There is no top secret formula to achieving the Holy Grail that is the A*. Yet there are a number of things you can add to an exam essay or piece of coursework that could add a little bit of spice and zing to your work.
In the past I have marked for the OCR exam board and (like most people will tell you) it is extremely mundane and repetitive (marking potentially 360+ of the same answer.) The challenge therefore to achieve the A* first of all is twofold:
- Keep your examiner interested – take them on a journey of exploration through your answer. This is achieved through scaffolding your essay – make it clear to your reader where you are going with your argument, using phrases such as “let’s explore this further,” or “On second thoughts the argument may not be as clear as originally thought because” or “Whilst the strengths of this argument are clear the weaknesses are tenfold.”
- Add a few pieces of information that are different from other students i.e an unusual quote or a fact about a philosopher/ key person or idea/ concept from wider reading (see below).
Top Tip One: Answer the Question
Could you guess the question from this introduction? I think it is possible…(answer: “Toronto Blessing is an illusion of the mind.” The word ‘illusion’ is used twice and the words highlighted in blue also give this introduction an evaluative tone in line with the question. Further tip: Google online dictionary for definition of ‘illusion’ and explore the implications of this in your answer – providing wider reading and something a little different)
A reader should be able to guess the question from your answer because you have answered the question so closely throughout your whole answer (sign of a top mark essay). This can be achieved through using the same words in the question repeatedly (I recommend highlighting these important words in your practice answers, to assess whether you are achieving this – these words need to be visible at least three times per paragraph) See post: “How do I get my essay from a D to a C?”
Top Tip Two: Evaluate (see post: Are you arguing with me? for further advice)
This is the hardest thing to do and where a lot of marks lie and are lost. There are many ways to show evaluation: from the critical words and tone of the essay (see Toronto Blessing answer above) to exploring “this is a strength because” or even bringing in critics “Freud would argue against this concept because” But the way to achieve the A* in evaluation is layering. E.g. Topical point – Raise a weakness or critic against it- then find fault with that critic – then round off the argument by either defending original topical point or counteract your earlier fault. Basically: go backwards and forwards with your evaluation.
Top Tip Three: Know your Topic
You cannot blag an A*. It is clear to an examiner if you have control over the arguments you are presenting – which is only possible when you know the topic very well. (See post: “How do I revise?” Top Revision Strategies to help with this.)
Top Tip Four: Write like a university student
Easiest way to ‘pretend’ is through the language you use. I recommend to my students to select a few choice phrases that make any essay sound mature, sophisticated, well written and intelligent.
So put all four tips together would read something like:
The examiner has to finish your essay and think “Wow” then “What is missing?” or “Could I have written this answer better (as an A level student) in the time given under pressure?” If the answer to both is negative then you will receive top marks.
The final thing you need to achieve the A*: pure luck! Certain things cannot be planned for (such as the exam questions) so the A* is the luck of the draw but by following my tips you have much more control over your future.
Check out this Mark with Me video where I go through a top mark Boethius answer from the 2018 exam:
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