How to get an A* at A-level, IB, University or most essay subjects…

*Update* I have now published a book that goes into this (in a lot more detail as well as other key exam, revision and essay tips) available to buy and download from Amazon and all major outlets! It’s called “How to write any essay and get a top mark!” Click this link for details:

Sarah K Tyler said: “This is such a useful book…The style is student friendly and accessible, and the author brings to it his experience as a teacher and examiner. The highly practical approach is exactly what students need to negotiate the minefield of exam preparation and practice equipped with straightforward, realistic advice.”

Check out my student’s amazing comments on my Facebook page (here) for more convincing!

But, for a quick look at the system, keep reading…!

Examiners want you to show them your knowledge, without showing off your knowledge, answering the question without being too short and evaluating without deciding until the very end.

AO1 (or whatever your institution calls it): where you have to show knowledge and understanding

1.You will have wide and above average knowledge = not just the textbook – you have really studied the subject deeply and widely (- the internet and “thick” books help!)

2.You will have unusual knowledge = broad sheet newspaper and scholars

.This knowledge will be clear to you – your notes are excellent – mindmaps – and you do not worry about what you do or don’t know – you know enough to answer the question in front of you and leave the reader with the feeling that what you have written is – “an excellent attempt to address the question”

4.This means (e.g. utilitarianism) you have Bentham, Mill, Singer AND another or two! You have written c. 2-4 pages (depending on your handwriting size) in the exam booklet and it is accurate and relevant.

5.Your exposition is excellent – and that means using:


Signpost Points/info Evidence Expl. Develop Link (Normally once (As many (these can be swapped (the more (back to the in intro but can as you can) around) the better) question) come a few times if needed for focus)

6. Follow the above for most paragraphs –

e.g. “What is a pen”

S – A pen is lots of different things P – The thing I am writing with is a pen E – I know it is a pen as a pen is a thin object that has ink coming out at one end when you push it on a hard and porous surface. Ex – Pens use ink to leave a mark or writing on paper D – some pens are blue, others are different colours and they can come in rollerball, ink and fountain styles. L – Therefore, this is one explanation of what a pen is. NB – this is a basic example to illustrate the point I am making!

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For AO2, where you have to show evaluation or critical thinking skills:

This means, for AO2, use SPEEDL too but focus on – “Argument”; “range of views and showing understanding” with “critical analysis” (Does 1 + 1 = 2?); and “an evaluation/conclusion” that is supported by the whole or at least half of the essay.

You should see if you think about it, that to any question that is like “What do you think of this?” there is always, 3 answers, yes/no/maybe. Even if we mean “I like it, I agree, I think it is good,” these are really yes’s; and vica versa are no’s. You can either then answer as three blocks, “yes, Hume’s claims about miracles are strong for these reasons blah blah blah;” then “no, Hume’s claims are not strong…blah blah blah,” followed by “Perhaps, his claims are in between, semi convincing…blah blah blah” ending with a conclusion either way on what you think, finally, about the claim in the question.

Alternatively, and more sophisticatedly, you could answer as a table tennis match, knocking fors, and againsts, back and forth. This is preferred, but it is harder to do. A good trick is to use the textbook, philosophers and scholars, as your voice, so you have a potential of four voices, saying yes and no, back and forth.

Other key things!

You must answer the question – don’t go off track – the best answers will question the question a little or at least be aware of the context of the question – why is it an important question? Give LOTS of detail – names, development – scholars and detail gets the examiner excited! NOT GCSE or basic! Only matters if Kant took a walk every day if it helps in your question and everything you put down is focussed on the question – do not list or show off your knowledge. Use lots of keywords, sophisticated words, good use of grammar, and english and punctuation. You need to write fast and a lot! To add to what you have written, think about alternatives (or even criticisms) to what you have just said – but for AO1 keep this to informative and not argumentative. Define your terms – be clear with the reader and yourself about how you will answer the question help the examiner/reader give you marks – make it easy for them to see you are an A* student!

Keep intros and conclusions short and snappy and repeat the words of the question in the introduction and conclusion.

Check out our other articles in the menu for more information!