GP Essays: Common mistake #4 (missing the issue)

1 03 2011

When essay questions are set, particularly the argumentative ones, they are triggered by certain big events or issues. A good understanding of the world and key current events should make the issues obvious. Conversely, a poor understanding of the world and a lack of knowledge of key current events would result in an essay that tends to talk about issues that may not be wrong, just… odd or a little out of place.

For example:

1) In a world where borders are vanishing, is it futile for Singapore to persist in building a national identity?

Here, the issue that should come to mind is the tension – or perceived tension – between globalisation and the feasibility or practicality of building a national identity.

2) Does the presence of a foreign power ever help a country with problems?

Here, key events involving a foreign power entering a country with the intention of solving a problem should come to mind. Specifically, the slant of the question should trigger thoughts of countless instances of a foreign power entering to help, but perhaps making things worse, or at least making no diffrence. In light of this, you should realise that the question intends you to consider countries as “foreign powers”, that the foreign power intended to help or claimed they were there to help, and that a “presence” implies a physical presence in the country it is helping. It is for this reason that interpreting “foreign powers” as “MNCs” misses the issue behind this question – and the only way to get away with an “MNC” point is to show an understanding that although it might not be a foreign power in the typical sense, it still has a place in your essay – and go on to justify this.

3) “There is a reporter in every citizen.” To what extent is this change from traditional journalism welcome?

Key issues that should come to mind are that citizen journalism is on the rise, and we are to question the value of this in comparison to traditional journalism. Examples of citizens recording events on mobile phones, as in the attacks by suicide bombers on London’s transport system, should come to mind.

4) Why read the book when you can watch the film?

With the release of more and more film adaptations of popular books, this question becomes increasingly relevant. However, a common mistake might be to talk about general benefits of reading, rather than focussing the discussion on film adaptations of books.

So whenever you see an essay topic, especially an argumentative one, think about the issues, events or examples which might have triggered the examiners to set this question. If nothing comes to mind, you might want to pick a different question because you might be missing the underlying issues behind the question. And to train yourself to spot issues better, the advice is this: read.


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