How to get a H1 in Leaving Cert English

By Eimear Dinneen - 17 minute read

In this guide, Eimear gives her tips and tricks for getting a H1 in Leaving Cert English.

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Many would have you believe that being good at English is a talent that you either have or you don’t. I personally don’t believe this one bit. I used to despise English and thought I was rubbish at it but with the help of a good teacher and my own personal effort and perseverance, I saw an improvement in my work. Slowly but surely, I brought myself up to a H1 grade. If I can do it, so can you!

Paper 1

Paper 1 has three sections to complete (more on these later):

  • Composing (100 marks)

  • Question A of the comprehension (50 marks)

  • Question B of the comprehension (50 marks)


Unless you’re magic, you will be under time pressure for English in both Paper 1 and Paper 2. Writing an average of 10/11 pages in 2 hours and 50 minutes is hard and it does take practice.

I think it’s a good idea to learn off by heart the times at which you should be finished each section before the exam. Here's a draft breakdown of how you could approach this paper timewise:

  • your exam will start at 9:30 a.m (you’ll need time to read through the paper first as well as plan questions);
  • ideally, you should be done with your composition at 11:00 (I recommend doing the composition first as it’s worth the most marks);
  • then, you should hope to be done with Question A (or B) by 11:40 and Question B (or A) by 12:30.

Obviously, it won’t work out this way for everyone and you might need more or less time for a particular section. Time at the end to read over your work can be very helpful as you might spot any mistakes you may have made.

Top tip

You needn’t write out a 5-page essay every night within the time limit to practice this paper. Instead, you could write out one page of an essay within 10/15 minutes to ensure you can do it in the exam.


As mentioned earlier, you’ll probably be short on time for the exam so although planning is essential, you’ll have to be quick. For each piece I had to write, I jotted down some keywords for what I would include in each paragraph. It just helps you keep on track when you’re writing instead of forgetting your train of thought in the middle of your essay.


This section is worth 25% of your overall mark. There are 7 options for you to choose from including articles, speeches, personal/descriptive essays or short stories.

  • The short story

    If you’re imaginative and creative, I would recommend you do the short story. The handy thing about them is you can go into the exam with an idea (or two) for a story that you’ve already practiced and then just manipulate the story during the exam to suit the prompt. You must adhere to the question though so don’t just write out a memorised answer that has nothing to do with what they want in the story.

  • Stick to your strengths

    If short stories are not your thing, try to go into the exam with some idea of what you’ll be doing for the composition. In my case, I knew speeches were my strong point so I went into the exam with my head buzzing with every speech technique I knew. I think it’s important to know what you want to do so that you won’t waste time in the exam deciding over which option you’ll choose and what way you should do it.

  • Know what the examiner is looking for

    Make sure you know what the examiner is looking for from each option. For example, if you’re doing a personal essay, the examiner will be expecting a very personal piece about the chosen subject, rife with memories, anecdotes and personal thoughts and opinions. You’ll also need descriptive and reflective paragraphs. This shows that you know what is being asked of you and it will get you those extra marks. If you’re doing a short story, the examiner will expect to see dialogue, character descriptions, a twist at the end, etc. Know the traits and aspects of each option.

  • Read as much as you can in preparation

    Good practice for this exam would be to read as much as you can. Read a newspaper, a book, online articles, etc. This will, unknowingly to you, improve your vocabulary and your writing.

Question breakdown

There are three comprehensions in the exam, each with separate Question As and Question Bs. You need only do one Question A and one Question B from a choice of three. Question A asks you about the comprehension at hand and Question B is a short composition that is mildly connected to it.

Question A

Question A, for me, is the easiest part. Mostly, all you have to do is find information in the comprehension and put it into your own words to suit the question. Let's break it down a little more:

  • Question on the author's style of writing

    Usually, in the third part of Question A (if the comprehension is text-only), the question will have something to do with the author's style of writing and you have to show samples of this or prove it in some way. Therefore, it’s important to be able to know the traits of certain styles of writing, e.g. descriptive, persuasive, emphatic, personal, etc.

  • Image questions

    Sometimes, the comprehension will be images only. There might be 4 or 5 images which you have to discuss or perhaps one on its own. In this case, you need to be able to discuss the image in depth, describing lighting, body language, colours, etc. and how they portray the message of the image.

  • Mixed questions

    Other times, a comprehension may be a mix of both text and images. In this case, put your skills and knowledge towards answering both types of questions to use. As always, make sure you have all aspects of the course covered.

Question B

  • Choosing which question to answer first

    You cannot do Question A and Question B from the same comprehension so because Question B tends to be harder and perhaps only one option might appeal to you, it might make more sense to choose it first. For example, I loved letters and speeches so when a letter came up on our exam, I chose it straight away and chose my Question A after.

  • Be prepared

    Question B is quite similar to the composition, only that it is shorter (usually you only need to write about 2 ½ pages) and things such as interviews, memos and reports can come up too. Like with the composition, I recommend having a fair idea of what you’ll be writing and knowing how to write it. In my case, I was hoping for and expecting a letter so I made sure I knew the layout of a letter and how best to write one. It’s important to have more than one option prepared though, as your preferred prompt may not come up.

  • Practice, practice, practice

    This is the only way to improve your work. Question B should only take 35-40 minutes so if you get the chance in the evenings or at weekends, I really recommend doing out some questions and getting your teacher to correct them so you can see where you can earn more marks and also to ensure you have all bases covered.

Paper 2

Paper two has three parts to it:

  • The single text

  • The comparative study

  • Poetry (prescribed and unseen)

If you’re anything like me, the prospect of completing all of these within 200 minutes on the day of the exam is quite daunting but don’t worry! I’m confident it will work out on the day for you. Exam conditions really help you concentrate and focus on the task at hand and in the end, you’ll have no bother with finishing each section and finishing it well.


Unfortunately, you’ll have even less time to finish each section in this paper than in Paper 1 but don’t let this freak you out. If you plan your timing out the same way you did for Paper 1, finishing the paper in time is possible. As I’ve said, practice is the key to success and the more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be.

The single text

There are 5 options to choose from here but in reality, you’ll only have studied one. Within these options, there is a further choice of two questions and the question you choose is worth 60 marks. In my experience, the Shakespeare option is the most popular one for Leaving Cert students to do as doing a Shakespeare play is mandatory (either in this section or in the comparative study).

Generally (and I believe it’s the same for the other options) there are 3 different types of questions that can come up, just in alternate ways. For example, with ‘Othello’, our class was expecting a question on characters, a question on themes or a question on techniques. Therefore, my advice for this section would be to cover all bases and ensure that you could answer a question well on any character, any theme or any technique. Here's some advice on this section (I have used Othello as an example but you can apply the below points to the text you are studying):

  • Imagery and symbolism

    A common question for Othello was to give a response to the imagery and symbolism used by Shakespeare. I used to avoid this question like the plague, thinking I would just answer whatever other question came up. Unfortunately for me, this question came up in the mocks with a horrendous character question that I didn’t fully understand. After that, I forced myself to learn imagery and symbolism, quotes to back up my points and I also did out a question for my teacher to mark. Turns out, that kind of question was my forte so never underestimate yourself.

  • Know the plot

    Make sure you know the plot of the play (or novel), the order of events and the characters. If you don’t know these well, it will become clear in your answer that you didn’t study well enough and that you don’t really understand the play. This will lose you marks.

  • Quotes

    Quotes are important for this section as they help reinforce the point you’re trying to make. If you’re having trouble remembering them all, there are a couple of things to try. You could record yourself saying the quotes out loud and listen back to them as if they were a song (you can remember song lyrics when you listen to them, so why not quotes?). You could write them out and read over them several times and then recite them to someone else without looking. Finally, I recommend categorising quotes. For Othello, for example, the main themes were jealousy, love, irony and appearance versus reality so we categorised our quotes under these headings and learned them off category by category.

  • Answer layout

    Laying out your answer correctly can help you gain a lot of marks. I found that an introduction, three well-detailed paragraphs and a conclusion is the best layout. It’s clear and it’s to the point. For example, if the question was about Othello’s character traits, you could have a paragraph on his loving nature, his jealous nature and finally, his noble nature. Within these paragraphs, however, you need to discuss in depth what point you’re making as this shows the examiner that you know your stuff. There’s no point in making a bold statement and having nothing to back it up with. I find that backing up your statement with a quote and then an explanation of that quote is a good idea. 

  • Don’t just tell the story

    Don’t just tell the story as you will get docked lots of marks for this. Remember, the examiner is an English teacher so they will know the plot. They want to read about your opinion so make it personal. Use phrases like, “I believe that Othello…” or “In my eyes, Othello was…”.

  • Make sure you understand the question

    Make sure you understand the question and answer it accordingly. Another thing that will lose you marks is answering a question that you’ve learnt off but has nothing to do with the question. When you’re starting off a new paragraph, start with a topic sentence that includes the keywords of the question (but rephrased). For example, if the question was ‘The characters in Othello have both virtues and vices’, you could start off a paragraph about Othello like this: “I found the character of Othello undoubtedly loving in this captivating drama, however, he also showed terrifyingly jealous and murderous traits”. This will show you’re focused on the question. Try to slip in the question throughout the paragraph and at the end, reinforce your point again.

  • Make your answer stand out

    Finally, remember that the examiner will be correcting a lot of similar-looking answers so try to make yours stand out. Start your essay off with a captivating statement about your opinion of the play or with a quote from the play if appropriate.

The comparative study

Worth 70 marks overall, this section is definitely one to put effort into and make sure you can do well in. It involves comparing and contrasting 3 different texts; usually a film, a play and a novel. You can either do one 70-mark question or a question split into 30 marks and 40 marks.

Personally, I found the 30/40 mark questions easier because that way, you can discuss one text on its own in part (a) and then compare the other two in part (b). With the 70-mark question, however, you usually have to discuss all 3 texts together, constantly comparing them whilst trying to adhere to the question too so it can get messy. The 70-mark question could save you time in the exam though so if you feel confident with it, go for it.

  • Aspects of study

    Each year, there are different aspects of the texts to study: theme or issue, literary genre, general vision and viewpoint or cultural context. Usually, you study two and either one or two of those will come up in the exam (there are only three on the syllabus for each year). Like everything in English, it’s important that you understand what all of these are and their importance in the text. For example, if you were studying general vision and viewpoint (GV+V), you need to know the GV+V of the text at different moments, what changes the GV+V, what the GV+V relates to (family life, relationships, war, etc.) and what the GV +V tells you about the author’s outlook on the subject.

  • Key moments

    Key moments are a major part of the comparative study and they often appear in exam questions. It’s essential you know the key moments of each text, why the moment is important and how it changes the text.

  • Quotes

    Quotes are very important for backing up your points. Make sure you know different ones to suit the aspects of the texts you are studying. 

  • Comparing and contrasting

    It’s called the comparative for a reason so it’s imperative that you compare the texts at all times (apart from in the 30-mark question). Use terms such as ‘similarly’, ‘much like in...’, ‘in both texts...’, etc. to link the texts and show how they are similar. Equally, you could show how they are different. I used to freak out in the middle of a question if I couldn’t compare texts because of their differences but I learned that contrasting the texts shows your understanding of the texts just as well so don’t be afraid to do that if you feel that the question is difficult in terms of comparison.

  • Personal opinion

    Personal opinion, as always, is of extreme importance. You should let the examiner know the effect the texts had on you and how they made you feel.

  • Conclusion

    I like to conclude my essays with an insight I gained from reading the texts. For example, one I often used for theme or issue was, "the capability violence has to bring out the best or worst in human beings". This shows the examiner you fully comprehended the texts and that they had an effect on you.

Poetry (prescribed)

The prescribed poetry is worth 50 marks and there are 4 poets to choose from. There is always at least one woman and one Irish poet in the mix. Each school is different but generally, you will study 5/6 poets and 5/6 of their poems. There is a lot of speculation about how many poems are actually needed for a Leaving Cert response but the most common answer seems to be 5. From my own experience however, doing everything else on that paper along with 5 poems is a difficult task so if you only get around to 4 on the day, don't beat yourself up over it.

  • It's all about personal interpretation

    If you’re one of those people who ‘doesn’t get’ poetry then think again. Anyone can do poetry because it’s all about your personal interpretation of the poems. As long as you can back up your point, you’re on the road to success.

  • Length

    In terms of length, I wouldn’t write more than 5 pages because you probably will not have time for more.

  • Poetic techniques

    When learning poetry, you really have to know poetic techniques and what they do such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, sibilance, erratic punctuation, etc. Some poets have their own personal style that makes their poetry stand out, like Dickinson’s punctuation or Montague’s intimate style of writing. It’s not enough just to mention the technique, you must say what effect it has, for example, “Dickinson’s use of dashes in the poem ‘I heard a Fly buzz when I died’ slows down the pace of the poem and mimics one’s short-breaths during their dying moments”.

  • Themes

    Themes are very important too and often, they are a good topic on which to base each paragraph in your response. You should know each poet’s main themes and which themes apply to which poems.

  • Focus on the question

    As always, you must focus on the question. You will not get high marks if you merely dissect the poems without reference to the question being asked but try not to repeat the question word for word throughout your answer. My advice would be to use a thesaurus when you are practicing essays and find synonyms for the keywords used in the question.

  • Personal opinion 

    Again, make it personal. How did the poem make you feel? How did the poet’s emotions portrayed throughout the poem affect you? Also, ensure you explain each point you make. It’s not good enough to make a bold statement and then not discuss it in detail. The examiner needs to know why you have that opinion or how the poet achieved a certain effect, etc.

  • Quotes

    Quotes are essential. Pick out lines from each poem that you find most appropriate and that you feel you would use in the exam. Try using the same techniques as I gave above for remembering them. Writing them out is what I found most effective so what I did was write out the quotes without looking and then write underneath them the techniques used, what the techniques do and also the theme of the poem.

Poetry (unseen)

As this section is worth only 20 marks, I would recommend doing it last. You most likely won’t have seen the poem before so it’s hard to prepare for. There’s a choice of two questions which you can answer; one worth 20 marks and one with two sub-questions worth 10 marks each.

  • Look back on past examples

    Luckily, the questions are quite similar each year so you can have a good idea of what you’ll need to answer. The 20-mark question is usually something about your personal response to the poem so to gain the most marks, be extremely personal. How did it make you feel? Why? How?

  • Show off what you know

    Other questions may ask you to comment on the appropriateness of the title, the language used or your favourite images and why. Again, talk about the techniques used because it shows your knowledge of poetry. Finally, don’t forget to quote and reference the poem.

Best of luck in the exam! You will be great.

By Eimear Dinneen

Having spent previous years contributing to content creation, sales and communications, Eimear now manages the customer support and content teams. Her enthusiasm for culture, travel and languages means she's lived in France, Germany and Scotland to date, and her favourite thing to do is try new food.

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