A fixed system makes any job so much easier.
I got an A for General Paper (A levels), and below are the rules & system I had in place throughout my 2 years of Junior College (high school).
Gather good phrases, evidence and opinions
Even extraordinary legends like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen didn’t magically write masterpieces. They started out reading good books.
The logic is simple.
We can’t write good essays when we don’t know what good essays (or writings) look like. That’s why I read opinion articles throughout the 2 years of junior college (or high school).
Opinion articles are quite different from the common newspaper articles which are, to a large extent, essentially just a compilation of facts. These opinion articles (my favorites from The Atlantic, BBC, Vox, Straits Times, etc) contain insightful opinions and analyses of seasoned journalists or industry experts.
I didn’t just stop at reading these pieces. I used something I call the “legend method”.
I had a legend in place:
RED (highlight): evidence that I can use in my own essays (quotes by famous people, statistics, etc)
YELLOW (highlight): good phrases that I can use in my own essays
CIRCLED: good vocabulary/words that I don’t know
SQUARE BRACKETS: good connectors I can use in my own essays
After making annotations according to this method, I underlined the sentences in the opinion articles which were the main points the writer was trying to convey.
This method of annotating the opinion articles made my revision efficient and fast.
Analyze the essay prompt
I first identified the keywords in an essay, then analyzed their definitions, set the scope of their meaning, and considered their implications.
e.g. “Does a country’s economic progress guarantee quality of life?”
Country: indicates scope/scale of essay
Economic progress: usually entails increase in number of jobs available, increase in GDP, etc.
Guarantee: an absolute/extreme word that indicates absolute certainty. In essays when absolute/extreme words like “guarantee”, “always”, “cause” are used, 99% of the time, the answer to the essay cannot be an absolute yes or no.
Quality of life: on an individual level, usually involves concepts like material (i.e. income level, job) and non-material standard of living (i.e. leisure time, family time, happiness)
Structure the Essay
Once an essay structure is roughly in place, the essay is as good as half done. Once you have just the main ideas & topic sentences of each paragraph down, you just have to fill in the evidence & further explanation.
Paragraph 1: Yes, a country’s economic progress can lead to quality of life for the people. (Then explain the mechanism/how the process works)
Paragraph 2: Not necessarily, because of reasons like inequality (and elaborate more)
Paragraph 3: Not necessarily “guarantee”, because economic progress may indeed lead to increase in material SOL (one aspect of quality of life) but it may have unintended consequences (like higher stress levels and less family time) which can lead to a decrease in non material SOL (another aspect of quality of life)
Evaluative conclusion: Reiterate the 3 body paragraph points & explain how while economic progress might increase the chances of quality of life, it does not guarantee quality of life
I’m not saying this is the best way to structure an essay. This is my method- you have to come up with the essay structuring style that you’re most comfortable with.
On one sheet of paper, I penned down all the evidence I could use in my essays. On the other side of the paper, I wrote all the good phrases I could use.
When I actually started writing my essay, I tried to use the good phrases & evidence I had put down on the brainstorming sheet.
Discuss ideas with friends
Should homework be banned? What do you think about the policy that was just implemented? Should animal testing be illegal? Is failure really essential for success? Why do you think so?
Discussing GP essay topics with friends is also a great (and fun) way to learn about different perspectives and internalize new information.
Don’t start studying for GP the last minute after chucking it aside in favor of other more obviously content-heavy subjects. GP isn’t the kind of a subject you can cram for and expect a sudden improvement in your grade.
Have (a) GP file(s) to compile all the good opinion articles, the essays you wrote, the notes your school gave- basically anything GP.
Use dividers to at least broadly classify your notes. You really don’t want to waste time
Use “time indicators”. Once I received a GP content package from my school, every time I read through the notes once, I put down the date I revised the pack. Having the visual indicator allowed me to see which package I didn’t revise as frequently, and which package, even if I did revise quite a few times, was one I had revised some time ago for.
Read through your notes/essays (all GP revision materials) repeatedly. If you don’t have a photographic memory, don’t expect the content you read through once some time ago to be in your head the next time you take a GP test.
When you read through your notes the first time, you’ll take maybe 1 hour. The next time you read through your notes (which are already highlighted according to your system), you’ll take maybe 40 minutes. The next time, it’ll be even shorter.
After you read through your notes repeatedly, they’ll already be in your head. You won’t have to try to memorize them before an exam.
Always ask for feedback. Teachers have gone through batches of students who’ve studied GP, and they’re basically professionals when it comes to studying for GP. Ask for exam & study tips.
“What are the mistakes I keep making my essays?”
“How can I improve my essay?”
“What do you think are the concrete steps I can take to improve ___ of my essay?”
My own teachers very generously gave me feedback on my essays and carved out time from their busy schedules when I requested for GP consultations. Seek out teachers’ help with a sincere desire to improve your GP, and they will give you sincere help.
If possible, write draft 2. Reading through the comments your teacher made on your essay is good, but writing an improved version based on the comments would be even better.
Writing a draft 2 would help you internalize the mistakes you keep making in your essays. You don’t want to end up repeating the same kind of mistakes in your essays.
Keep up with current affairs. Don’t frantically read the news a few days before a GP test (or even worse, before the A levels). Just read the news every day during spare time (e.g. while you’re drying your hair, when you’re waiting for the bus).
Be the kid in class who can give interesting updates on what’s going on around the world.
Write essays. Analyzing keywords, compiling good evidence and phrases, structuring essays- all of them are good, but that’s not what you’re actually going to be tested on for the A levels.
Sit down and actually write essays with a timer on your desk.
Have an “overview chart”. It’s good to have “time indicators” on the notes you revise for, but it’s even better to also have an overview of your progress in GP. On a piece of paper, note down all the commonly tested topics of GP essays, and track your progress on it.
How many times have you written an essay for this topic? How much content have you revised and compiled for this topic?
This chart will give you a sense of assurance. With a look at the overview chart, you won’t have to panic before the A levels wondering if you’re prepared.
The system I used to study for GP is just one of the many methods out there. If you’re studying for GP (or an essay writing exam), I hope you find what works for you best and get the grade you’re striving for! 🙂