First published in Essay Booklet to Save Your Life by Ethos Books, a publishing company in Singapore.
Although I am a survivor of the General Paper (GP) syllabus, having left behind the shackles of the Cambridge A-Level examinations in the tumultuous, life-scarring month of November 2013, I am not here to offer you cheesy slogans about how you can ACE, EXCEL and ACCOMPLISH. I shall leave this to the motivational speakers that will surely come your way to impress you with their 12-step programme to achievement and MOE-endorsed zeal for learning.
Rather, I shall begin by acknowledging a controversial truth about the subject. Contrary to what some English teachers like to believe, GP, despite its core component of writing an essay on your opinion, is a highly muggable subject. That elusive A can be attained if you equip yourself with a highlighter and sift through a decade’s worth of RI KS Bull publications for relevant examples with the systematic rote-learning determination that is in our Singaporean blood. I may or may not have tried this study strategy myself. Indeed, there are moments of disgruntlement when one wonders if GP has failed. Yes, we can sit around in groups, discussing the hot-button issues in Education, Religion and the Environment, and we can watch fascinating documentaries on Ai Wei Wei’s political art. At the end of the day, however, it seems that 95% of us will begin our essays with “with the advent of technology” and throw around pet phrases like “silver tsunami”. The essays we write do not necessarily reflect our opinion, but the easiest opinion to argue.
You can blame this on the marking rubric, which makes it prudent to adhere to a formulaic essay structure that delivers the goods in the most mass-market sense. It is futile to rail against the stultifying conformity of the system, for this is, after all, not a creative writing course. As an Arts student, I was frustrated by the fact that one is not necessarily rewarded for stylistic flair or excellent vocabulary. It is perfectly possible to hit the high thirties with a bland piece that ticks all the boxes but bores you to death, as long as there is a strategic placement of tetra-syllabic words and cogently presents three proposition and two opposition points for Why Countries Should or Should Not Have The Right To Own Nuclear Weapons. But these are the inevitable pitfalls of a standardized examination. The GP exam does not need you to write well; it requires you to be clear and to know something about what is going on in the world around you.
And that is actually something of incredible value to young, impressionable people like us. You can cheat by memorizing all the examples in KS Bull, or you can do it the hard, time-consuming, mugger-unfriendly way – by actually perusing The Economist, The Atlantic, Slate and The Straits Times regularly. GP teachers often declare that it is necessary to read the papers, but that, sadly, is not true. One can ace, excel and accomplish in GP without keeping up with the news. After all, doing so means that you will spend precious time absorbing a glut of information – this ceaseless trickle of trinkets and facts – that far exceeds what you need for GP. If you spend time edifying your mind with opinion articles, you will also achieve a thorough understanding of issues and implications that are far beyond the level of analysis that GP demands of us. If one wants to study smart, one will simply consult the Model GP Essays Book and regurgitate examples that are conveniently targeted towards tackling our examination questions.
I do believe that GP can transform us intellectually, but only if we let it. You can get an A by cobbling together arguments and examples “inspired” by others who marched before you to the A-Levels. You can also get an A by producing a stellar piece of work that is insightful beyond the usual A-piece. One that is genuinely your opinion. A work of self-derived analysis.
I like to look at it this way – GP is an opportunity for you to let your teachers, and ultimately these Cambridge examiners on another continent, know what you think. We are eighteen and mostly likely angsty about life. GP is the perfect avenue for you to unleash your thoughts and opinions, hitherto unheard, on people who are paid to listen. It is not unlike a Twitter account, just longer, hopefully more coherent, and catered to an audience of intelligent, well-educated adults. If the mugger in you is reluctant to see GP as a way of, for lack of a better phrase, broadening your intellectual horizons, but more as a barrier that one must cross to Law/Medicine/Oxbridge, let me give you one pragmatic nugget.
After A-Levels, the rat race continues…this time for the limited supply of scholarships. By then, you will realize that no amount of KS Bull can help you. Only a keen awareness of the world, one that is accumulated through a faithfully cultivated reading habit, and a desire to truly learn for the sake of learning, can help you stand out.