Essay skills: (1) Assessment of the present / projection and (2) Importance

24 07 2011

[The following post is based on (read: largely copied from) one of Mr Foo’s posts. Check out his original post here.] 

1. Time context: Assessment or Projection? 

1. ‘Social media is the main agent of change in today’s world.’ How far do you agree?
2. Is science today as much about profit as improving the world?
3. Will technology really save humankind?
4. Consider the notion that Singapore needs to be willing to lose in order to progress.

Questions 1 and 2 are calling for you to make an assessment of what is happening in the world today; whatever you discuss in your essay needs to concern events and issues that have already happened or are still occurring today. As such, the use of hypothetical scenarios (e.g. if there…then that…) , recommendations or suggestions are irrelevant for such questions.

Questions 3 and 4, on the other hand, are calling you to make a reasonable projection of the future. Talking about the future does not mean you can go all hypothetical and generic in your discussion. Instead, study current trends, events and issues and make reasonable suggestion of what will happen or what should happen in the future (sounds like PW?). Based on what we have seen technology do so far,will it save us eventually? Although Singapore has progressed till now on a mentality adverse to losing, will we need reconsider that mentality in order to achieve maximum progress in future?

– Gee Pee Land

Here, he highlights a useful tool* for interpreting question requirements – considering the context of time. Ask yourself whether the question intends you to

  1. analyse the status quo and give your assessment of it, or
  2. make a prediction about a future state, based on existing trends

2. The question of importance

A student insightfully remarked to me how Cambridge doesn’t seem to ask pro-con questions. I couldn’t agree more. GP questions are not isolated studies of a particular subject or topic, nor are they asking you describe and explain your encyclopedic knowledge to us. GP questions always concern an ongoing issue in the world, and issues in the world always concern a context. Consider the following questions:

‘Traditions have no place in Singapore.’ Discuss.
‘Advertising is unnecessary.’ Comment.

Whether it concerns importance, purpose, necessity, ‘place’ or need, all suggest roughly the same frame of issue:

Does the society really need it?

It’s not about it being good or bad, positive or negative. It’s about whether this thing, whatever it may be, serves an essential purpose or function in society that nothing else possibly could. Consider the three arguments below:

1. Advertising is necessary for companies because it helps them market their products and increase profits.

2. Advertising is necessary for companies given given how it is most effective way for companies to market their products to a mass audience and thus, ensuring better sales and profits.

3. Given how there is increasing competition between firms today and how the average consumers is presented with myriad choices in goods and services in this capitalistic society, advertising is an essential means of marketing  for companies to try and promote and differentiate their business and products to a mass audience in the most effective way to gain consumer awareness and in turn, ensure sales and profit.

Notice how bringing in context helps to make the argument more compelling? ‘Necessity’ or ‘importance’ is always relative to both the (1) unique abilities of the thing and (2) unique needs of the context.

– Gee Pee Land

Point (2), on importance, is somewhat related to a recent post on the key terms “necessary” and “unnecessary”. From 2002-2010, Cambridge has never asked a question with the key terms “necessary” or “unnecessary”. However, they are extremely important key terms to understand because the idea of “necessity” comes up in a number of other essays, with key terms that Cambridge has asked (which are common enough), such as importance, purpose and place.
Key point: Just because the exact terms “necessary” and “unnecessary” do not occur in a question, this does not make the skill behind the key term irrelevant. Always develop a sensitivity to the links between different key terms; transfer the skills learnt from one question to another and avoid compartmentalising your knowledge.
*There are countless different tools you can use – considering the time context, setting a yardstick, considering the status quo, thinking about whether a concept is static or evolving, etc. Every time you come across a new technique for tackling GP questions, mentally store these in a “GP skill toolbox”. The idea is that we’re giving you tools that you can use. We’re not asking you to use all these tools for all the questions you encounter – you should pick any tool that does the job, with the ideal being that you identify and use the tool(s) that are best able to help you conquer the question given.



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