You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. (Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition)

You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. What to do for the dreaded English/GP papers?

A little preamble

One of my earliest tutoring ‘jobs’ (I wasn’t paid) came around when I was in the army. An acquaintance called me, out of the blue, clearly panicking about her upcoming General Paper examination. She was getting F9s and D7s consistently, and if this continued, she wouldn’t have been able to enter a local university. She had no money to pay for a tutor and was getting desperate. She heard that I had topped my school in GP, could I help?

I met her ONCE to see what I could do, and took a look at the essays she had done to date (it was about 2 to 3 months to the A-levels, then). Her language was horrendous — it was so difficult to understand what she was trying to say, amid all the language and expression problems. She did, at least, have mature ideas back then, but they were all obscured by the terrible language.

Kevin (Mr Seah): Are you able to understand the articles in your Newsweek magazines?
Acquaintance: Yep!
Kevin: Do you read them?
Acquaintance: Uh…. no.
Kevin: Read them.
Acquaintance: Well, sometimes I don’t really understand everything, and they’re really boring! I try to read them, but I fall asleep.
Kevin: Ah, that’s fine. Then read your Reader’s Digest magazines. Do you find those interesting?
Acquaintance: Yes, but… aren’t those more for the O-levels?
Kevin: Well, your problem isn’t that you don’t know what to say. Your ideas are fine, but you just can’t express them in ways that humans understand (heh). What you need is the ability to bring across your ideas, ideas that aren’t bad in the first place. Read your Reader’s Digest magazines, and perhaps when you’re bored of that, go on to your Newsweek magazines. In your essays, stop trying to use big words and long sentences. Stick with simple language and sentences that convey your ideas accurately. You’re trying to pass now, not trying to get that A.
Acquaintance: Should I practice writing essays, then?
Kevin: Not for awhile. You need to break your bad habits of using these long, complicated sentences. Saturate your brain with good English first, then think about practicing later.

So, she went on to do that. A few months later, I got a call from her, all happy with the fact that she passed, not just with a C6, but a B3 for her GP. She had taken all my advice, and started devouring her Reader’s Digest magazines. She got bored with them after awhile, as I predicted, and found that she could now appreciate the depth that the Newsweek articles had (back then). She stuck with the simple language that I had advised her to use, and pulled off what seemed like a miracle in the examination.

So, let’s mine this story for all it’s worth.

Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition

1.Immerse, immerse, immerse! Surround yourself in every way with good examples of the English language. Read at your level (this is essentially what I was telling my acquaintance to do, when I directed her to the Reader’s Digest magazines rather than Newsweek). Read the opinion pages of all the major news outlets. If that’s too difficult, find something easier. If you have to stop by the children’s section in the library, by all means, do it. If you read at your level, you should be able to spend 4, 5 hours a day reading without getting terribly bored or tired. (Be nice to your eyes, though!)

2. Break bad habits. If you’re already failing your English examinations, you’re doing something wrong. Stop with the assessment books, stop with the essay writing. If you’re producing F9 essays one after another, all you’re doing is reinforcing bad habits. Break those bad habits by jumping into a large pool of good English. When you return to your old essays, you should be able to see how flawed your writing used to be.

3. Spend as much time as you can on your English preparation. People sometimes think that they can get away with spending less time on language subjects because they don’t need to memorise content from textbooks (as they do for, say, History). Please, don’t fall into this trap. Can you imagine how many hours my acquaintance put into reading her Reader’s Digest magazines, to the point that she got sick of them, and could make the jump in reading level to the more complex writing in Newsweek?

4. Consult your teacher or tutor. Your teacher or tutor should be able to guide you to reading material perfectly suited to your level, especially if they are familiar with your work. S/he should be able to pinpoint your bad habits. If your present teacher or tutor can’t do those things, you need to seek another opinion.

5. Get a hold of yourself. My acquaintance didn’t fall into a blind panic and run around like a headless chicken till she dropped of exhaustion. She managed to do exactly what I advised her to, even though she was anxious about her A-levels. If you have a problem with anxiety, you might want to read self-help books about anxiety (just enter a search for “anxiety” into a library database). Plus point: reading about anxiety should help you with your anxiety AND your English!


I never heard from my acquaintance again. After all these years, I can’t even remember her name! So, tip 7a: keep in touch with your teachers! XD

You’ve wasted your time in school, and now a major exam is coming. (Tip #7: English exam preparation, panic edition)

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