Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Our new A Level Philosophy series kicks off with tips for how to revise for long essays.
“Things alter for the worse spontaneously, if they be not altered for the better designedly”
I dare not remind you all that exam season looms close by, for fear that you have already heard it ad nauseam; but, nonetheless, it is a fact of school life. Not so long ago, I was an A Level pupil who worked late into the night before exams and made a habit of saying the "once more unto the breach" speech from ‘Henry V’ just before the invigilator gave us the green light to begin. I know, all too well, the stresses, strains, and worries of revision and exam taking.
Now, I know Philosophy is a rather esoteric subject and can often seem pointless (and let’s be real, some of it does seem pretty dry); however, I am here to tell you that writing about it doesn’t have to be! In fact, here is a little bit of advice that got me through my A Levels: if you don’t enjoy what you’re writing – stop writing it that way. The examiner won’t enjoy it, and neither will you. So, without further ado, here are my top tips and tricks to get you writing the most titillating and thought-provoking theses.
How to keep your Philosophy essay simple
“Brevity is the soul of wit”
Polonius, in Hamlet
Yes, the irony of my lengthy preamble is not lost on me – but seriously, keep your points simple, direct, and concise. This may sound like a tall order, as Philosophy is of course complex by nature – it isn’t easy to define ‘knowledge’ or ‘God’ in one pithy irrefutable sentence. So, your argument must be layered and balanced, but make sure the complex thesis is composed of shorter, more understandable sentences.
Imagine that your thesis is like a house, or a wall – the structure itself is complex, and relies on a variety of factors and pieces to keep it standing; however, each individual part is simple and straightforward. My advice to you is to build your thesis brick-by-brick.
Let me give you an example of what this might look like. Let’s take a simple argument from Locke – he wants to prove that colour is not part of an object and is merely a sensation in the mind. What is part of the object are its ‘primary qualities’, things like its shape and number.
Now, when this was first introduced to me, it was done in a rather verbose manner and I quickly became lost. However, if you restructure Locke’s argument (in this case the ‘Almond Analogy’) his argument becomes much easier to understand.
(P1) When you pound an almond, its colour changes.
(P2) When you pound an almond, the only thing you change is the ‘texture’ of the particles which composed the almond.
(C) Hence, the colour of the almond is nothing but a sensation in your mind, which changes because the particles which composed the almond now reflect light differently.
Notice how the argument is comprised of short premises and a conclusion. These premises are the bricks I mentioned before. Build your essay up, from the starting point of your thesis, with these short little premises on which your conclusion(s) will rest.
Which leads me nicely on…
How to construct the introduction to a Philosophy essay
"On this rock I will build My church”
Make sure you state your thesis clearly! This was drilled into me by a mentor I had during my A Levels, and I am surprised by the number of peers and pupils who, even at University, do not do this! I was advised to always write, as my opening line, "this essay will argue that […]", which lends itself to a rather unfortunate, yet memorable mnemonic — ‘TEWAT’. If you do this, you ensure you directly answer the question, and show the examiner what direction you are taking your argument.
If I take a cursory look through the mark schemes for both OCR and AQA (for their Philosophy and Religious Studies papers), the mark schemes allocate specific marks for coherence and structure of your argument, that is to say, your thesis. A Levels are as much a test of your knowledge as they are a test of your skill in the application of such erudition within the confines of their rubric.
Quoting from the AQA A Level Philosophy specification (7172), they say a marking criterion is ‘AO2: Analyse and evaluate philosophical arguments to form reasoned judgements’. What they want from you is to construct a balanced argument that makes judgements. That means you’ve got to come down on one side – and that should be articulated in the form of your thesis statement.
Let me walk you through what such an introductory paragraph or opening may look like. I’ve taken an extract from one of my first papers I wrote at University (which received a First):
“This essay will argue that ‘freedom of thought’ (FoT) and ‘freedom of expression’ (FoE) are not inextricable in their nature and value. This essay will posit that the two freedoms in question can be held and experienced independently of one another; however, this in turn diminishes them in their supposed value, thereby resulting in full value experience only when the two operate in tandem.”
Let’s break this down. Note:
1. My very first line: I state my thesis – you should too! Let the examiner know where you are going to go.
2. My next line gives a rough overview of why I might think my thesis is correct – essentially, I have told the examiner where I want to go, and this is roughly the path that will take me there.
3. My penultimate and final clause of the second line gives some nuance to my essay. I know that to score top marks, I must show that I give the time of day to counter-arguments of my thesis. This is to ensure that I give a balanced view. I say that I think these two phenomena are extricable but there is a consequence of such a belief that I must elucidate.
Stay with me here! I know that this is tough to get through, but I promise it will pay dividends come your final exams. Once you nail this exam technique, you’ll be off to the races and churning out practice papers at a rate of knots.
How to signpost effectively in your essay
“Good order is the foundation of all things.”
So, you’ve got your thesis and you’re going to build it with small steps. However, the journey isn’t over yet! Examiners are notorious for bad habits – namely, they get distracted whilst marking your papers! No matter how captivating your writing, you can’t risk having your examiner losing their train of thought when marking your essay!
Now, I know what you might be pondering – without hunching over the examiner’s desk and watching them mark, like some kind of freak combination between Miss Trunchbull and Quasimodo, how do we ensure that the examiner stays on track whilst marking your hard work? Well, the key is signposting.
I know you’ve almost certainly heard this advice, but I will reiterate it with a little twist. Signposting is where you indicate to your reader what you are going to write about next. For example, a basic signpost might read: "this essay will now analyse the ontological claim for the existence of God". This would be slapped at the start of a paragraph and clearly show where the essay is headed.
This is good advice, don’t get me wrong, but I do get worried when students hear this advice and take it to heart too much. Every other line shouldn’t be a signpost and do try and vary up the phraseology of the signposting – the examiner may not lose track of your line of argument, but they might get bored of repetitive vocabulary!
What I tend to do in my essays (disclaimer: this is a stylistic point and so should not be taken as gospel) is to insert subtitle headings. These headings can be simply named, such as, ‘Introduction’ – or they can be more exotic, to catch attention: ‘Sartre’s Simple Solution’. Whatever they might be named, they serve as a signpost in themselves, effectively dividing up the essay into manageable and comprehensible chunks. This allows you to better plan your essay and see it visualised, as well as aiding the examiner in following your work.
Your work’s headings and structure might look something like this (taken from another paper of mine, on the Meno Paradox; also graded as a First):
2. Explanation of the Paradox
3. Proposed Solution
4. Circularity Issue
Tips and Tricks for Revising A Level Philosophy
“I know that I know nothing”
Okay, you’ve had me drone on about exam technique and essay writing for far too long now, I know. So, let’s briefly touch on, arguably, the most important part of your Philosophy/Religious Studies exams – knowledge. It is true when they say knowledge is power, if by knowledge they mean remembering what Aquinas said that one time, and by power they mean an A*. Of course, I’m being facetious, but in all seriousness, make sure you know your content inside out.
Unfortunately, exam boards differ in what they want you to know for your A Level Philosophy/R.S. exam, and because the syllabuses change regularly, I don’t want to get bogged down talking about the minutiae of content. However, this is no excuse for not knowing your stuff!
There are loads of revision guides, tips, tricks, and so on, out there – but, I know revising Philosophy content is tough and often not as easy as whipping out a copy of Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ and learning it by rote (just the thought of that ordeal has genuinely made my eyes water…).
So, here are my tips, taken from experience, with regards to revising Philosophy.
1. Flashcards are gold-dust.
For me, flashcards allowed me to memorise quotes, definitions, and key terms very quickly. Colour code your cards accordingly and prepare the content on them early. The earlier you have those flashcards, the more you can use them and make sure that content sticks to your grey cells!
2. One-page summaries.
a. Philosophy is a bottomless pit when it comes to content. Therefore, make sure you distil your notes down to concise and specific chunks of knowledge.
b. I like condensing it all down onto one piece of A4 paper. The text is very small, but it gives me a nice crib sheet to memorise and use when I’m churning out past papers and practice questions.
3. Enjoy the content – make it relatable.
a. I accept that you can’t always be pondering the existence of God, or trying to establish virtue ethics, but honestly, try and enjoy this process of revision.
b. The skills and content you are learning now are unbelievably useful, so try and make what you’re learning relevant to your quotidian or future life.
c. When I studied Paradise Lost for English Literature A Level, I was wondering what use it would be – the way I got to enjoy learning about it was finding paintings and drawings that were inspired by the text and vice versa. This sparked off some excitement about my writing and incorporated this additional knowledge into my final exam (who knew some interest in a few brush strokes could net me a whopping 100% mark!).
4. Past papers make you practice until it's perfect.
a. One of the best ways to test your knowledge is to write as many practice essays as you can. The more you write, the more you will improve your style and application of knowledge.
b. Use this practice to get a sense of time management, as well as coping under the added time pressures.
“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it”
I know that for a lot of you Philosophy is something that is difficult, hard to enjoy, or just a little bit confusing – don’t worry, it was for me too (and let’s not kid ourselves here, I still find it difficult and confusing sometimes!). But, to me, that’s the beauty of it; I love the questioning, the inquisition, arguments, debates, and, on special occasions, some solutions.
My parting advice to you is this: Philosophy is an artificial creation – it was born out of humanity’s desire to question everything, even the most fundamental and intuitive truths. Relish in the fact that you are not merely standing on the shoulders of giants like Plato, but you are engaging in a historical debate that has raged over many millennia.
So, when you sit down at that fateful exam table, just remember that beside you, and all around you, sit not just other students, but, in spirit, some of the greatest thinkers of history – you have earned a seat at the greatest discussion of all time: Philosophy. Oh, and with some smart strategies and dedication you’ll get that A* along the way too!
References & Important Links
Exam Board Mark Schemes/Past Papers
External Guidance & Assistance
Blog Post Crafted by Neville
Neville is currently working towards his BA in Philosophy at Warwick University, having bagged three A* grades at A Level.
He has entered the Times Advocacy Competition three times, and each time was shortlisted into the top ~20 candidates in the country. In his free time he writes his own scripts, as well as other fictional and non-fictional works.