rely on your prior knowledge but also improvise a certain amount and we get there on time. I’m delighted with you, you’re delighted with you, we have a real sense of achievement and you can move on to your next journey with the adrenaline pumping, ready for the next challenge.

What does it all mean?

Scenario 1 is unlikely to happen. If an essay title (destination) comes up exactly as you’ve prepared it, fair play, happy days, off you go. Pay really close attention to the address however. Ballymoe and Ballymote sound similar but they are not the same place…

Scenario 2 is really where gifted students come into their own. Despite seeing the essay title (destination) for the first time when they sit into the exam (car), they are completely unfazed. These people write beautifully all of the time; they have a good knowledge base to start off with and they are utterly fearless when it comes to improvising on the spot even under time constraints. To be in their presence is to be in awe of their brilliance. Not too many people fall into this category – lucky you if you’re one of them!

Scenario 3 is the student who either doesn’t really know their stuff or who panics and draws a complete blank. I feel sorry for the blankers. I do not feel particularly sorry for the bluffers who don’t know what they’re talking about, particularly after I’ve gone on a torturous journey with them through their essay and still ended up no-where. The whole thing will have been a frustrating waste of my time and theirs. But I repeat, I do feel sorry for those who blank under exam conditions.

Scenario 4 is perhaps the most frustrating of all. It’s also the most common. It’s clear that they have a good knowledge and if they’d just focus and apply that knowledge we might actually get to where we want to go. Yes we might have to take a few shortcuts along the way in order to get there on time, but isn’t it better to take shortcuts and get to where we want to go rather than include everything we’d planned in advance and end up in the wrong place?

Scenario 5 is where it’s at. Use what you know but be willing to improvise a certain amount. Think quickly on your feet but don’t panic. Remind yourself that the same basic knowledge can be applied no matter what the essay title (destination).

Remember, the examiner (and your teacher) would like to go on a journey with you which is calm and focused on getting where you need to go. If you have to leave out a few stops along the way that’s fine. It’s not as if you’re expected to cover every single road in the province on this one journey – you will not visit at least 80% of the roads/knowledge available to you. The important thing is that you get where you’re going on time without too many false starts, detours or speeding fines near the end!

p.s. this only applies 100% to critical essays – single text, poetry, comparative. Short stories and personal essays allow you to take detours – sometimes this is what makes them great! Newspaper articles ask you to jump to the end, then go back on yourself and fill in the journey in reverse.

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