Writing a great essay is absolutely essential to General Paper. However, it’s not as easy as it seems – many students get it wrong at the very start, and have already doomed themselves to a mediocre grade even before they have written their first word.

Don’t be one of those students. Having taught GP at Raffles Institution for years, I’ve identified 5 main ways students go wrong and I’m here to share them with you.


① Question keyword analysis is absolutely fundamental.

This early stage in writing the essay can either make or break the response. So many essays go wrong because students don’t pay attention to the keywords in the question and don’t think about the words carefully in terms of their meaning and implications. And, when students do try to analyse the keywords, they simply underline them and move on without then dissecting them.

I really can’t emphasise the importance of keyword analysis enough. Many students think that this stage doesn’t matter, but it does – because a single word in a GP question can change the focus of your essay completely, as well as the arguments being used.

Here is a terrible strategy that is unfortunately very common: a lot of students also try to force points or arguments from essays they’ve memorised into other similar questions with slightly different keywords. THIS APPROACH DOES NOT WORK. If the keywords are different, the essay you write has to be different.

And no, there’s no point in just being shown how to analyse keywords. I have met students who, after two years, still cannot identify and analyse keywords. You have to learn to do it yourself.


② Engage deeply with the keywords you identify.

As I noted above, simply underlining the keywords as a matter of routine and then moving on without any analysis won’t get you very far. Students need to actively engage with the key words in their response in a sustained and coherent manner. But I hear you asking: what does this mean?

Engaging with the key words means that one’s arguments and ideas are formulated around the key words. The arguments then become body paragraphs where each part of the body paragraph (topic sentence, explanation, evidence) should engage with the key words in the question. This ultimately ensures that you are answering the question.


③ Watch out for badly written topic sentences.

Writing topic sentences sounds easy enough, right? You need a sentence that answers the question clearly and contains a concept or reason that is broad enough for you expand your ideas and write a coherent paragraph that answers the question clearly.

While this sounds relatively easy in theory, in practice this is not that straightforward. Many students write topic sentences that are example-driven, such that the topic sentence contains an example that should be in the evidence part of the paragraph. Others lack a clear concept or reason, so the reader struggles to understand what the main idea and argument is in the paragraph or the main idea and argument are unclear.

Sometimes, the latter could be due to either a content or language issue in that the student either doesn’t possess the necessary content that will allow him to answer the question in meaningful way or a student uses inaccurate and imprecise language that results in the topic sentence being unclear.


④ You need to practise and practise!

All of the issues outlined above can be worked on and developed, but only by practising and receiving feedback. You need to dissect essay questions, write topic sentences, plan paragraphs, plan essays and ultimately you need to write! And I certainly don’t mean writing one or two topic sentences. I mean: you need to write paragraphs and essays and get feedback on them on a regular basis. (Yes, yes, I know it’s tiring.) Only by doing this will you develop the necessary skills that will enable you write a convincing GP essay.


⑤ Don’t just memorise essay plans. You’re taking a huge risk.

This is the most important point: Memorising essay plans is not sufficient. If you get a question that is slightly different from the essay plan you’ve memorised, you’re basically doomed. Yes, I also know that many students see a familiar “trigger” word in their examination essay questions and immediately start forcing points from a similar essay plan into that essay.

Don’t do it.

What I believe students need is a comprehensive set of general notes about particular topics – such as science and funding or gender and equality – and then be able to use the information from those notes in a flexible and adaptive manner to answer the question in front of you.

An essay plan only allows you to answer 1 essay: literally that exact same essay question that you have planned for. Nothing else. In contrast, if you are able to take your content and adapt it to any question, you’ve already gotten off to a good start.

If you are looking for comprehensive notes and essay writing practice, my General Paper course at Academia provides three different sets of notes for each essay topic: content notes, revision notes and a general essay workbook. These notes are the most comprehensive General Paper notes you can find anywhere.

We’ll do at least two essays each month (more if you want to), in addition to two comprehensions, summaries and application questions on alternate weeks.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, I hope it is this:

“Getting an A for General Paper is a lot of good, honest, hands-on work. There are no shortcuts and practice is essential.” ~ Dr Neil Coomber

About Dr Neil Laurence Coomber

Dr Coomber is the Director of Pre-University Studies and Business English at Academia.

Highly respected by his former students, he spent five years teaching General Paper at Raffles Institution, where he set examination papers ranging from Prelims and Promos to Common Tests. He possesses exam setting, marking and standardisation expertise, having developed school curriculum and infopacks for a variety of themes. His teaching skills are highly regarded by those who have had the good fortune to study under him and his legendary General Paper notes are highly sought after. Prior to teaching in Singapore, he taught English to MBA, graduate and business students internationally. His impeccable credentials include a PhD from Oxford University supervised by the Pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Dame Jessica Rawson, as well as a Certificate in Teaching Gifted and Talented Students from Purdue. He has trained at the Raffles Teaching Academy and NIE and many will remember him as the Master of Ceremony during the quintessential school rugby finals for several seasons running. He knows how to guide students with their UCAS applications and testimonials to top universities, ranging from Oxbridge to the Ivy League.