When I was a teenager, I had put one book on the reading list for my Dutch lit exam that I didn’t understand at all, thinking that I might be able to get away with it. However, because my teacher had a sixth sense for that sort of thing, I got a question on it on my exam. Of course. He asked me what my first impressions were and I decided to just tell him about how much I had struggled with it. I told him that I’d tried to make a diagram of all the different characters, but it ended up looking like a messy spiderweb because there were so many of them and they were all related to each other somehow (“I mean, how am I supposed to keep track of all that?”). To my great surprise, he laughed, said “fair enough,” and moved on to the next book. Teachers love it when you show you tried.
But in case you want to do a little better than that, here are five tips that will get you through your exams!
(Seriously though, showing that you tried is half the battle.)
1. Read the books.
This may seem like an obvious one, but I cannot stress it enough. If you’ve actually read the book, the teacher will be able to tell from your answers. Even if you didn’t understand or like it, at least it shows that (all together now!) you tried.
2. Memorise the names of the main characters and the authors.
If I were your teacher I wouldn’t fail you for not remembering, but it’s just an awkward moment when you can’t think of the protagonist’s name. It will only make you more nervous and you can easily spare yourself that misery. Again, knowing the basics shows that you made an effort.
3. Be aware of when/where a book was written, by whom, and when/where it takes place.
Context is everything! Think about how the time period is reflected in the work or may have influenced the author (especially in the case of a female and/or queer novelist or writer of colour). How does the setting influence the story?
4. If you’ve seen the movie adaptation, make sure that you know the differences between the film and the book.
Mixing up the two is horribly embarrassing and your teacher may think that you haven’t read the book at all. Also, he/she may ask you if you’ve seen the movie and what you thought of the changes that were made. Be prepared for that question.
5. Check Shmoop, Crash Course, and Thug Notes for important themes and symbols.
If there is some really obvious and/or famous symbolism in the books you’ve read (like the eyes of Dr Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby), make sure you have some idea of what they may stand for.
Best of luck!
N.B. Of course lit exams are handled differently depending on your school system and the country you live in, but I think this advice should help you get trough whatever is thrown at you.