A-Level General Paper Essays

A-Level General Paper

GP is actually a very simple paper to do once you get the hang of it. Now, I said “simple”, I didn’t say easy. You do need to put in the effort, but once you get the pattern, it’s really quite a piece of cake. 

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.

That’s all.

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.

Final Words

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.

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