General Paper tips: How to go from a ‘B’ to strong ‘A’ in your essay

(This post by Mr Sean Lim first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 29 January 2014.)

By Sean Lim

“I assert that the method to obtain excellent results in the GCE A-level examinations is to write an exemplary essay with effective use of well-written words, sentences and paragraphs and to conclude them with relevant punctuation.”

The above sentence highlights the epidemic of excessive writing in many students today. Many students think that more is better. They write longer, more complex sentences, filled with jargon after jargon, thinking their essay, as a consequence, looks better. But instead, they penalize themselves because their phrasing is awkward, links poorly drawn and structure messy.

A common worry amongst students is “I can’t write well, hence I’m scoring badly”. Rather than reflecting a stronger vocabulary or writing skills, their writing reflects a position of insecurity, whereby students write more to compensate for a perceived lack of content/quality.

The unfortunate reality is that many teachers continue to emphasize content over context, providing students with truckloads of model essays, overflowing with jargon and exhausted examples, each more complex in structure than the previous. This only serves to continue nurturing a position of irrational insecurity in the students.

From what I’ve observed, 10 years in our education system has more than prepared the average student to write a well-written, well-structured essay with decent vocabulary. What distinguishes your essay from the next isn’t better vocabulary or longer sentences, though they do serve their purpose. What gives you an edge is a strong grasp is context. Essays and arguments do not rest on numbers, statistics or interesting vocabulary. From education and female empowerment to environmental concerns and science, every topic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This is a major reason why many students come out of exam after exam, after using countless facts and figures about the relevant topic, only to score depressingly low marks.

Repeat after me, “Context is King”.

Context is critical because it ensures that you score well. Many students penalize themselves not because they cannot write well but because they are not answering the question.

The trick to answering the question is a broad topic but today we will focus on mastering context.

Let us take a look at the question “People in the Arts, living or dead, receive far more recognition than those in the Sciences, even though it is less deserved. Consider this claim. (GCE A-Levels Q2 2012)” *

“Ultimately, we need to recognize that society places so much more value on human expression and engagement that sometimes, they are willing to value it above scientific discoveries. We need to recognize that humans are emotional beings who seek meaning, purpose and structure. As a result, having access to mediums, which provide engagement and answers we seek, has become an integral facet of modern society. That is why national athletes are paid more than teachers, Wall Street executives more than politicians and artists more than scientists. In fact, men of science who are able to integrate this understanding into their discipline will be able to gain reward and recognition far beyond that of many artists. Such men include Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, Mark Zuckerburg, founder of Facebook, and Larry Page, founder of Google. It is their ability to recognize the human need for interaction and meaning that results in their incredible success and far spread recognition. “

This paragraph is one of my final paragraphs. In it, I aim to unite all the conflicting arguments, both for and against, which I have just presented. How do I do that? By acknowledging the context in which the conflict, between science and arts, exists in: That humans are emotional beings driven by meaning and purpose. By acknowledging this context, I show an understanding of the bigger picture, that artists aren’t famous just because they’re artists, it’s because of how society perceives their value. Just look at the pieces of paper we call “money”, most of the time, how valuable something is in our society isn’t determined by its physical value or appraisal. By acknowledging the context, which is the subjective nature of our perception, I am thus able to drive my essay into a satisfying conclusion.

Note that I emphasize that the essays I provide aren’t the “perfect” answers; neither do I encourage you to memorize them. All I encourage my students to do is understand the arguments they contain, which represent just one single perspective: Mine. Within each and every student is a unique perspective that deserves to be heard and nurtured. In fact, that is the ultimate purpose of General Paper: To develop a critical perspective of the issues that impact the world around them. The next time you write your essay, please remember to let your perspective shine.

All in all, if you’ve haven’t taken away anything from this article, then note this. Develop your perspective, be critical of the world around you, find subjects you are passionate about, then put all of that on paper. You’ll be surprised just how far that takes you.


* The full essay can be found at my site HERE

About The Author

Sean has been providing General Paper tuition and crash courses for 2 years. A graduate from Raffles Junior College, Sean has managed to attain Deans list (top 5%) for General Paper in Raffles and achieved an A for H1 General Paper, amongst 7 distinctions and a H3 in Economics in the 'A' Levels.

Feel free to check out his personal website over at for his teaching pedagogy, crash course information and free resources such as model essays and comprehensive essay writing/comprehension notes.


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