Here are 5 principles to ensure you finish your IB English Paper 1 commentary on time, every time.
Note: IB English Standard Level students have 1.5 hours plus 5 minutes of reading time, while Higher Level students get 2 hours plus 5 minutes of reading time.
1. Use your reading time wisely.
In the 5-minute reading time, you should spend 2 to 3 minutes skimming over both texts so that you gain a decent feel for the difficulty, themes and techniques of both texts (or pairs of texts for IB Lang Lit HL). After the initial skim, you should spend the remaining 2-3 minutes choosing the text on which you will write the commentary. Yes, that’s right: Pick your text as soon as possible and ideally within the 5-minute reading time, because every second you spend on this decision after the reading time is simply wasting precious exam time.
2. Invest time in planning.
Too many students do not spend enough time planning their commentaries. We explain why planning is so important in another FAQ post.
- SL students should spend 15 to 25 minutes planning their commentary.
- HL students should spend 30 to 40 minutes planning their commentary.
3. Speed through the introduction.
The goal is to finish your introduction in less than 5 minutes. This will allow you to begin writing your body paragraphs as soon as possible. Students place too much emphasis on the introduction. While it is important, and yes, you should write it well, the fact is this: Your marks come from the quality of your analysis, i.e. your body paragraphs. Finish the obligatory introduction and get out of there ASAP.
A note to perfectionists: Just don’t be a perfectionist, at least during your IB exams. Focus on getting the job done; the introduction does not need to be a work of art.
4. Use the concept of ‘time per point’.
The worst thing that can happen in your final Paper 1 exam is that you do not finish your commentary in full. It actually happens frequently and it destroys your mark. The good news? It’s easily avoidable.
Here is the simple method I used to finish my commentary on time, every time.
- After planning and before writing, check the time. How much time is remaining in the exam?
- Subtract 10 minutes from the remaining time (5 min for intro + 5 min for conclusion = 10 min).
- Check how many body paragraphs / points you have in your plan.
- Divide the time by the number of points. This is your maximum time per point.
To ensure that I spend just the right amount of time on each point, I start a timer on my wristwatch whenever I begin a new point. I check on the time every couple minutes, and if I’m approaching the maximum time per point, I wrap up my point, reset the timer to 0s, and begin on the next point.
5. Practise under exam conditions.
The secret to managing time efficiently in an exam is not what you do in the exam itself, but actually what you do before the exam. You can read this article a hundred times and memorise everything that I’ve said to a T, but it will only help you up to a point.
To be an efficient exam taker, you need to actively practise the above four principles by doing timed practice exams. There is no shortcut.