Breaking Down GAMSAT Essay Questions
15 August, 2021
Section 2 of the GAMSAT can be particularly challenging for students. Its short length and seemingly limitless scope mean that it is difficult to prepare for. Some students prefer to craft creative writing pieces, or make a point of writing different types of essays (e.g., persuasive essay for one prompt, analytical for the other). However, anecdotally, these other styles are ‘riskier’, so instead, this guide will focus on how to break down the essay topics in a way that allows a clearly structured analytical essay, which will help you ace the GAMSAT exam.
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The assessment criteria for the Section 2 (Written Communication) are detailed in the ACER GAMSAT information booklet.
Clearly, the ability to produce a cohesive, structured response is important. For this reason, an analytic essay is a very solid choice. However, important too are “the kinds of thoughts and feelings offered”, meaning that the essay needs to also offer a contention, rather than merely adopting a neutral position. The final marking criteria relates to the overall quality of the language used, which is common to any response type. Also of note is the triple-marking, meaning that overall high-quality responses are likely to be appropriately rewarded with high marks, since a single lower score from an individual assessor can be compensated by the other two scores.
One very reliable structure for an analytical essay, which informs the breakdown of the prompt, is:
- Introduction – put the prompt in context, and flag your upcoming arguments
- Body paragraph 1 – supporting argument
- Body paragraph 2 – opposing argument
- Body paragraph 3 – supporting argument
- Conclusion – synthesis of your arguments to produce a more rounded overall view
For this structure, we require three separate arguments (two supporting and one opposing) to come from your breakdown of the prompt. Of course, how to do this will depend on the prompt, but consider the following methods of finding examples for the three separate paragraphs:
- Past, present (or modern) and future examples
- Individual, community and societal impacts
- Real-life, media (book/film/play etc), and theoretical examples
- Biological, psychological and social considerations
- Human, environmental and animal
- Any other combination of different scopes of argument
While there is no specific rule (see above for the marking criteria!) stating that you must observe a different scope for your example in each paragraph, undoubtedly an essay that writes, for instance, about three particular people in history (one for each paragraph) is less powerful than another essay that draws upon three quite different examples, such as one from history, a present-day instance, and a future implication.
The use of ‘threes’ has a strong history in argumentative writing. Termed a tricolon, it is considered a powerful rhetorical construction – consider “veni, vidi, vici”, “blood, sweat and tears”, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité or the joke about “Three xxx walk into a bar…”
Thus, similar to a debating style breakdown of a topic, where the three speakers each focus on a different aspect, having three paragraphs that feature separate arguments can lead to a compelling analytical or argumentative essay. Furthermore, incorporating some opposing viewpoint(s) and then rebutting them shows consideration of alternatives, and provides a more sophisticated and compelling argument.
Again, with no definitive rule on this, in general a 500-word essay is considered an appropriate minimum length. With perhaps 100 words in both the introduction and conclusion, that means you should aim for body paragraphs of also at least 100 words.
Given the vague nature of the above advice, perhaps some example breakdowns of a prompt might give a clearer depiction of the power of this essay structure.
Let’s say the prompt is (quotes along the lines of) “Technology brings misery”. Consider how you might break down the topic. Firstly, do you agree with the prompt? What examples of technology might you focus on? Can you think of three differing examples so as to structure your paragraphs? Might you want to qualify the prompt by arguing “technology brings misery, only in some circumstances”?
Read on for how the above paragraph splits might be applied…
- Past/present/future – medieval advances in war technology (e.g. catapults) brings destruction; presently in healthcare, technology like robotic surgery prolongs lives; future technology like space exploration may be both for good and bad (synthesis of arguments), depending on how it is applied.
- Individual/community/societal, arguing for a more restricted version of the prompt – Copernicus’ theory that the earth rotates the sun (not vice versa) contradicts the Bible, leading to personal backlash (could also include Charles Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species); development of wind-powered agriculture helps drought communities in Malawi (see The Boy who Harnessed the Wind); modern information technology has massive societal implications for future happiness e.g. information sharing, but also for misery e.g. negative impacts of social media
- Real life/media/theoretical, arguing against the prompt – advances in healthcare screening programs and development of new medicines have saved countless lives from preventable causes; in Gattaca, where children are segregated based on genetic testing of capability, society is divided into those who can and those who cannot; scientific development of carbon recapture technology promises a potential solution to global warming, saving billions from impending poverty.
These breakdowns are of course just two examples of how to design your paragraphs from the topic. They rely on having a solid supporting example for each argument, but more importantly, they help you to clearly delineate your paragraphs via different scopes, rather than using similar examples across multiple arguments.
Using this essay structure will help you to plan your response, ensuring it meets the marking criteria for content and organisation. With solid background knowledge from which to draw your examples, as well as practice writing under time pressure, you can produce a thoughtful and well-expressed analytical essay. These are critical skills (along with your writing/typing speed!), so it is essential you continue to practise both formulating and producing actual essays in preparation for the real thing during the GAMSAT!
Further information about preparing for Section 2 is available on the GradReady website, as well as example essays and more!