How to ACE GAMSAT Section 2 Quote Interpretation
GAMSAT Section 2 writing is not normal essay writing. I’ve said this before, I’ll no doubt say it again. The origin of a 90+ Section 2 response is what is made from the task, or in other words how you approach quote interpretation. It’s very hard to write a poor response with quality, sophisticated ideas; and very hard to write a good response to simple, pedestrian, or reductive ideas.
I like to think of quote interpretation as the ceiling value of your writing. It sets the upper limit of what you can achieve. How you then deliver the thoughts you’ve had is the degree to which you capitalise on the potential you have created through your quote interpretation. In my experience, 95% of students turn that ceiling into a glass ceiling, and shoot themselves in the foot before they begin by approaching perhaps the most crucial element of the task in the most rushed, and pedestrian manner. This does not bode well for a high scoring response.
Let’s begin first with ACER’s own words from the GAMSAT information booklet so we can be sure that I’m not pontificating about something I just made up. The underlining is my own, the rest is a direct quote.
“Written Communication is assessed on two criteria: the quality of the thinking about a topic and the control of language demonstrated in its development. Assessment focuses on the way in which ideas are integrated into a thoughtful response to the task. Control of language (grammatical structure and expression) is an integral component of a good piece of writing. However, it is only assessed insofar as it contributes to the overall effectiveness of the response to the task and not in isolation. “
There is an emphasis here on quality of thinking, and integration of ideas thoughtfully. That is, in part, to place the prompts in their broader cultural, psycho-social, politico-economic, or philosophical contexts; but also to linearly and deliberately developing an argument or position (see my post The Ontology of Structure – Logic for more on this). Structure, language, and other things that traditionally are thought of as the foundations of a good essay are almost explicitly said here not to be assessed in isolation, and that they contribute only insofar as they contribute to the aforementioned criteria (quality of thinking). This is why traditional methods of approaching writing are only sufficient to get you to a 75. There seems to be a huge paucity of information and discussion about how to improve your quality of thinking, or how to telegraph an improved quality of thinking in a GAMSAT section 2 context.
ACER also explicitly says in their information book
“pre-prepared responses and responses that do not relate to the topic will receive a low score.”
Which, if this is what is being assessed, begs two questions..
1. How can I improve the quality of my thinking about the prompts
2. How can I be sure to be relevant to the topic
I come bearing gifts.
How not to approach quote interpretation
Let me first deal with what not to do. Almost everybody I come across conflates the prompts into a one word “theme.” They tell me, “oh the theme is conformity” (or “punishment”, or “government”, or “death”, or “space”, or “boredom” etc). This leads to simple and low level thinking responses which lack direct relevance; and therefore often score poorly. Here’s two reasons why.
In the first instance you have reduced five incredibly complex, nuanced, sophisticated world views – which have arisen in many cases from 60+ years of expert experience and study, and if not, still from within a valid ontology and set of human experiences, thoughts, and ideas – into a simple world. You have reduced what could have a book, or hundreds of books in many cases, written about it to a word. It’s like thinking that the words “harry potter” is the same thing as everything that happens in those seven books (is it seven, idk?), plus the movies, plus the childhood experiences reading and interacting with those materials, plus the popular culture around it etc. There is a whole world behind it which is not conveyed in proper depth by its placeholder title.
And then, you’ve grabbed four other equally complex and nuanced and sophisticated world views, and conflated them – suggesting that they all more or less say the same thing when, in truth, this word does not adequately describe even one of the prompts, let alone all of them. And this is done simply based on the criteria that this word happened to have cropped up a number of times in the prompts. This is already to have made ten odd errors. Because it is to say that 1 is the same as 2, 3, 4, 5; and 2 is the same as 3, 4, 5 and so on.
Perhaps you’re thinking “no that’s not me,” and that you’re being really sophisticated because you contrast the ‘positive’ side of the theme, with the ‘negative’ side – which is still to have reduced a quote to one word: either ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ Many of you will then flatly say that one of the prompts is false, or even relate to that view in a belittling manner suggesting it “is completely wrong” or “a ridiculous misinterpretation of the democratic foundations of modern life” (very fancy), and think you’re doing the right thing by arguing forcefully in an argumentative essay. I don’t blame or judge you, I’ve done the same thing. But what you’re really saying to the marker when you do that is that you, in a psychometric test on an unprepared topic, in thirty minutes, know better than someone who has dedicated their whole life to having that viewpoint. A major misstep.
Lastly you are then forced to generate a whole essay from a single word; rather than to focus highly nuanced and sophisticated ideas into a powerful single point (contention). It’s hard to write a bad essay from sophisticated ideas. And very hard to make a good essay from reductive or pedestrian ideas.
The reductive approach
single word theme < essay
A high scoring approach
Five highly complex ideas > focused in the introduction to a sharpened point (contention) > thrust forward and upward into the armor in Body Paragraph 1 > twisted in Body Paragraph 2 > graceful psychometric validation of the other sides and the contexts in which those truths arrive as you stand over the defeated opponent
It also lacks relevance
A reductive approach to quote interpretation often leads to writing that fails to “directly respond to one or more of the prompts” which is one of the only things ACER tell you explicitly that you are supposed to be doing.
This final error occurs not in the quote interpretation, but in the very next moment after it. Let us suppose you have thought to yourself “the theme is conformity.” You then think “hmm, what do I have to say about conformity.” You then come up with some idea and go off and write about it. Your writing will then be in the domain of conformity, but this will often lack relevance to conformity to begin with (as you’re under time pressure and writing whatever comes out); and furthermore, as we have established, ‘conformity’ wasn’t, in many cases, directly relevant to the prompts to begin with.
Ok, so what is the best way to approach quote interpretation?
What you make from the task, which essentially is what is being examined, arises from how you confront the ideas in front of you and situate them in their broader contexts.
I always recommend to re-write the five quotes in your own words. This takes some time, and needs to be practice, it’s also mentally draining. But the rest of the essay stems from this moment. In time you will be able to spot quotes that you think won’t lead to good outcomes, or may include traps you want to avoid, so you can save time by only re-writing/interpreting the quotes you eventually want to involve in your response. I wouldn’t recommend doing it in your head, it’s too hard to remember the other ones by the time you finish. But almost always when you see the five interpreted versions you can see links that weren’t evident before. I physically write 1 to 5 under every set of prompts. Towards the back end of my preparation I found time saving approaches, but to begin with it’s a good exercise.
Also, by “write them in your own words” I don’t mean repeat the exact thing the prompt says in different words. I mean to interpret what they are saying. Imagine a teacher said the prompt to one of your friends and then your friend turned to you after and said “that made no sense, what do they mean” and then you responded to explain it to your friend so they understood. That interpretation is what you need to be writing down. When you receive the real implications of what the quote is inviting you to consider, you will relate to the prompts very differently, and answer in a more embellished and insightful way. I will have a case study later in the chapter, so hold that thought for just a moment. First:
Do I respond to the one or all of the quotes; or do I interpret a theme and respond to that?
We’ve already discussed that reducing it to one word is not the thing to do. You are welcome to respond to complex, deeply, highly considered and thoughtfully interpreted theme if you think you are up to it. When I started I would interpret each quote, and then think to myself “if these five ideas were in a news article, what would the heading of that article be?” .. and it would often be something like “the relevance, function, and limitations of punishment in contemporary Western societies” or something to that effect. Now this was (is) high order thinking, however, it comes with some challenges.
This approach does lead to sophisticated responses, however the marker 9 times out of 10 won’t follow what you’re saying or the implied connection to the theme very easily. Because you are responding to something that took a great deal of thought, the marker can be left wondering which prompt you’re responding to. They won’t have engaged with it in the level of detail you have (or have interpreted the quotes in quite the same way), so it can lose points for relevance (even though it’s highly relevant). This circles back to earlier times when I’ve mentioned that it is crucial to be both generous to the marker, and aware of how you position yourself in their eyes (which I discussed in further detail here).
So, I personally don’t recommend writing to a whole theme (either one word, or correctly interpreted) because it can fail to translate in a very generous, direct, and clear way. Or if you do write to the correctly interpreted theme, be prepared to be VERY explicit about what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and how it relates to the theme (and how the theme you have interpreted relates to the prompts, and which one).
Regarding responding to all of the quotes. I’d encourage you guys to think of the five prompts as being facets of the same diamond. There is something that coheres them. Reality and truth is not absolute. All perspectives happen to tend toward, or converge from many directions on, an approximation of the truth. Knowing this is essential. The prompts are deliberately chosen for this reason. They look at issue from many directions. Early in my preparation, addressing each of these perspectives was essentially the essay written for me. I just made each point a paragraph (or lumped a couple together in one; and the others in another) etc. Again, fine, although I frustratingly had markers ask me “which prompt was this in response to?” which eventually annoyed me enough that I came to the final iteration of my prompt-addressing strategy.
What I do
I pick one prompt (or two if they happen to exist within the same ontological or epistemological frameworks) and I address it/them directly, and clearly. I don’t use the quotes from the prompts in my writing directly (you should have plenty of other examples and evidence to bring up such that you wouldn’t want to waste space on one from the prompts – when others zig; you zag!), but I do use key words or partial phrases from the prompt in my essay, especially in the introduction to make it clear what I am talking about. This greatly helped the concision and clarity of my writing.
A final note: it is essential to display a comprehension and respect for the complexity of the theme and how other, diverging, viewpoints contribute to it equally and validly (even if you disagree with them). You need to show that you have situated the prompts in their broader psycho-social or politico economic or philosophic contexts to show an appreciation for these contexts.
A case study
I’ve included below a case study of an analysis I did of a response to a set of Task A prompts. In this particular case the essay had written above it “against capitalism.”
The prompts were:
1. “Socialism states that you owe me something simply because I exist. Capitalism, by contrast, results in a sort of reality-forced altruism: I may not want to help you, I may dislike you, but if I don’t give you a product or service you want, I will starve. Voluntary exchange is more moral than forced redistribution. ” – Ben Shapiro
2. “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” – Alexis de Tocqueville
3. “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” – Winston Churchill
4. “Democracy is indispensable to socialism.” – Vladimir Lenin
5. “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we;re going to fight it with socialism.” – Fred Hampton
You’ve left here “against capitalism.”
This suggests to me that there’s work to be done on how you confront the prompts before you begin writing. Most people look for the common word in these quotes (in this case socialism, or capitalism) and they say “ah, the theme is capitalism” and then they pick a side and off they go. The problem is that you will then only be writing in the domain of the prompts not in specific response to the prompts. You will lose marks for relevance and precision. The theme is not capitalism here.
The first quote says “capitalism is pragmatic, and more moral than socialism.”
The second “democracy (an adjunct of capitalism) and socialism share only a desire for equality, but differ in approach.”
Note: we see already a link to first quote, a mini theme is developing here which is ‘the similarities between socialism and capitalist democracies in their attempt to provide equality or equitability.’ If you wrote an essay contrasting democracy and socialism in how they achieve equality, and to what extent they are successful/moral in this you would be not only scoring far more highly for relevance, but also for “what was made from the task.” Furthermore, this frames your essay to be of much higher sophistication and quality. If you have made a reductive or simple interpretation of the quotes you are forced to expand and write an essay from a small point. This can feel wavering, or unfocussed, or repetitive, and will always be elementary. If you, on the other hand, spend some time really looking at what each quote is saying (I re-write each quote in my own words and then examine them… i stopped doing this toward the end to save time, but the discipline of doing so for my first 30 essays was invaluable) you will have a complex and nuanced understanding of what is being said and the issue at large. The essay, then, becomes not an expansion from a small point (along with inevitable psychometric faults), but a narrowing and focus of a very large and complex issue (necessarily winning psychometrics points for you) into themes and components of that issue that you wish to discuss and give a focussed opinion on.
In this case, I think of the ontology of Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao Zedong – who’s behaviour was illustrative of a utilitarian calculus wherein violence was justified in the name of achieving a socialist utopia. Suffering, the transgression of individual liberty, famine, even mass murder were all justified within the grand narrative of the promise of communist utopias in China, the Society Union, and Cambodia. Mao killed more than 5 times as many people than did Hitler. Humans were reduced to a number, or a flesh bag of chemicals and a physiological set of reactions as the body struggled to fight against emaciation due to poverty in gulags in the soviet union – each person’s unique individuality reduced to a cascading, brutal homogeneity. Where is the morality in this? Is this why Ben Shapiro (quote 1) says capitalism is more moral?
The third quote: a critique of socialism, so we have further re-enforcement for our suspected theme. These people do not think socialism is the most moral way of achieving equality, no matter its intentions.
The fourth: tbh I don’t get this. next. (although Lenin was a Bolshevik and was responsible for the Russian revolution and establishment of socialism in Russia pre-soviet union, so perhaps you could simply use that for support of the similarities between the two political ideologies)
The fifth: I would skip this entirely. I doubt ACER would give you this prompt. It requires context, and it’s just a weird prompt. Using this would be a red herring in my view.
So, in short, if you dont correctly interpret the quote, and situate it in its broader historical, sociological, psychological, politico-economics contexts, you will struggle to make something profound of the task, and lose points on relevance. Everything that follows is necessarily going to flow from that initial reduction. Your essay is necessarily limited and framed by what you made (or failed to make) of the quotes. Most people go :
5 quotes > one word theme you want to go 5 quotes < essay.
Like the quotes are the thinnest part and you make them expansive by developing on them in insightful ways, rather than reducing them to one word and picking a side.
An 80+ essay requires partially agreeing or disagreeing with the obvious interpretation of the comments, rather than flatly. Qualify its limits or contexts in which it arises. Situate the comment in their wider cultural contexts . Body paragraphs are a logical analysis of these ideas. Don’t let this make you fence sit, though. Choose your viewpoint clearly and argue strongly for it, but try situating it off centre of one of the implications of the quotes.
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