It is close to the “A” Level season now and my students are understandably nervous about getting their essay-writing skills right before the exams.
The good news is that writing good essays is actually no rocket science – it is not something that relies on “talent”, in the sense that it can be taught and honed to a very advanced level.
The not-so-good news is that there is no magic pill that can be eaten, that will turn you into a genius in writing essays overnight. Writing good essays in your Economics exam, or other exams for the matter, requires at least medium-term, if not long-term practice and effort from students themselves.
Fortunately the concepts behind how good essays are written, are not actually difficult to comprehend.
What really is the objective of your essay?
Before we dive into the discussion on tactics to improving the essay, we need to first ask this question – what is the objective behind writing your essay?
The objective of your essay is really simple. It is to blow the pants off the reader and convince them that you are the authority that they should be listening to.
Students however, often treat their essays with little respect. They often treat their essays as:
- One-off efforts.
- Forced products.
- Being subjected to unwanted scrutiny as a “necessary evil”.
- Vehicles to “show off” their knowledge.
Given the backdrop of such attitudes towards writing essays, it is no wonder that the eventual product is often something unenjoyable to write, and worse, unenjoyable to read!
Let’s dissect and discuss each point above in detail:
Viewing your essays as One-off Efforts will mean that the essay is “orphaned” upon its creation. Taking ownership of your essay is the first step to putting in effort to write an essay you can be proud of.
Think about it: If you can’t bring yourself to be proud of your essay, how can you expect the reader to take it seriously?
Viewing your essay as a Forced Product will prevent you from producing a good essay by adding stress and tension. Obviously the solution, which is to be comfortable in writing essays, requires considerable confidence, which can only be gained through practice and superior knowledge in Economics, both in theory and real-world.
The result of the above 2 points is that students will view their essays as Being Subjected to Unwanted Scrutiny as a “Necessary Evil”. I don’t need to explain why this is not the best motivation for writing essays. Ideally, you will want to treat each essay question as a refreshing and enjoyable challenge, where you sincerely want to convince your reader to your cause.
As for myself, if I disliked writing, I wouldn’t have been taking time out from my busy schedule to write this article. If you wonder, a typical article like this can take as long as 3 hours for me to pen!
Obviously all that I have mentioned doesn’t come easily to us easily. Fortunately there are time-old life-hacks to improve students’ skills in answering essays which will be shared today.
1) Know your Economics!
Like any other subject, scoring well in the Economics exam requires students to have good knowledge about the Economics concepts.
I don’t just mean knowing per se. I mean knowing the concepts right down to the implicit assumptions that underlie the theoretical frameworks. Students should not take the concepts as given for granted – questioning the underlying mechanisms will go a long way especially for essay evaluations in the exams.
2) Treat the essay question as an interview question
Students are traditionally taught to follow “standard” frameworks that go by various abbreviations, which then result in “introductions”, “main passage” and “conclusion”.
The purpose of these frameworks is to guide the presumably clueless student into having an at least coherent essay as an output. The trouble with using such frameworks is that:
- You wouldn’t want to be that “clueless” student anyway.
- And if you are not, such frameworks tend to restrict your freedom of thoughts, which makes the essay dull.
So instead of relying on such restrictive frameworks to begin the process of crafting the essay, I usually advise my students to treat each question as an interview question. As an interviewee, to land the job at the interview, you must:
- Answer the interview questions to the point.
- Answer concisely but with sufficient elaboration.
- Engage the interviewer with interesting details.
An essay question can be treated as a conversation (albeit a monologue in this case). Imagine that you have a friend who asked you: Do you think I should get myself a fidget spinner?
Students are usually taught to “spam” the first of the essay with “definitions”: A fidget spinner is a toy that consists of a ball-bearing in the center of a multi-lobed flat structure made from metal or plastic designed to spin along its axis with little effort.
If you were ready to turn your friend off that day, this would have been the most effective way!
Obviously, if you want your reply to your friend to be valued, you should really be saying either of these:
- I don’t have enough information about your preferences or the fidget spinner, but tell me more.
You wouldn’t want to take too long to answer your friend, nor should you be giving him/her a “boring” answer here!
For similar reason, students should take note that for “discussion” types of questions, they should therefore always begin with a stand (yes/no). If you must write “but it depends”, that’s fine, but the stand must always be supported coherently.
Do not argue against your own essay for the sake of it!
Many students have a tendency to write “Yes, you should buy the fidget-spinner”, and proceed to answer to such contradictory effect:
- It’s a nice toy, but it’s expensive.
- It looks beautiful, but it depends on the colour.
- Maybe you should consider other alternatives as well before buying it.
When I point out such fallacies to students, they would laugh and say that the answer is stupid. Unfortunately the reality is that many students write their answers like this.
Guess who had the last laugh?
3) Break the essay question into a series of sub-questions
Often students have trouble figuring out where and how to begin the essay. Admittedly, writing an essay is no small task and often there is no “absolute” right answer to the question.
I personally cope with this initial mental block by breaking down the essay question into sub-questions. This helps to make the question manageable. In my opinion, this method is a great complement to the more familiar schematic planning.
Take for example the following question: Should Singapore follow UK’s example in cutting subsidies for tertiary education?
The mental block in students when they confront such a question usually stems from the fact that there are gaps in the question itself that needs answering before you can arrive at a stand and the appropriate arguments.
In most cases, such questions, if not found in the Case Study, tend to come with a short paragraph explaining the context (and providing clues). Assuming that this is not the case, I would proceed to break the question down as follows:
- What were the motivations behind subsidising higher education?
- How does the subsidy improve consumption of tertiary education in theory?
- Why did UK cut the subsidy? => Usually the hint is in the preceding paragraph or case study.
- Does Singapore face similar issues as UK?
- Are there more attractive policy solutions to subsidies that Singapore can consider (and therefore cut the subsidy)?
As you can see, breaking the question up helps because:
- It is easier to answer each small question than to tackle the main question directly.
- Planning the flow of the essay becomes easier when you have the list of questions (some questions have dependencies, e.g. Q2 depends on the answer to Q1, as well as Q4 on Q3).
- Generating each sub-question strengthens the integrity of your arguments, by generating additional sub-questions as you become aware of various gaps to your answer. Be wary however about having too many sub-questions though – make good judgements on which should be assumed away (but stated explicitly), and which qualify as appropriate sub-questions to be added.
4) Always start from the theory.
If you had noticed from my earlier example, one of the first questions (Q2), sought to explain the theory behind subsidies (and implicitly, its associated mechanisms).
Common mistakes made by students include treating the essay as a General Paper essay, rather than an Economics one. The key difference between both is that there are strict theoretical frameworks that govern the arguments behind the essay to be written.
These students often dive straight into the answer. They anwer with Yes, or No, followed by arguments as to why they felt so, without introducing the theory behind their answer. This often results in low scores for the essays because the arguments will lack Economics rigour.
A good way to avoid this is to identify first, the theory you would like to use to answer the question (there is never the case where “no theory” can be used to answer the question).
This should then be followed by an explanation of the theory that you have chosen, just like what I had done for Q2 in the example above, before contextualising your arguments to answer the question.
5) Re-read and keep re-reading the question as you answer it.
It is very easy to answer off-tangent to the question as you plan and write, without looking again and again at the question.
We often get tempted (myself included), to get excited when the question is something you have clear ideas about, and then get carried away in answering it, without seeing if it answers the question to the point.
This mistake is very costly. Not answering to the point will cost you points in the exam. It will cost you precious time as well – time that could have been spent writing a more relevant answer.
Always look back to the exam question and make sure you are on point always!
To my students and all taking the upcoming Promos or “A” levels, do study hard and good luck for your exams!
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