How To Write A (Great) Long Response Answer

Your written HSC exams will often consist of several sections; multiple choice sections, short answer sections, essays, and of course, the dreaded long response. Luckily for you, we’ve created your one-stop guide to how to these long response questions in your HSC, tailored to Science subjects yet applicable to everyone.

So, how does one actually begin answering these long-response style questions effectively? Let’s break it down in this very blog post.


1.What is the verb/keyword in the question?

“Describe the characteristics of _.” “Assess the effectiveness of _.”

Describe, Assess, what do all these terms mean exactly? Knowing the difference between these keywords is the distinction between a 6/8 and an 8/8.

On the NESA website (also linked below) is a glossary defining all these keywords of HSC questions. It would be a great help if by the time HSC rolls around, you have a very clear understanding of the distinctions between each term, and what each one is really asking.

Let’s take ‘Describe’ for example. The NESA definition of ‘describe’ means to provide features and characteristics. What does this look like in practice?

Actually, it’s simpler than you probably think. By definition, if describe means to provide features and characteristics, then you can simply structure your points by answering: ‘A feature of XYZ is …’ before expanding on the point. Similarly, this applies to characteristic as well.

When a marker sees the correct usage of a key term within a response, they instantly know that you’ve done the research to understand what the question is asking, and it further acts as a guide to easily and effectively structure your responses.


2. Use structure to your advantage.

Speaking of structure, there’s often a discrepancy between an essay and a long response question. Depending on the subject, you might get both, or one or the other. Typically, HSIE subjects contain both long response questions and essays, English has essays, and Science subjects have long response questions.

While an essay has a very clear structure of

  • Introduction
  • 2-4 Body Paragraphs [Depending on the content, and type of essay]
  • Conclusion,

A long response has more leeway, and an introduction and conclusion are not necessary. Unless your question is toeing the line of a 12+ mark value, you should not be wasting lines and space writing out an introduction and conclusion, as they do not add any extra value to your response, in terms of content and knowledge.

However, a long response response does need structure. Structure helps with understanding, and even if you’ve written out the entire syllabus content to answer that one question, if the marker cannot clearly understand it, it’s worth nothing. It’s less about what you write, but more on how you present it.

A good way to begin structuring is to look at the keyword in the question, and the mark value. For science subjects in particular, often mark values can be broken down to give you the exact number of information points you need. For example, a 5-marker ‘assess’ question would assign 1 mark to the judgement, and then the following 4 marks on the content itself. A mark for naming each point, and then another mark for the corresponding explanation. Once you break down this mark value according to the keyword and the number of lines given, you can begin to gain an understanding of what the marker wants from the question.

Another way of structuring science questions in particular, is the use of dot points and tables. Often, you will receive ‘compare and contrast’ questions, wherein a table and dot point layout is both the clearest and simplest way to display a clear comparison and contrast. Don’t worry, this isn’t English. Dot points won’t make you lose any marks.

In the same vein, using titles and headings can be very helpful, not only for the marker, but also for you while writing, as it allows you to stay focused on the topic at hand. Once you have a title written in place, you’re less likely to stray away to start talking about information that is not relevant.


3. Don’t rewrite the entire textbook in your answer.

Don’t fall into the trap of writing too much. Remember, HSC isn’t a competition on who can write the most pages, or who has the smallest handwriting and can then fit in the most information. As they always say, quality over quantity.

The one thing you should be focusing on is whether your answer addresses the question directly or not. There is no use writing out 3 pages for an 8-mark response if only half a page is pertinent to the question. Always plan before you write, so you can only write what’s necessary, and so you can keep it relevant. 

A tip is to look onto the NESA Sample HSC questions and their responses, to see the bare minimum required to achieve full marks. You’ll quickly notice how short and skeletal their responses are, yet they clearly tick off all that’s required in the criteria.

The art of concision is a skill you will gain during these HSC years. In a science exam, you shouldn’t be asking for extra paper, because the lines given are all the ones that you should be using to write your response.


4. Plan, plan, PLAN.

Speaking of planning, this is one of those things that differ for everyone. Some people only need is a single word to sum up each point and they can begin speeding away on their response. Maybe this is a goal in the future, but to get there, you need to understand your content well enough to achieve this.

A way to plan that is both short, but simultaneously encapsulating goes as follows:

  • A short sentence that sums up the crux of your point; What you want to say
  • Your pieces of evidence; Statistics are preferable

Of course, this plan is adaptable. If you need more information in your plans, so when you’re halfway through your response and you’ve forgotten what you’re writing about, you can just look back onto your plan and instantly know what’s going on, go for it. If you don’t need to write down your evidence because you’ve already memorised them back to front, go for that too. How you lay out your planning is not that important, but the process of planning is.

A good way to revise for exams with long response questions if you’re short on time, is to simply plan them. Don’t waste your time formulating every sentence together to fill up a whole page. When you’re revising the night before your exam, just take every long response question you can find, write out a skeleton structure for all of them with the according evidence, and mark. In this case, quantity is over quality.


5. Putting this all together.

Contrast ONE addition polymer and ONE condensation polymer in terms of their structures, properties and uses. Include structural formulae in your answers. – 7 marks [NESA 2019 Sample Chemistry Questions]

The NESA definition of ‘contrast’ is to show how things are different or opposite. Conveniently, in this example, two distinct examples are given, addition polymers and condensation polymers. Instantly you should know to highlight the differences between these two.

Looking at the mark value, you’re able to assign the marks according to the question. As the question asks for a contrast ‘in terms of their structures, properties, and uses,’ you know that you need to contrast these three points for your two polymers, giving you a total of 6 points. The other remaining point goes to your structural formulae, mentioned in the latter part of the question.

From this, you’re able to formulate your structure, and plan. For this question in particular, a table would be highly suitable, so you can directly contrast the structures, properties, and uses between the two polymers. On spare paper or in the margins, feel free to draw out a small skeleton structure of the table, with at least something in each table so you know what to address within your actual answer. Your table might be laid out something like this:

In the table, notice the top bar, where an addition and condensation polymer is named explicitly. This is necessary, as if you notice in the question, it asks for a comparison between ONE addition and condensation polymer in particular, and hence simply comparing the polymers as a whole doesn’t directly address the question.

With a table response, you avoid falling into the trap of writing too much, as you’re constrained by the box to fit in only the very relevant information. Further, it allows easier comprehension by both yourself, as you review your exam, and the marker, as they mark it.

With all that in mind, we wish you luck along with any HSC long responses in the future, and we hope that these tips have been useful. Good luck!


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