GP is a fascinating A level subject. While it is not difficult to pass, many students find themselves stuck at the C-D range for most part of their JC education. It tatters off from other subjects with more structured syllabi and remains a predominant ‘skill-based’ subject. The subject aims not just at comprehension skills, but at testing students’ general knowledge and the ability to articulate coherent arguments based off real-world issues. With that in mind, GP as a whole requires a broad suite of skills that an article like this cannot adequately cover. Thus, we will focus on highlighting the general strategies you should employ for revision instead. Other more nuanced skills like writing hiccups and varying contextual vocabulary will be covered at a later date.
The GP examination comprises two papers: Paper 1 and Paper 2. The former focuses on a general grasp of real world issues and a student’s articulation ability; the latter on passage comprehension skills.
Paper 1: Read “Broader Perspectives”
As mentioned in the guide on acing H2 Economics , each subject has an activity with higher ROI on time invested than others; one which students should focus on. In the case of GP, that activity is to read model essays. However, most schools do not freely distribute such essays, in part because GP topics are a lot less predictable and structured than something like economics. And while school-based distributions like the famed 'KS Bull' is useful, it oftens flies above what an average student can adequately replicate during an exam. The good news is, there exists a fantastic publication which contains predictable writing structures and excellent arguments that students can easily replicate. That publication is Broader Perspectives by School of Thought. Some students may be familiar with this learning centre helmed by the charismatic founder Tong Yee. And while we have no official affiliation with them, credit should be given for this excellent resource. Inside, the essays are based off actual A-level questions, with answers typically following a 7-paragraph structure: 1 introduction, 5 body, and 1 conclusion. The pieces are argument driven and kept simple without needing prior specialist knowledge of the subject area. Moreover, contextual examples are adequately infused throughout the pieces, making it a sufficient resource even in the case you have limited time for lengthy topical readings.
Do essay outlines
It’s one thing to expand your content repertoire, it’s another to actually put that new knowledge into writing. That begins with planning. And an essay which deserves an A is built upon an ‘A’ outline. An outline is essentially the breakdown of arguments that you would later rely on to write the essay, and is one important skills tested in Paper 1 other than writing ability itself. It is not uncommon to hear students complain that it is difficult to generate 5 different arguments for a question that they have totally no contextual knowledge about. Broader Perspectives mentioned earlier has proven that this is indeed possible and the skill of generating arguments merely comes with practise. This outlining activity is of particular importance to those who are already capable writers with good syntax and grammar foundations. Such students do not need more practise in writing coherently, but need practice in crafting sharper and more persuasive arguments. While GP is a subject with no ‘wrong’ answers, some positions are easier to take and navigate than others. Furthermore, the distinction between an A and B essay is that of ‘insightfulness’; something which relies heavily on your ability to think of incisive points within the time limit of the exam. To do so, students have to show greater depth of understanding than their peers and raise up arguments that others would not have easily thought of. Against the competitive backdrop of most A-level candidates, this is notoriously difficult to do and is the epitome of GP skills. Yet it is not unattainable. All it demands is constant practise on different questions and a perceptive thought process. By constantly doing essay outlines, students are trained to think of sharper arguments over time. And as students often find out with practise, some arguments can be repeated for different questions. That is the key to a great outline, and the requisite for a GP distinction.
Write often and get feedback
For students who possess weaker writing skills and find it hard to coherently express their arguments in words, this point will benefit you. Writing is a skill learnt progressively over the years and not something magically picked up over a couple of weeks. Still, at this juncture, you’d need to do what you can to conceal these flaws to the examiner. One time-tested way is to keep your sentences short and to the point. Concise phrases are your ally. Steer away from long convoluted sentences that mashes up multiple points and subpoints together. While you will not earn marks for finesse, this practice keeps your writing crisp and readable with a good flow.
Getting someone to feedback on your essays is the next thing you should do. This could come from your teacher, or even a close friend with a good command of the language. Generally, grammatical errors and sentence structure issues are easy to spot, especially when gone through with a fresh pair of eyes. But feedback is not just about looking for areas to improve; it’s about distilling your strengths and what you’re doing right. Replicate those. The goal is to get as much feedback as possible, synthesize them appropriately, and tweak your subsequent pieces to include those improvements while retaining your strong points. Remember, writing adeptly is a skill that extends far beyond the A-levels. It’s critical in university, and an imperative when you take on projects and reports at the workplace. Invest time to improve. It’s not too late.
Practice Paper 2
Compared to Paper 1, Paper 2 is more straightforward and follows a certain structure with its questions. The most effective way to gear up for this is to do practice papers. But not just any papers; focus on the A-level ten-year series. Empirically, school have found it rather challenging to replicate the exact standards and difficulty level set out by Cambridge, resulting in a slew of papers with varying degrees of difficulty against the A-level benchmark. As a result, it would be best if you actually focus first on past years’ A-level papers before attempting other practices. Paper 2 is almost entirely a skill-based paper. By doing extensive practice, you would soon pick up valuable skills like identifying question types and paraphrasing that can be replicated in your own actual exam.
Study the answer key
Don’t just churn practice papers blindly. Check them against the answer keys. This is a critical aspect once you’re done with the practice papers. Look for why your answers are correct, or wrong, and the approach used by the answer key to tackle the problem.
In GP, there is a document called the Examiner’s Report which shows the examiner’s comments for the preceding A-level paper undertaken by Singaporeans. This document is highly restricted and is prohibited from circulation. Yet, there exists copies circulating out there and students could make it a point to obtain them. They are extremely beneficial in helping students understand what exactly the examiners are looking for when they set the question. With the right handles and adequate practice, As mentioned earlier, Paper 2 is not that tough as compared to Paper 1 and practise makes perfect.
GP is concededly a complex subject with a distinction rate of just 20% across the national average. Yet, students need not be discouraged. By following the actionable tips mentioned and putting in the grind, an A for GP is certainly not out of reach. But more than that, attaining that prestigious A grade shows scholarship providers and universities that you possess an impressive skill set distinct from your peers.
Isaiah ZhaoIsaiah is an education technology writer, currently serving as the head of content at Yodaa. In his free time, he researches on online marketing and education tips.
A-Level General Paper
First of all, the key to doing well is to read!
GP tests a lot of prior knowledge, or PK for short. Some people call it general knowledge or background knowledge. They all mean the same. Everything in the paper can be made easy if you know, and knowing comes from reading. Period.
One of the best things you can do each day is to read The Straits Times. You don’t need Newsweek or Time. That’s just a waste of money, really. ST is good enough. Read especially the Opinion section. Yup, it’s boring, but it’s very useful, because quite often you get different writers giving different opinions and comments on the same issue. These are opinions and comments that you can read, digest and remember for your own use; you don’t even need to form your own opinion! Of course, having your own opinion is much better, but we’re often influenced by what we read, and, how do we have an opinion on anything if we don’t read and don't know what’s happening?
So, people, read. There is no one person on earth that I know who did well without reading about current affairs. None.
Then when we have the prior knowledge, we can then work on the necessary skills.
What I have to say here about comprehension is pretty much similar to what I say about O-Level English comprehension.
“Comprehension” means understanding. The paper tests how well we understand the passage and the questions.
Understanding the passage is easy when our language is strong. Even if we don’t know the content of the passage, just by having a good language foundation allows us to infer or figure out what is happening more easily.
Having strong prior knowledge is also very useful because we can then understand immediately what the passage is talking about without having to even think about it.
As for the questions, there are only two things you need to do – figure out whether it is an inferential type of question or an ‘answer-from-the-text’ type of question. This allows us to hunt for the answer correctly.
I often say that if your PK is good, you already can guess the answers to most of the questions. All you need to do then is to go to the passage to confirm your answers. I demonstrated this a few years back when a group of my students challenged me to answer the previous year's paper. Except for one question where it made reference to a location I was not familiar with (but mentioned in the passage) and the summary (which I needed to read the passage for), I answered the other questions correctly, yes, including the AQ, without even looking at the passage first. It was easy, because the topic for that passage was all over the news and newspapers for the previous two years.
Next, for the questions where we have to use our own words, the idea to keep in mind is not to rephrase the sentence word for word. This is guaranteed to kill you, especially if you do this for summary! I really don’t understand where students get the idea to do this.
No! The way to go about it is to take the sentence, understand the idea behind it, then re-express the idea in another way. That’s all!
I had a good lunch can be re-expressed as The afternoon meal was good / fantastic / marvelous / wonderful.
Is there any word-for-word rephrase?
Then how do we learn how to do this? Again, simple, by reading.
You see, when we read, we learn new and different ways to see and re-express the same thing. We don’t even need to figure it out on our way. We just learn and copy! Over time, this starts to become more automatic until we don’t need to think anymore. We just do.
In GP, 're-expressing' is a very valuable skill because practically every question requires us to re-express the answer in our own words, especially summary. Summary usually attracts only 8 marks and we have no time to do what we could do in O-Level summary. However, the process is entirely the same, except we now do it mentally. The key to mastering this skills is by practising the written method again and again until it becomes natural and automatic, that’s when it becomes internalised and we can do it mentally.
I like to tell my students about a former student who would stare at the passage, and then, almost trance-like, start to write out his summary on the spot. Oh yeah, this student scored full marks for his summary in one of his school exam papers, and I have his this paper in my possession to keep as evidence to show my other students that my method works.
As for AQ, remember that it is a mini O Level composition of about 300-400 words. The structure is almost the same as your essay paper with only slight modifications:
a. Make your point i.e. topic sentence.
b. Link your point to the exact, relevant part of the passage.
c. Elaborate your point.
d. Give specific examples to justify your point.
e. Give your concluding statement.
Remember, too, not to repeat points from the passage. Doing this scores us a grand total of zero points because nothing is new.
And just like in the essay, keep going back to the questions and make sure you’re answering the question. Don’t go out of point.
Lastly, don’t worry too much about AQ. It’s only 8 or 9 marks out of 35. As long as you ensure you do all the other questions and allocate sufficient time to doing the summary and AQ, you can score 4 marks for AQ and still score an overall distinction.
Essay writing is also another simple thing to do. First, we need to know the structure of the essay. Most essays are argumentative with some occasional descriptive types.
In general, for introductions we write what I call the URT:
- Understanding – your understanding of what is happening about the topic in question,
- your Response
- and how you will Treat the essay i.e. the points you will raise up.
In the paragraphs, make sure you have your topic sentence, your elaboration of your main point and your evidence to justify your points.
All the topic sentences should be able to be linked up together to form what we call an abstract i.e. a summary of your entire essay. This also tells the examiner what we have planned and organised our writing.
Also include a paragraph of what I call a critical evaluation or CE for short. It is entirely possible to score well, maybe a B, without a CE, but an essay with a proper CE is always a superior essay because it shows the examiner that we are able to think critically, which is what GP is about anyway.
The CE is essentially your critical evaluation of what is the root problem of the topic in question. Many problems have their root in the failings of human nature, and an understanding of Maslow’s triangle (or pyramid) is very useful here.
No worries if we’re not critical thinkers by nature. As I’ve said above, read ST every day. They very often have critical commentaries about current affairs, and once you’ve read enough, you’ll get a hang of knowing how to look at issues critically.
The above are brief details that will help anyone preparing for the General Paper. Time and space do not allow me to go into too much detail. Besides, there are things that have to be shown, not write about.
In our lessons, we learn exactly how to:
- Read a passage to understand what’s happening,
- Read a passage to learn the topic content,
- Identify the question type in the comprehension questions,
- Search for the correct answer,
- Infer the correct answer,
- Re-express the idea in your own words,
- Write a good summary in 16 minutes,
- Write the AQ, and in less than 16 minutes,
- The correct structure to write argumentative essays,
- Use sample essays to learn the mechanics of good writing,
- And many more tips and tricks to do well in the paper.
If you wish to learn how to do well for your General Paper, details on lessons can be found at the tab above.