Being a homeschooling private candidate whose last schooling experience took place twelve years prior to taking the CIE A levels, I believe that I approach the exam from a different perspective compared to most. I had little assumptions and almost no expectations of what the examiner wants me to show in my response and how I should best prepare for the exam.
As part of my exam preparations, I took private online tuition classes two months before the date of my first paper so I could have an idea of what an examiner would expect of me. But whether it is because of my age, my personality and interests or my unique experience, I see the exam as more than just another rung on the ladder I have to climb past to get into my tertiary education. Being mostly a self-taught student, I tried to look at the exam from an educator’s point of view and observe how does an A level exam prepare someone for their undergraduate programmes, which skills would student gain from their A level preparations and how the examiner identify one’s mastery of those skills from the exam responses.
Listed below are what I believe to be some of the most important advices I would have given to my past self. Some of these were given to me from others and I had been lucky enough to be able to apply them for myself. Others are lessons learned from my failures which hopefully would help guide my steps in the future and perhaps help some of you from making the same mistakes I did.
1) Your response is a one-way communication in which you only get one chance
The person who would be marking your answer sheet is a total stranger. They do not know you, they could not assume your level of knowledge and understanding and they could only mark what you actually write on your paper. It is a brilliant way of removing biases but it also means that they could not judge you based on any other cues or a history of past work. They don’t know if you’re a literature geek who’ve read twenty different interpretations of the same poem just because you could quote an obscure reference to a non-academic writing, especially if what you wrote is ultimately irrelevant to the question.
In my first English Language tuition class, my tutor explained to me that even if I make a very detailed dissection with accurate terminology, I must also include the most basic but crucial details in my analysis to demonstrate that I have a thorough understanding of the text. For example, just by explaining how Speaker A hesitates and repairs her language does not prove that I understand from the conversation, and the context given, that she is confessing and that there is an imbalance of status relationship within the conversation. The examiner should not assume that I do unless I state that specifically in my response.
2) Your breadth of knowledge is just as important as your depth of knowledge
Prior to my A levels preparations, I focused a lot on the Science subjects in my studies. As a child, my father taught my sister and me what causes an eclipse by demonstrating with several balls and a flashlight in a darkened room and I absorbed the mechanics of it almost instantly. And so whenever I learn a new concept, I would look for references online or in our library to help me understand them on a deeper level. Similarly when I study Mathematics, it was important for me to understand the logic behind the laws and notations and not simply accept them at face value.
A level examiners would also be looking at how deeply you understand the topic and how adept you are at applying them. It is not enough for me to sense intuitively what makes for a good writing. Like a movie critic who would analyse the angle of a single shot and how that influences our sentiments, I have to be able to understand the language tools a writer has at their expense, inside and out, be able to point them out in a given text and then utilise them myself by either adapting them to their style and purpose (in Paper 1) or design my own in my text reconstruction (in Paper 3).
However equally as important is being familiar with as many different forms and examples of whatever it is that you are learning. This applies to all three of the subjects I took. With Geography, I had to understand not just how all of the processes take place but also how they interact with each other and the many ways humans have interfered with them. With Mathematics, this means doing lots of practice and really train that brain of yours into applying what you have learned into many different situations. With English Language, I had to familiarise myself with many different forms of texts in both written and spoken language, learn their different formats and understand theories inside out.
Which leads to…
3) Always back up your arguments with case studies or theories (and actually use case studies or theories to back up your words)
Every site I refer to for A level Geography emphasises the importance of knowing a ton of case studies to prove that you could apply what you have learned in real life situations but the A Level English Language resources I found don’t stress on them as much. While this is generally true, you still need to refer to other academic works or past events when stating your argument (and I assume this is also true in other similar subjects).
This does not mean that you could just drop case studies wherever the topic seems to be relevant. Only use your case studies deliberately for the purpose of making a point. Similarly, only give out relevant information that would help to strengthen your statement.
If you are explaining how the development of English in countries where English is used as a second language causes a conflict between Standard English and the local variation, it is a good idea for you to mention briefly on how English first spread. However, it would not help if you go on to give a detailed account on the differences between the first and the second diaspora of English. It makes much more sense for you to focus on a single country where a conflict actually takes place and explain why that happened instead.
It is always a good idea to include some data in your case studies as it is a great way to emphasise a point (and to prove that you’re not making things up) but again, unnecessary data would only make your response less succinct. However if a case is relevant to the situation and would definitely help in proving your point, include it even if you don’t have the data. This may apply if you have a case in mind that is part of your wider reading and you did not prepare it for your exams specifically.
4) Do your research and pick the right subjects (and topic) for your situation, your aim and your capabilities
One of my biggest frustrations with my A level result is that it is so polarised. I am definitely more than pleased that I got an A in Geography and an A* in English Language but because of my e grade (at AS Level) in Mathematics, ultimately, I only have two A level and one AS level passes and that limits my options somewhat as I intend to study for a Law degree. I chose to take Mathematics because it was the requirement for one of the universities I was eyeing for but had I taken a different subject (or perhaps prepared better for Maths), I might have gotten another A level pass and have a better prospect than what I do now.
On the other hand, English Language turns out to be the perfect paper for me. I am genuinely fascinated by the study of linguistics and the human psychology and I have an easy time understanding the many language techniques I needed to know for the exam from the research I have done for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge since back in 2014. I have also been interested in understanding and interpreting group conversations since my teenage years. Although I did not learn either of them formally, the basis of my understanding was priceless when it comes to A level preparations and because of my genuine interest in them, I find the English Language classes I had with my tutor and the exam itself a lot of fun and indeed I was awarded with the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award for this paper.
In a subject like Geography, my textbook covers a wide range of different topics and for two of the papers, I could choose to learn two out of four of the topics given. For Advanced Physical Geography, I chose to learn ‘Tropical Environments’ and ‘Coastal Environments’ as both apply to Malaysia where I am most familiar with. Similarly with Advanced Human Geography, I chose to learn ‘Production, Location and Change’ and ‘Environmental Management’ as they both relate to my interest and I have a pre-existing knowledge base on these topics, especially with the latter. In fact a lot of the case studies I used for my ‘Environmental Management’ essay question actually came from my casual reading (and educational YouTube videos I stumbled upon) on top of the ones I found in my text and reference books.
So that’s all four of them. If you’re sitting for an A Level exam or another exam where you would need similar skills, I do hope that these suggestions could help you. If you have any more of your own, feel free to leave them in the comment section below.