The A Level General Paper often baffles––how can writing an essay (Paper 1) and completing a comprehension paper (Paper 2) be so difficult that it leaves students who claim to have an affinity with the English Language stumped? It is untrue that only students who are “naturally good at English” do well on the JC General Paper examination. It turns out that acing the A Level GP examination has got more to do with how you prepare for the exam. This includes the essay section; by cultivating best practices for approaching the A Level GP Essay, you will be able to impress your markers with cogent essay arguments, relevant examples, and sophisticated language. In this article, Zenith, Singapore’s top GP tuition center, dishes out the top 10 common mistakes to avoid when writing your A Level GP Essay.
Mistake #1: Leaving it all to fate: being unprepared results in a lack of citable evidence.
A big part of your A Level GP grade is dependent on you being aware of current affairs, politics, social issues, and more. Being able to engage in a nuanced discussion of complex issues convinces your marker that you’re a critical thinker who’s in possession of unique opinions that you can defend well and that you’re not simply “smoking” your way through the paper with fluff. Since the JC General Paper exam is closed-book, you have to prepare any evidence you cite in your essay way before the day itself.
At Zenith, we encourage our students to constantly bolster their knowledge by staying up to date with current affairs and world issues. Striving to make the A Level GP syllabus relevant to contemporary life, we also encourage you to read articles from reputable news outlets such as The New Yorker, The Economist, and BBC; these resources broaden your perspectives while exposing you to the use of formal prose and non-fictional writing. Other informative sources to refer to include the Times Magazine and the Broader Perspectives Magazine, which provide annual subscriptions at an affordable rate for students. Else, the National Library Board, both their physical libraries and their online application partner (Libby), offers non-fictional books and magazines on a wide variety of topics. Whether you consult books, magazines, or news sources, it is important to expand your horizons.
The A Level GP essay typically asks questions over 7 themes. Zenith encourages all our students to be prepared for at least 3-4 of the themes, rather than placing all their bets on a single topic. Furthermore, in recent years, there has been an increasing number of questions that demand knowledge from more than one theme. For instance, this question from the 2020 A Level GP Paper: Is modern technology a benefit or a threat to democracy? To answer this question comprehensively, a candidate would have to be comfortable discussing technology in the context of politics.
Mistake #2: Plunging into the deep end: without proper planning, your essay can end up disorganised and confusing to read.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “a goal without a plan is just a wish”. To ace the A Level GP essay, it is imperative that you plan your essay well. Not doing so results in 2 possible problems:
An inordinately short essay with one missing point. While the JC General Paper essay demands only 500-800 words in the instruction, Zenith recommends our students to write longer essays. 3-4 well-structured body paragraphs substantiated with suitable evidence ensures that you have a coherent, convincing, and well-grounded essay.
Haphazard paragraphs which are unclear, poorly thought out, and possibly contradictory or overlapping with other parts of your essay. The A Level GP essay is read holistically; markers penalise students for logical gaps between paragraphs, incoherent transitions between ideas, and under-developed arguments. Well-written essays can be undermined by one weak paragraph.
Zenith’s GP tuition programme equips students with the skills to approach and plan their essays with ease. Our tutors aim to set students up for maximum success by instilling the importance of having a clear train of thought throughout the process of writing. Zenith also cultivates in our students the ability to write well-developed arguments that actually meet the demands of the question.
Mistake #3: Choosing questions blindly: you might end up attempting a more challenging question.
As with every exam paper, some questions are harder than others. With 12 essay questions, choosing the right question is half the battle won. Zenith, the top provider of GP tuition in Singapore teaches you how to analyse each essay question carefully to understand its demands. Every essay question has unique keywords and/or phrases that students must take note of.
Take the following question from the 2020 A Level GP paper for instance: ‘In a free society, there should be no restrictions on the freedom of speech.’ Discuss.
“Free society” is the given context upon which your essay must be based. In your introduction, you should define what “free society” means in your essay.
“Should be no restrictions” is the site of contention in your essay. This is an absolute statement which you should discuss in a nuanced manner. It is often difficult to agree with statements that have absolute keywords. If there is even one situation in which the argument can be proven otherwise, the statement cannot be agreed with.
“Freedom of speech” is the general topic of your essay. Use this key phrase to shortlist possible evidence for your essay while planning.
“Discuss” is the question word in the question. Other question words or phrases include “do you agree that”, “consider”, “how far can”, “to what extent”.
Mistake #4: Beating around the bush: not answering the question directly makes your essay harder to understand.
Many students get carried away when they see a particular “trigger” word in the question which may have reminded them of a topic that they’ve prepared for. This often results in blatant regurgitation: spewing out every single thing you know about a topic without actually considering if it’s relevant. Zenith teaches our students how to avoid making this mistake by filtering the information you have prepared during the planning process. Picking only the information relevant to the question and writing succinctly prevents you from writing one-size-fits-all essays which are too generic and untargeted.
Mistake #5: Telling stories instead of facts: making up examples for your essay makes it less credible/convincing.
JC General Paper is an H1 subject––this means that students often spend less time preparing for it. This brings us back to Mistake #1 which is to leave it up to fate where you walk into the exam room, completely underprepared. In fits of panic, students often make a follow-up mistake: pretending that they have the facts when they do not. Making up numbers and examples as you go along is a huge risk akin to placing your life savings into a bet where you only have a 20% chance of winning. It is highly unlikely that you are going to nail exact numbers on the head. It is equally unlikely that you will know what the Finnish education system is like if you have not done any prior research on it. Some things just cannot be fluffed out of thin air! Unfortunately, there is only one way to overcome this problem: know your content like the back of your hand. When push comes to shove and you’re reading this article at 2 a.m. the night before your A Level GP paper, prepare for at least 1-2 topics.
When you choose your question, select one that you are completely confident in. Its parameters might be slightly harder to navigate, but it is a better choice than choosing a question you have absolutely no examples for.
Mistake #6: Omitting the counterargument and rebuttal: doing this leaves your essay incomplete and unbalanced.
A complete A Level GP essay has an introduction, conclusion, 2-3 main arguments, a counterargument, and a rebuttal. While it is entirely possible to have the counterargument and rebuttal at either the start or end of your essay, leaving them to the end of the essay might mean that you run the risk of doing a slipshod job. In unfortunate cases, you might not even be able to complete your essay. Zenith emphasises the importance of a solid counterargument and rebuttal because they demonstrate your ability to preempt opposing points of view, critically assess them for validity and thereafter rebut them to maintain your own stand. It is the essential “balancer” for your essay which shows that you have interacted with the subject sufficiently and can rationalise a variety of perspectives. A good counterargument and rebuttal strengthens your overall stand while reflecting well on your skills as a coherent and nuanced writer.
Mistake #7: Writing unstructured paragraphs: unfocused writing gives the impression that you are "smoking" your way through the essay.
Following the “Topic Sentence (T) - Elaboration (E) - Evidence (E) - Evaluation (E) - Link (L)” structure for each body paragraph in your essay at the A Level GP exams means that you will likely have a clear and comprehensive essay that is easy for the marker to follow. Thinking outside the box helps when you’re brainstorming on unique content for your essay, but it is not advisable for you to stray too far from the prescribed structure. Zenith’s extensive GP tuition programme, aside from equipping you with effective research and critical thinking skills, also teaches you how to convey your ideas clearly, accurately, and succinctly.
Mistake #8: Adopting a flat, unvarying, and monotonous writing style: writing your essay in an unengaging tone bores the reader.
While writing styles differ from individual to individual, here are some ways to improve your writing:
They use a variety of grammatical constructions, ranging from simple sentences to complex sentences with multiple clauses. Instead of using only the active voice in sentence construction, they also attempt to use the passive voice for variety.
They use transition words (e.g. therefore, thus, as such, hence, while) to establish links in their argument, facilitating the marker’s understanding of it.
They use synonyms instead of repeating the same keywords over and over again, which exhibits a wide vocabulary while coming across as less repetitive.
Being able to achieve the same means that your writing will resemble Example A rather than Example B.
Example A: More often than not, it is true that the media plays a significant role in regulating its users’ behaviors, especially as they often lose control of their conduct when overly invested in particular topics of discussion, such as that of women’s rights. In recent times, since the ascent of the #MeToo movement, feminism has become a contentious and popular social issue that’s debated in both online and offline environments.
Example B: It is true that the media has to control its users. This is because the users might not be able to sanction themselves. This happens when they are overly excited or invested in a particular topic. Their emotions cause them to lose control of their behavior. An example of this behavior is seen when people discuss feminism.
Mistake #9: Managing your time poorly: an incomplete and/or incoherent essay betrays poor time management skills.
With 1.5 hours allocated to one essay, the A Level GP essay is arguably the paper where students have the most amount of time for a single exam component. While this is undoubtedly a cause for joy, it also means that markers expect more from students. The bell curve can also be skewed upwards as more students, without the pressure of time, are able to better realise their potential.
Mistake #10: Finishing your essay on the dot: not checking your essay leaves spottable errors uncorrected.
Grammar errors are a no-no at the A Level GP examinations. 20 marks of the 50 marks (a whopping 40%) go to candidates’ “Use of English”. Errors in tenses, sentence structures, and spelling will cost you marks. At Zenith, we encourage students to set aside 5-10 minutes before the exam ends to closely check their essays for any errors. This includes shortening overly long sentences, removing repetitive phrases, and correcting any grammatical errors. While this may seem like a really simple step, it can end up being the differentiating factor between a B and A grade.