Critical Essay: Higher Candidate Guide

These guides are intended for candidate use and contain a useful summary of the Critical Essay paper.

The guide contains general information about the Paper, as well as practical advice about how to practise and prepare.

Some facts about the paper


The Critical Essay exam paper lasts for ninety minutes.


The exam paper will have a range of essay questions on different genres of literature, on Film and TV Drama, and some questions on the study of language. The questions will be arranged in five sections and you must answer any two questions taken from different sections.

The questions will test your ability to select from your knowledge of a text (and the literary or media techniques used in its construction) in order to write a relevant response to the chosen question.


Each essay is marked out of 25, making the total for the paper 50.


The five sections are as follows:

  • Section A - Drama
    usually a choice of four questions
  • Section B - Prose
    usually a choice of seven questions covering novel, short story and non-fiction
  • Section C - Poetry
    usually a choice of four questions
  • Section D - Film and TV Drama
    usually a choice of four questions
  • Section E - Language
    usually a choice of four questions


Full details of the Arrangements for Higher English.

Specimen question paper

View the specimen question paper for Higher English.

Some general advice


It is important to allocate your time sensibly. Spend approximately 45 minutes on each essay. If you spend a lot longer on one essay, you may gain an extra mark couple of marks, but a very short second essay is likely to score very few marks.

The structure of the question

If you look at the specimen question paper, you will see that all the questions are structured in a very similar way. (Make sure you are looking at the 'Higher specimen question paper - valid from 2007', because the past papers up to and including 2005 are slightly different.)

There are two sentences:

  • The first sentence provides the initial focus or 'gateway'. If the text you want to write about does not meet the restriction in this part, then you are not going to be able to write a relevant essay and you will not pass. If the text does fit, then you might be able to go on to write a suitable essay. However, this is not guaranteed, because you must be able to deal with the requirements in the next sentence.
  • The second sentence is the one that provides the key instruction for what you have to do, and your essay will be judged on how successfully you handle this part. You must not think that anything you write will automatically be relevant just because the text fits the definition in the first sentence. You must do exactly what is asked for in the question. Notice that the question may contain more than one instruction and that you must address the whole question.


Above all else, strive to write a relevant essay. This means you are unlikely to be able to write everything you might want to say, but it's much better to write an essay of modest length which is clearly relevant than a long essay which says everything you know and ignores the question. The former is likely to pass; the latter will definitely fail.


Obviously you must be prepared to write about at least two texts. It's advisable to have at least one 'back up' in case the questions do not suit your texts. However, depth of preparation is every bit as important as the number of texts prepared. For example: if you prepare a suitable novel and are able to write confidently about such areas as theme, characterisation (of one or two main characters and of two minor characters), setting (in time and place), key incidents (including the opening and the conclusion), narrative technique, structure, symbolism, then it is highly unlikely that you will be stuck for a question; whereas if you prepare the same novel but are able to write about, for example, only one character, then you are very likely to struggle.

How to prepare/practise for the exam

Study a range of texts

The more texts you study the more likely it is that you will find ones you really enjoy and want to write about. Writing about the same two texts again and again from August until the exam in May is not likely to increase your understanding or appreciation of literature.

The text is what matters

Return again and again to reading and studying the text. Make notes; add to your existing notes. Learn from your successes and failures in previous essays, but never, under any circumstances, learn a previous essay by heart, no matter how good a mark it was given - it was answering one particular question; the question in the exam will be different. The secret is to have plenty to say and then to select from that in order to construct a relevant essay.

Past exam papers/SQA's website

Recent past papers in Higher English are available, published by Bright Red Publishing, and can be purchased in most bookshops.

The marking instructions for the Critical Essay specimen question paper and recent exam papers can be found on SQA's website. The Performance Criteria are the same each year.

Some specific advice

Technical accuracy

Some allowance is made for the fact that because this is an examination you are writing under pressure. It is recognised that you might make one or two careless slips and that you don’t have time to redraft your work. Nevertheless, if your writing is not sufficiently accurate to meet the Performance Criterion for Technical Accuracy, you will not pass.

Common errors to be avoided are: failure to start a new sentence when required (especially using a comma when a full stop is needed), misspelling of common words, misuse of the apostrophe, confusion of 'done/did', 'gone/went' etc, and using slang or colloquial language.

'The central concerns'

If you look at the list of Performance Criteria for Critical Essay in Higher English you will see that in 'Understanding' it talks about the 'central concerns ... of the text(s)':

As appropriate to task, the response demonstrates secure understanding of key elements, central concerns and significant details of the text(s).

This is of great importance. You must demonstrate to the Marker that you have a firm grasp of what the text as a whole is about. This means knowing not just what simply happens in a novel or a play or what the content of each line of a poem is. Every worthwhile text in English has an overall idea which it is exploring, and your personal understanding of this (relevant to the question you are answering) must be a key element in your essay.


A successful essay must be structured effectively to meet the requirements of the question. Topic sentences and link sentences should be used to clarify your line of thought and keep it focused on addressing the question relevantly.

However, there is no magical formula for the “perfect” or “correct” or “SQA-approved” structure of a Critical Essay, and you should not believe that a good essay can be written mechanically as if “by numbers”. A wide variety of approaches is inevitable (and desirable) given variables such as the nature of the text, the wording of the question, and each candidate’s own personality and individual way of developing her/his thoughts. It is quite possible for several entirely different approaches to the same text and the same question all to gain high marks.


One of the Performance Criteria requires that you deal with 'relevant aspects of structure/style/language' and how these 'contribute to meaning/effect/impact'. It is, therefore, important that you learn about the techniques used by the writers of the texts you study. Reference to these techniques, however, is of value only if it supports the line of thought in your essay. Read carefully the advice and information given in the specimen question paper - at the start of the paper and in the boxes in the Sections - especially what is said about the need to 'address relevantly the central concern(s)/theme(s) of the text(s) ... supported by reference to appropriate techniques'.

You should not deal with techniques in isolation, and you should not structure your essay around them.

Short stories

The study of a short story is as valid and as valuable as the study of a novel. It should not, however, be thought of as an easier option just because it is shorter. Writers of short stories employ specific techniques associated with the genre, and it is fair to say that, because of the very specialised nature of this genre, writing well about a short story can actually be harder than writing about a novel. You should note as well that there are generally fewer questions for short stories than for novels, and that a question may ask you to write about more than one story.

Questions on non-fiction

In the prose section, as well as questions on the novel and the short story, there are questions on non-fiction. In fact there is usually a choice of three such questions. If, deliberately or by accident, you answer any of these questions using a novel or a short story, your script will be referred to the Principal Assessor, who will apply an appropriate penalty. This penalty could be the difference between your passing and failing the exam, and so you should check carefully that the text you are writing about is entirely suitable for the question.

The study of quality non-fiction is as valid and valuable as the study of prose fiction. Such works include: biography and autobiography; travel writing; essays and works on history, politics, current affairs, media issues, science and technology, religion and ethics, environmental issues, philosophy, etc.

Essays on non-fiction are judged in the same way as all others, but candidates should be aware that many of the techniques used in prose non-fiction are different from those used in prose fiction. The features referred to in the box which precedes the non-fiction questions should be studied carefully.

Common problems in essays on poetry

In essays on poetry there are two common faults which you should try to avoid.

  1. Don't rely on working through a poem line-by-line. (Markers and Examiners call this 'the guided tour'.) While you mustn't ignore significant sections of the poem or distort its overall idea (see the section on 'the central concerns' above), your essay should be shaped to answer the question relevantly and not dominated by an insistence on examining every line in order.
  2. While understanding and appreciation of poetic techniques are vital in a good essay on poetry, an exhaustive list of all the techniques used in a particular poem is never very helpful. Remember about the overall idea (see the section on 'the central concerns' above) and remember that techniques enhance the overall impact of a poem - they do not have a life in themselves.

Questions on film and TV drama

Questions on film and TV should be approached in exactly the same way as questions on drama or prose or poetry. The questions are structured the same way, and the warnings given above about relevance and 'central concerns' are just as important here. Similarly, specialised techniques such as camera angles, lighting, soundtrack and special effects have their place in an essay on film or TV drama, but only if your comments on them are relevant to the question and support your understanding of the text as a whole.

Note that the term 'TV drama' refers to a single play or a series or a serial.

Questions on Language

The questions on Language are included for candidates who have made a specific study of the subject. These questions are not asking for general essays, no matter how much you think you know about the topic. They are judged against the same criteria of relevance, knowledge, analysis, use of evidence, evaluation and quality of writing as all other essays.

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