The Essay Formula

It’s true. There are a few formulas that SPM examiners have been using to grade our essays. It’s not just the marking scheme. It’s a few simple mathematical equations to help everyone score.

Unlike in the Maths paper, not everyone has the formula sheet for reference.

No. 1: A = B

In Section A, which is Directed Writing, language carries 20 marks, while Section B, Continuous Writing, is completely assessed based on the use of the language, carrying 50 marks.

How does the 20 marks of one essay influence the 50 marks of an unrelated essay? Let’s look at the marking scheme for language.

Let’s take Band B as our example.
Section A: 16 – 18 marks (16 is a “low B”, 18 is a “high B”)
Section B: 38 – 43 marks (38 – 39 is a “low B”, 42 – 43 is a “high B”)

If somebody receives 18 marks for language in Section A, the Section B essay will be automatically considered for 42 or 43 marks, based on the usage of grammar and vocabulary of the piece. However, one or two slips (eg. spelling, missing out ‘s’ for plurals) will have it downgraded to 39 (low B), while major errors (eg. mixed tenses, SWEs (single word errors), confused subjects) will send it crashing down to 37 (high C).

So, why do we have such a damning system? Because weak students with hard-drive memory banks COPY “model essays”, and examiners won’t award a high score for an unoriginal piece.

No. 2: If i = idioms, let 5 < i < 7 .

Why? Examiners, especially old-school ones, love idioms. It’s one of the criteria for an A vocabulary: “wide and precise – shades of meaning”. So why precisely 5 to 7? Simply because too many shows a lack of variety in language if one is using them correctly, or if the idioms are placed in the wrong context, marks are deducted. It’s a precautionary measure teachers advise students to take, especially for those with a high frequency vocabulary (commonly used words, also known as ‘weak words’).

However, having spoken to half the English teachers in my school before writing this, most teachers would be satisfied with idioms in their rightful context, regardless of quantity 🙂

No. 3: Keep it short and sweet, between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 pages.

As opposed to popular belief, brevity is key. There is no extra marks given for the length of your essay, and 350 words is roughly one page of foolscap paper. So why write a novella (no harm in doing that) when you have the ability to deliver the same story in half the words needed? It’s why students who take continuous writing and produce creative writing (like me) never get a Band A in exams. For teachers, the embellishments of descriptive passages, vignettes, dialogue are entertaining, but just don’t fit the mould of SPM-student style. Focus on mature content and keep your two feet on the ground, let your imagination run wild but remember to tone your concluding paragraph down to earth, link it back to reality and the topic you’re writing on.

If you’re doing a narrative, keep a few stories in your pocket before you walk into the exam hall to save time from planning your story on the spot. Of course, modify the story you’re using to make it your own. Keep your flow organised, stay calm, and plan each paragraph wisely. Don’t over-elaborate on minute details, focus on getting the message of the story across to the examiner, especially when it comes to the inner thoughts of characters ( which we usually leave unsaid in creative writing). Examiners look for the “wow factor” in stories, so try to throw in plot twists to spice things up.

To sum it up:
-Double check your directed writing to avoid unnecessary losses of marks.
-Add idioms for plus points in vocabulary
-Keep it short and sweet
If you can’t complete the essay, at least tie it up with one or two lines for the conclusion (without a conclusion the essay is dropped by a grade)
-For narratives, prepare rough outlines of stories beforehand, minimise subtext & have plot twists

Good luck in SPM!

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