Jamie Beaton's Advice for CIE english?

Hey Jamie,

I know that you got top of the world in CIE english and I was wondering if you had any tips/advice or a specific way you prepared for the examination?


Hi student,

I scored Top in the World in A Level English Literature, Top in New Zealand in AS English Language, Top in the World in IGCSE English Language and an Outstanding scholarship in English in NZQA. I won the English subject prize for all 5 years of high school.

In high school, there was not a subject I loved more than English. English is what I regard as the “gate keeper” subject because excellence in English provides the gate way through to success in so many other subjects like philosophy, art history, government, politics, economics, media studies, geography as well as activities like debating and tests like the SAT and GMAT. More so than anything else, English skills are arguably the single most important foundation that exist in this world. All the highest paid developers at Google in San Fransisco still speak flawless English with impeccable grammar.

To answer your question, I will break this into specific study tips and general things you should do:

Study Tips:

  1. For the poetry and short story anthologies, it is impractical to learn all the pieces. Most schools don’t even teach the full anthology or teach 75% and rush through the last segment in the final couple of lessons. If you try and study every single poem, you will spend a disproportionately large amount of time on this section in your study. Although this only contributes to 25% of your grade, I would say I spend 35% of my study time on this, just because there was far more material to cover and you need to have very precise quotes.

  2. I recommend mastering about 25%-50% of the poems or short stories in the anthology. Depending on your talent in English you can go towards the lower end but if you aren’t as creative or don’t deal with pressure, you should tend higher.

  3. I became very good at inventing creative themes that unified all the various poems in response to the open poetry questions. I would have a list of all the poems, randomly pull out 3 and force myself to invent 2-3 themes that unify all of them. This is always possible you just need to practice at it.

  4. It is crucial that you become an absolute master of all the various language techniques and can pull them out a mile away - assonance, syntax, personification, simile, sibilance, metaphor, allegory etc etc. You should be able to go through all the poems you have decided to study and be able to spot a technique every 2-3 words. Specific words can be discussed by addressing the “connotations” of the word. If you gave me the physical poem in front of me, I could probably literally write a 15-20 page essay on the single poem if you gave me enough time. You need to be very fluent and adaptable with the techniques in each poem.

  5. Writing speed - every single year for every single exam, I wrote more than anybody else in my school. Length is not always a measure of quality and quality often beats quantity if its a straight trade off but if you’re a strong english student, you can continue to execute on high quality analysis at fast pace. You should aim to always be among the top 10% of longest essays. Every single essay I submitted for homework I would also add was the longest (literally every single one). The more you practice writing, the faster you can write, the more you force yourself to analyze the more easily ideas will pop into your mind in the spur of the exam. In the old SAT, the length of one’s essay has a 80%+ correlation with the final score. It isn’t going to be as high in Cambridge Exams but if you are a grader sitting in London and you see an extremely long essay, you’re naturally (and correctly) going to assume this is usually one of the most talented students. Teachers will tell you it doesn’t matter but take it from a Top in World scorer multiple times, it does. It absolutely does.

  6. Remember that any interpretation is acceptable - literally any interpretation whether it’s extremely morbid, it’s highly sexualized, it’s not something discussed in class etc. The key thing is your argument. This is why debating and english skills are highly correlated. If you can defend your statement with an argument, you can make the point. There is never a wrong and a right interpretation and guess what? A lot of the time your essay marker hasn’t read the text you are writing about. CIE students study different thinks all over the world. Even if they have, it is creative, independent though that goes the longest ways!

  7. York Notes were my Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. I would order study books for all my texts from anywhere necessary to get them on Amazon. I would often order 5+ per novel and then figure out which ones i liked. York Notes are amazing because they offer so many compact and memorable insights, chapter summaries with interesting annotations and background context on the time period, definitions of words etc. Buy a lot of study books! No need to completely re-invent every aspect of your analysis, having a foundation of what other people have said before you, is very useful even if you disagree.

  8. Carry meticulous notes. English class unlike a lot of classes in high school, is extremely helpful for the exam because the teacher almost always has to prepare a lot of analysis for certain texts. Take intensive notes of every single thing the teacher says about the texts because at the very least this is more potential ideas and the act of physically writing notes helps you remember. I used to always be surprised by how much I remembered from class and I always had the longest, most thorough notes.

  9. Don’t waste your time or your teacher’s time! Read the book! Once you know what your texts are for the year at school, go ahead and read them all. Make sure you’ve read the whole book, play etc before your teacher starts covering it. Having the context of the plot and the story before you start diving into analysis in class makes it all the more memorable and reduces all the hectic work you need to do later.

  10. I didn’t actually write that many practice essays outside of the intensive essays I wrote for school. I spent so much time writing 25/25 essays for my high school at King’s, by the end of the year, I could use these essays as great study resources. I used most of my study time re-reading the books, taking intensive notes, practicing annotating passages and writing tons and tons of sample essay plans.

  11. In the exam, I usually would spend literally less than 2 minutes planning my essay before I started writing. This is because I had done so much preparation that I would be able to quickly see what angle I was taking and I would use the process of writing the introduction as a tool to help me plan out my essay by ordering my main points as I write it. The longer the better remember so don’t make your planning time 10-15 minutes and waste valuable writing time.

  12. Make sure you are armed with synonyms i.e. words with similar meanings. Often when you are discussing a main theme, you need to describe a similar thing many different times and it is important you don’t keep repeating the exact same words or it looks like you have limited vocabulary. Repeating the main theme you are arguing exists in the same words is absolutely fine and actually helpful to enhance structure, but the arguments, context, connotations etc need to sound fresh and distinct each time even if parts are somewhat similar.

  13. Open Prompts v Passage Questions? In both my AS and A2 Literature exam, I did exactly 2 Passages and 2 Open Prompts each time. I have met a lot of talented students who advocate for more passages and practice this type of essay, but I find this to be risky because realistically if you know the text so well, you can handle any passage that comes at you, you can probably answer an open prompt and it’s better to do the question that suits you best. It’s always a bit terrifying before you enter an English exam and you wonder if you will be able to answer the question but you will always be okay as long as you do the preparation and are creative.

General Things:

  1. DEBATING IS KEY - All the best English scholars are doing a lot of debating. Debating forces you to rapidly create compelling arguments under pressure and utilize random facts to create a coherent argument. English literature and language require a very similar skill set. Do tons of debating and your essay writing will definitely improve.

  2. Your English teacher loves English and the more questions you ask respectfully having done your research, the better your relationship with them and the more you will learn. Your English teacher is also the person that marks your essay so sounding ideas with them and racking their brain for feedback is crucial. My English teacher was my favorite teacher and I used to ask so many question about various texts but he didn’t mind because he knew I really cared and wanted to learn.

  3. Read around! It pays to read other good writing so read The Economist and The Guardian. I won’t give you a long list because I know as a busy high school student you won’t read it all but you can fit those two. Both give you concise, impressive argumentative writing in editorials and other formats.

  4. Take English seriously - it is the single most important skill you need. Nothing is more important than being able to persuade someone that your view point is valuable whatever you do in your life. If your grades are weak in this subject, invest the time in it. Nearly all universities place a lot of focus in English competency.

Feel free to follow up with more questions!


can u specifically tell us about the oral examinations and how to do well on them, thanks!