The English Literature Admissions Test needn’t be terrifying. In fact, it is simply testing a couple of skills that you’ve been cultivating since at least your GCSEs, and probably well before that: the skill of reading slowly, closely, and creatively, and the skill of writing with clarity, purpose, and insight. The ELAT is designed so that you can do well in it regardless of your prior knowledge. This isn’t an exam where you’ll show off how much you know. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to showcase your ability to interpret and reflect on unseen literary texts in a thoughtful, responsive, and convincing manner.
The format goes like this: you’ll be given a selection of passages all relating to the same theme. For example, they might all be about storms, or birds, or memories, or the passing of time. The passages will be from all different genres of literature. There will be poems, sections of novels, and scenes from plays, as you’d expect. But there might also be extracts from works that are less obviously ‘literary’, such as history books, government reports, letters, diaries, and essays. You’ll then have to pick a couple of these texts to discuss in an essay.
Whatever you pick, you’ll need to pay close attention to language, form, tone, and all the other things you look for in unseen texts at A Level. If you choose poems, make sure you don’t just treat it like a piece of prose: mention things like metre, rhyme, stress, sound, and poetic form.
Close reading means that you need to keep quoting from the texts throughout your essay, and using these quotations as evidence for your ideas. Remember that bold ideas are great, but they need rooting in specific quotations. Try to earn your adventurous, daring interpretations of the passages by building up to them through careful citation from the text.
- Make an argument.
It’s always a good idea to advance an argument in your ELAT essay, rather than just trotting out a directionless commentary that meanders all over the place. One way to do this is to ask yourself: how are these two texts similar, and how they are different? For example, you could argue that although both passages are about the unfathomable power of water, one passage presents water as a magical, shape-shifting phenomenon that is enchanting as well as intimidating, while the other passage presents it as solely a force of merciless violence and menace. Doing this gives you something to prove. It puts a burden on you as a writer, and helps to drive forward your essay. Writing an essay should be like arguing with a friend: you’re trying to prove something! Once you have your thesis statement (the argument you’re trying to prove), take time to outline the three points that you’ll make to convince your reader. These should form the basis of your three body paragraphs. At the end of each paragraph, your reader should feel more convinced than they were at the end.
- Write with style and elegance.
English is the only subject in which the way your write has critical and argumentative power. Sure, it helps to be a clear and fluent writer in History and Philosophy and any other subject, but in English the words you use actually tell the reader what you’re thinking: they reveal something about how you’re responding to the text. This means that you should choose words that do work for you. Better to write something bold and beautiful such as ‘the poem reveals the tragedy of life’s transience while also celebrating its manifold beauties, no matter how fleeting’ than something pedestrian and dull. (Just remember to earn these bold statements through the evidence you use!) Just remember that writing elegantly doesn’t mean trying to sound clever. Often the best writers steer clear of jargon and Latinate words (for example, writing ‘utilise’ or ‘facilitate’ where ‘use’ or ‘help’ would do just fine). George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ has some good tips on this.
- Take time to read and plan carefully.
It is always better to start writing a little later than everyone else than to find yourself running out of ideas halfway through the writing process. By taking your time with planning, you give yourself the chance to notice subtler aspects of the texts. Try and notice the tone of the text: what mood or moods can be felt throughout it? What vocabulary or imagery reinforces these moods?
- Leave your sense of humour behind.
While it might be a tall order to expect you to laugh in an exam, it’s important to recognise when an author is using irony or satire or hyperbole to comic effect. You can drastically misread a text if you miss the fact that it isn’t being entirely serious.
- Use statements of certainty
Writing something like ‘it is clear that…’ or ‘it is certainly the case that…’ is bluster. It makes your reader immediately ask ‘is it clear?’ Instead of trying to beat your reader into submission with overconfidence, make friends with your own confusion and try to accommodate doubt. There’s nothing wrong with expressing some uncertainty about the meaning of the texts you encounter: it might be that the writer wants to confuse or disorientate the reader—for example, in a poem about grief or loss or mental illness—so be prepared to investigate this.
- Rely on comments about ‘engaging the reader’.
Every written text – from prize-winning novels to instruction manuals for microwaves – need to ‘engage the reader’. The observation that a writer uses a certain technique in order to ‘engage the reader’ is too bland, too obvious, and too general to have any use or explanatory power in your essays.
- Rely on jargon.
A good knowledge of literary terms can be useful, but don’t think that they are substitute for perceptive critical analysis. The examiners will not be impressed by a checklist of technical observations that have no relation to the question, to your overall argument, or the point of each paragraph. Yes, it might be true that the novelist uses synecdoche or that the poem is an example of the Petrarchan sonnet, but so what? What is the relevance of that observation to what you are trying to say about these texts?
- Reduce texts to generalities of genre or time period
Don’t be too quick to lump a text in with a historical trend or generic commonplace. It doesn’t necessarily tell us much to say that ‘the passage is an example of Renaissance humanist thinking’ or ‘this trope is a staple of science fiction writing’ or ‘like most sonnets this poem is about love’. Better to look at what is distinctive about the passage.
Aside from doing practice papers, available on the ELAT website, there are a few things that you can do to prepare:
- Read widely and read actively. The best thing you can do in order to prepare is to read a wide variety of literary texts in an active manner. That means reading with a pen in hand, scribbling in the margins, underlining words and phrases that strike you, and keeping notes in a reading journal of your ideas. It might also mean branching out from the usual novels, poems, and plays to look at essays, religious texts, memoirs, philosophical texts, political tracts, and song lyrics. You might also investigate texts from time periods or countries that you haven’t explored before. There is no ‘set syllabus’ here: you just want to make sure that you’re able to respond to the wide variety of material that comes up.
- Read critical works and learn from their style. Reading the work of other literary critics can help you develop your own prose style. Notice how the writers you read construct arguments, use quotations, and conduct analysis. Chances are you’ll find a few stylistic elements that you can emulate in your own work. You might also notice things that don’t work so well, and which you can then avoid. Here are a few general texts that might be of interest, but really you can just follow your interests:
- Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics
- Criticism by Catherine Belsey
- Seven Types of Ambiguity and Argufying by William Empson
- The Force of Poetry and Essays in Appreciation by Christopher Ricks
- Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Literature and Philosophy by Martha Nussbaum
- Understand the rudiments of poetic analysis. John Lennard’s Poetry Handbook is a really helpful guide. But remember: knowing the jargon can be helpful, but it isn’t the sole key to success.
Please do get in touch with Keystone Tutors if you are looking for an ELAT tutor to support your preparations for the ELAT. We have a number of tutors with extensive experience of the test, many of whom have successfully sat it themselves.