How to adapt memorised responses to the actual question

Simon Hennessy

English expert at Atomi


min read

It’s the ultimate fear. You’ve spent endless hours learning the perfect essay, got it down to every last comma and full stop… and then the exam asks you a completely different question. Game over.

Or, maybe not. Adapting a memorised response might seem impossible when all you want to do is smash out your perfect piece word for word, but taking a few extra steps in how you approach the exam will go a long way towards giving you the flexibility to avoid the nightmare scenario.

Learn the points, not just the words

The difference between knowing what your response says, and what it means, is a subtle but key one. Just knowing the words means that all you can do is repeat them, but knowing the meaning of the words lets you express it in different ways – and in response to different questions.

How to achieve this? Well, try making a list of the key material in your response – the core thesis, the central themes and ideas, the main evidence supporting these claims. Then see if you can explain them in a different way to how you have presented them in your essay.

This action of removing the central arguments and themes from your response and reframing them should not take nearly as long as memorising the response but will give you a better understanding of what your response says, bringing some handy flexibility into the mix.

Practice adapting

Practice makes perfect, folks. Bit of a cliche, but it’s true.

This means two things; first, taking on as many questions as possible that your prepared answer applies to. The more times you have to adapt the question, the more familiar facing that challenge will become.

The second thing is to make sure to get as much variety in the questions you’re trying as possible. This will push you to learn to adapt your response in different ways, giving the exam a much lesser chance of surprising you.

If time is against you, don’t worry about answering these questions with full essay responses. Planning out how to adapt the central themes and ideas to different questions will get in enough of the necessary legwork for when you have to do the same come exam time.

Memorise something adaptable

Ok, pretty Captain Obvious advice here. But honestly, this needs to be said. If the response you are learning off is too specific to one question, you’ll be in real trouble if that exact question does not come up.

Let’s say you wanted to prepare for a potential essay question on Macbeth. If you learn an essay that only discusses Lady Macbeth, you’ll find yourself in trouble when the question specifically asks for an answer about Macbeth. However, memorising a response concerning all the central characters means you’ll have material to use when the question zeroes in on Macbeth.

The point is, having a broad and all-encompassing response that engages with the pattern of past exam questions means you’ll be able to use at least some of it when you get thrown a curveball question.

Start with the question, not your answer

If you have a kick-ass response memorised, and a glance at the question shows that it matches up well, the temptation will be strong to dive into your memorised response. But the best thing you can do is resist that urge, and reread the question carefully.

There’s nothing more infuriating for an examiner then an answer that doesn’t answer the question. Taking the time to make sure the answer you’re writing matches up with the question is pivotal.

The chances are that only some minor adaptation will be required, but putting aside five minutes at the start of your exam to plan out exactly how to enact that adaptation, and tweak the wording of your answer to directly respond to the wording of the question, makes a huge difference.

Have a backup

This isn’t really an adapting memorised response tip, it’s more of an insurance policy. It won’t happen often – in fact, you’ll have to be pretty unlucky – but sometimes all of the above will fail. You’ll get a nasty clanger of a question that your memorised response just does not apply to at all.

The only way to make sure you’re ready for this nightmare scenario is to have a backup answer or two prepared. Don’t invest the same amount of time into learning these backups, because the odds are you won’t be using them. Learn a handful of key points and some supporting evidence to back it up – just enough to have the bare bones of a new response.

Again, if you’ve done everything above, odds are this one will remain untouched in the back pocket. But having it in the back pocket is something worth investing a little time in, just in case.


Memorising responses can feel like enough work in itself, making the thought of adding more pretty exhausting. But a few extra steps can go a long way towards turning your response from a one question wonder into a master shape-shifter, ready to take down any question that crosses your path.


Published on

August 15, 2019

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