The Art of the Task A Introduction
How focussed and effective Task A writing begins.
By Michael John Sunderland, 90plusgamsat.com | 01.12.21
This is an excerpt from the book How to Kick *ss in Task A: a methodology designed by me which allowed me to get 91 in Section 2 in the GAMSAT, and which has successfully been used by students of 90plusgamsat to replicate this score (90 – March 2021; and 91 – September 2021).
The book is available at 90plusgamsat.com ; and mentoring available at 90plusgamsat.com/mentors
- Short hook
- Acknowledgement of theme
- First aspect of theme (Focus 1)
- Second aspect of theme (Focus 2)
- Thesis (powerful opinion on focus) – partial agreement/disagreement (modification) of prompt chosen to acknowledge how context modifies or frames it
Before we go into the delivery of this system, it is commonplace, I’m aware, to begin the essay with your viewpoint (or contention). You can, it’s not going to trash your essay if you do. I avoid it because it seems banal to me. Pedestrian. It rings too closely to the “contention, first paragraph point, second paragraph point, ultimately this argument will prove..” format that bores me to tears. Now, a disclaimer: this approach intends to articulate a way of approaching the GAMSAT that can reliably get a high score for those who are able to utilities it comfortably. You don’t need to structure it this way to score well, but this way potentiates high scoring behaviours and minimises low scoring ones. If you don’t consider yourself a strong writer, if this approach is unintuitive to you, or if it is one month until the GAMSAT: stick with what you know, or consider being more rigid and elementary in approach if it helps you stay focussed, or if it’s a style of writing which has persevered through high school and which departure from may present a substantial challenge for you. Know yourself.
In spirit, the introduction is a roadmap of what’s to come. Functionally it deviates from explicitly attending to this as there are more important tasks at hand (principally: being extremely clear about what is being discussed and your thoughts on it). I do, however, find that a lot of student’s essays feel rambling and hard to follow when I’m reading a body paragraph and what is being discussed is something that has been mentioned for the first time. The worst example of this is when new points are introduced in the conclusion. This is a faux pas. I think of the mind (especially a marker’s mind) as being like a computer with limited RAM. RAM is a computer’s working processing ability. While the marker is reading they are looking for ACER’s qualities, assessing word use, grammar, structure, tone, comparing your work against the other essays they’ve read and their own world views, trying to be active, and most demandingly, trying to follow your argument. This is a great stress on their “RAM” if you overwhelm it (with sentences that are too long, or points that aren’t clear) then information is lost. This feeling of working hard to figure out an essay is not only viscerally unpleasant (which gets the marker offside), it’s confusing. If you’ve confused the marker and made them feel unpleasant, they’re unlikely to mark your essay favourably.
Furthermore, the nature of the human mind is that, by the essay’s end, the marker is far more likely to not remember what you said, but rather how you made them feel. There is only so much information we can keep in our mind at one time, and 800 words far exceed that amount. So, you want their recollection of your essay to be a series of positive moments e.g. “the moment I remember thinking ‘good point’”, “the moment I smiled”, “the moment I related”, “the moment I thought ‘yes, good’”. In order to ensure the marker has experience of our work, we need to ensure that what we are saying is utterly clear. To link this back to the introduction being a ‘roadmap’, if the points that you will make are roughly signposted in the introduction, when you arrive at them later in the essay, the marker has a feeling of being ‘located’ within the overall argument. It’s like as you progress through a theme park or the zoo and you can see “you are here” on your map, and you know exactly where you are in relation to the overall experience.
When you arrive you have a pleasant experience of order and stability, but if for some reason you get lost you feel a disorienting anxiety. Aside taking up “RAM,” in the markers’ minds, disorienting the marker in the context of your overall argument makes them feel terrible about the argument, or themselves and occludes their ability to grasp what you’re saying because they’re too busy worrying about why you’re saying it or how it fits in.
Okay, this now said, let me show you how I do it. I believe this flows more naturally, gives latitude for the telegraphing of stronger qualities, flowers more nicely and in a more sophisticated fashion, indicated directly what to do so you never get lost and you’re always doing something directly purposeful, and finally, I just think the markers would be sick of that same structure repeated over and over. For this reason, I start with a figurative hook and end with a delayed-style assertion of my viewpoint. ACER appears to approve.
- Short hook
Begin with a short sentence to lure the reader in.
“Punishment to rehabilitate? No. Punishment for catharsis? Maybe. “
I’m paraphrasing John Fox from https://thejohnfox.com here:
In a mess of complex text, short sentences arrive like a gift. Rarely ambiguous or mysterious. They are not astonishing in quite the way of longer sentences, so what is their function? Violence. They are a gut punch, delivering surprise with the utmost efficiency. It’s the short sentences that we quote. Some examples:
After a string of 100+ word sentences ending with the longest sentence of the 3-page piece, a 232-word monster:
“If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”
… I agree with John who comments that this is one of the most devastating sentences he has ever read.
Next, one of my favourite lines of all time; perhaps the most chilling. It comes from Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984 – a tale about a man resisting the totalitarian power of a government ‘Big Brother’ who, through torture and omnipotent totalitarian exertion of power in the cruellest ways, finally makes that man submit. The book ends on four words:
“He loved Big Brother.”
So, you see the power of brevity. The shortest sentence in the bible “Jesus wept.” Do you see how much is accomplished with those two words? I’m discussing more how writing finishes, and indeed this advice pertains as much to the last line of your essay as it does the first, but shall we turn now to some opening hooks?
“All this happened, more or less.” – Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut (and as a matter of interest, from the same novel.. a man and his WWII comrade caught behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany are separated by the spectre of gangrene in one of their legs, and eventually death. The protagonist digs a grave, and fashions a tomb which he writes on it, in memory of the tremendous pain and suffering they had endured and survived together, he writes “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” – Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov
I think you get the point. It is good to be figurative here if you incline to that. How exactly to come up with a hook is hard to teach because there is a dimension to it that is creative and instinctual. You need to be relaxed and enjoying yourself. Feeling something helps, which is why it’s good in the planning to choose to argue a contention that you believe in or feel passionately about. For people wanting to bridge a 75 to a 90+ there is an element of inferred writing flair within that aspiration. It’s not necessary to get a 75, but thereafter it can help to make use of stylistic devices to embellish and emphasise various aspects of what you are saying. These necessarily arise spontaneously. For that reason, I won’t go further into it, because to put rules on it limits it and destroys creativity. If you are finding it challenging to come up with a hook, consider asking a question, being very direct and “real” or conversational in tone (versus more analytical for the rest of the essay); or just anything that provides a contrast to the rest of the essay and that a marker is going to be enthused to see to break the monotony of essays everyone else is going to write. Something fresh and alive and vibrant is ideal.
Either way, you want to be cognizant of first impression biases. I remember a video we watched in Year 9 psychology (like 12 years ago) where they did a study of job interviews. The interviewer had under the table a pad where they could rate an initial impression from 1-10, and then a controller that allowed the impression to be modulated up or down thereafter depending on the performance of the candidate. They had candidates come in with shopping bags or terrible clothes and then nail the interview; as well as people come in who make incredibly strong first impressions and then tank the interview. What they found is that variance from the first impression was within a range, and not enough to overcome the influence of the first impression. In other words, those who had strong first impressions did better than those who had poor first impressions, despite much lower performance in the interview itself. The lesson: make a good first impression.
- Acknowledgement of the theme
This is the first time we directly address something ACER has explicitly indicated that they are assessing: “quality of thinking” and “thoughtfulness.” The very first opportunity you have to have a quality thought, and indeed to be thoughtful, is your inspection and integration of the prompts in the essay planning stage (as previously discussed). The first opportunity you have to telegraph that you have done this is in your acknowledgement of the theme. Functionally, it serves an additional purpose: to frame the rest of the essay and establish an initial domain scope for the rest of the writing. Thus, the two functions of this sentence are:
- To win your first marks for displaying the quality of thinking and thoughtfulness regarding the scope and breadth of the topic/theme.
- More mechanically, to establish the bounds of the domain being considered in the rest of the writing.
I encourage you not to use something to this effect: “Whether *question asked in prompt* is a discourse/debate that is as complex/enduring/lingering/multifaceted in today’s socio- cultural/politico-economic/geopolitical milieu as it is contentious.“
Resist the temptation to copy-paste that. It’s not good. This was my opener in the early stages of my preparation. And it’s shit for a couple of reasons. Firstly, everybody does it. Okay, I did it more nicely, but I get points only for doing the wrong thing better. Secondly, it’s canned material. ACER explicitly says in their information book
“Pre-prepared responses and responses that do not relate to the topic will receive a low score.”
It shows a lack of thinking, engagement, originality, enthusiasm, and academic integrity. It’s also banal, repetitive and to make a misstep so early in the piece is something I highly advise you do not to. If you’re going to make a mistake, do not do it in the introduction.
Here are some examples of acknowledgements from my essays that serve both functions well. I should note that the first 2 examples began not with a hook, but went straight into the acknowledgment of the theme. I include them because I felt in these examples the way I began was powerful enough. I had something poignant enough to say off the bat that I didn’t feel I needed to use a hook, as the point I was making was sufficiently ‘hooking.’ In the latter two examples:
“The legitimacy and benefit in the allocation of public resources to space exploration is predicated not just on curiosity, but on the premise that there will be a future dividend. “
“Contemporary ‘Western’ governments are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Indeed these are moral and judgemental designations. There are simply people who are aligned to the ideological intentions of representative democracy, even when it is contrary to their own interests, and there are people who are not.“
“Everybody did it,” he said as the ache of too-late-recognition settled into the wrinkles that have arranged themselves into fright on his face. Our culture, on the level of humanity, nation, religion, corporate identity, provides an ontological framework, or context, from which our thoughts, actions, and feelings arise.”
(the essay was about how culture can mediate behaviour in powerful ways, for example, the culture of Nazi soldiers created atrocious acts which were normalised through that culture)
“The bird knows the sky. The worm knows the earth. It is not a question of equality: they each have their wisdom to share. Yet the debate about equality vs equitability, which relates prominently to diverging liberalist and utilitarianism political ideologies, dies hard nonetheless. Chiefly, perhaps, because it divides societies along with politico and socio-economic lines. “
A note here, when I say “sentence 1 (hook), sentence 2 (acknowledgement of theme)” you don’t need to restrict each function to only one sentence. The hook above, for example, is three sentences:
“The bird knows the sky. The worm knows the earth. It is not a question of equality; they each have their wisdom to share.”
The complexity of the theme now acknowledged, your first few points picked up for the quality of thought and what you made from the quotes, and the scope and breadth of your inspection of the theme now announced/implicitly defined, we begin to funnel down and get a little more granular.
- First aspect of theme (Focus 1)
We are now confronted with the challenge of being very specific for the first time about what we will discuss. The reader needs to understand that we will not be dealing with all aspects of the theme at hand (indeed we can’t in the time allowed, or perhaps even in a lifetime), but with a very narrow aspect of it that is of particular interest to us. We answer the reader’s question “what part of this theme you have announced, will your argument be about?” It is like a funnel, we are going from very broad, progressively narrower, to a focussed point (thesis/contention).
Now the focuses don’t need to functionally and explicitly summarise topical sentences 1 and 2 in the sense of approaching it like “this essay will focus on X and then Y. Eventually, it will be shown that z.” Aside from being banal and repetitive, this structure for an intro has a removed dryness about it. The formality disconnects you from the writing and lends it an unnecessary pompousness. I write as if I’m speaking passionately to a highly educated and intelligent and respected friend, who is an expert in the issue I am discussing. No more formally or informally than that. The focuses serve the purpose of being extremely clear and precise about exactly what it is we’re talking about – it is essential that we make clear that it is not all questions about the subject that we will be dealing with, it is this question/aspect in particular.
By way of example, see here one of the examples used above for the hook, with focus 1 added to it:
“Contemporary ‘Western’ governments are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Indeed these are moral and judgemental designations. There are simply people who are aligned to the ideological intentions of representative democracy, even when it is contrary to their interests, and there are people who are not. These people run governments; and corrupt the idealistic blueprints of political ideologies, as we have seen with modern applications of communism. Central to the debate of the role of the government (minimal vs
proactive), especially in contemporary Western democracies, are the proponents of classical, modern, and neo-liberal theorists who have differing ideas about the legitimacy and role of the government within their respective ideological frameworks.”
At this moment I’m going to take some time to ensure that I’m not being confusing. I could have used an example that was more formulaic in approach, but it belies the reality that, when I write, it is with cognizance of these principles but not rigidly. I achieve all of the things I have discussed with this opening, however, some parts are overlapping. Let’s break it down further.
You could say that my redefinition, or initial response (first 2 sentences), to the prompts was a hook. Hooking in the sense that it’s unexpected, left of field. You’re expecting me to have an opinion about whether governments are good or bad – as per the prompts – not point out something they missed. This hook goes all the way to the end of the second sentence “… modern applications of communism.” You don’t need to hook in this way. Having then acknowledged ‘their’ theme (are governments good or bad), by addressing where it falls short of comprehensively confronting the issue; I give my first focus (the underlined text) which is also an acknowledgment of how I’ve modified the theme to be a more precise examination of the issue at hand. I leave this here to say, you do not need to necessarily go line by line and give each point one line. You do need to do each of the things indicated in the structure above, but if you do that creatively in a format that feels more natural to you – then do that. It can be good, however, to learn the structure as it is meant to be, and then deviate from it creatively in the flow of the moment. You need to know the rules to know how to break them.
- Second aspect of the theme (focus 2)
Your second paragraph is going to be dealing with the second premise necessary in the proof of your thesis. This may strongly correlate with the investigation of a second aspect of the theme you are exploring, and often a subset of the first focus. We might as well continue with the above example introduction. Its next line reads:
“The transition from a minimal (classic), to a proactive (modern), and back to a minimal (neo-liberal) assertion has, in many respects, occurred in proportion to the exemplifications of government representatives’ willingness or unwillingness to sacrifice their personal interests in the name of democracy.”
So, my first focus was how various liberal theorists are central to the debate in the prompts. My second focus, a sub-set of the first, is that the willingness of Western voters to empower their governments with permission to intervene in their affairs is proportionate to their perception of that governments’ essential ‘goodness’, which I have defined as their willingness to forge their personal interests in the name of democracy. An argument is forming, but more importantly, there is a very specific scope that has arisen that I will be dealing with. I do not aim to address all of ‘governments’ or all of ‘morality’ or all of ‘liberal economic or political theory.” To do so would either convey overconfidence in your understanding, an underestimation of the breadth and depth of the things being discussed, or at least an overreach in your ability to write about very broad topics succinctly.
Having engaged the reader, acknowledged the broader scope (theme), and narrowed the reader’s attention to one small aspect of this theme and a further -sub-theme (or two different aspects of the theme which are in some way united or related), we have but one more task we must accomplish before proceeding on the robust foundation we have built to the delivery of our argument; the thesis.
The thesis is an argumentative expression of the writer’s opinion about one or both of the focuses that were narrowed from the broader theme. This is critical. You cannot develop an argument just with the focuses you have identified. This opinion is called the thesis and is the most important point of the introduction. A simple way to produce as thesis is to say in your mind “the single strong opinion I have on the focus areas I have just identified, which I am going to prove to you in this essay is” .. and then (physically) write the contention (without the leading sentence above). This forces you to a) have a single opinion, b) make it a strong one, c) have it relate directly to the focus areas and therefore theme, and d) argue for it subsequently.
The thesis answers the question “of what point is the writer trying to persuade me?”
In many respects, the thesis is the tip of the spear of our argument. Ideally, it is scathing in tone (but not emotive), precise, focussed, deliberate, opinionated (but not in such as way as to lack objectivity – still, it is your right to have any opinion you like), clear as a bell and delivered as a forceful thrust through the armour, just under the armpit. If our paragraphs broadly cut in swaths, our thesis punctures directly forward and through, and it does so by virtue of the linear and robust construction of the focuses of the theme which are analogous to the ‘shaft’ of the spear. Resting on these, we bring out focus to a tip: and thrust.
Be unambiguous and unequivocal about what the contention is. Leave nothing to guess or interpret. It is also beneficial to make the contention relevant to a contemporary audience e.g.
“(The rising influence of big data companies e.g. Facebook) implies an urgent need for the reconsideration of the structural checks which were once imposed only on governments, to be laterally applied to these companies in order to ensure they operate in socially responsible ways.”
It can also be useful (but is not essential) to pick a few words out of one of the prompts to use in the contention to make it clear that you are responding directly to a prompt, and better still to consciously segue into Body Paragraph 1. Furthermore, it is (in my opinion) somewhat pedestrian to just ‘pick as side’ and agree with it. What I mean by this is not repeating an argument presented as a prompt and arguing for it. That argument also has its own limitations. Pick these apart and modify their viewpoint. An A-grade 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 its wider cultural contexts, and then argue for what you believe to be the case.
Finally, a note I left in my “Task A” file during my preparation which I think bears copying here unedited:
“Contentions and ideas must be both true and interesting. Both of these qualities are relative so that’s at your discretion. But in my world, I’ll say it’s true and if for no other reason it’ll be interesting on account of that other students won’t be arguing it.“
If you would like more content on Task A structure see the following:
- The Ontology of Task A Structure: Blog (@ 90plusgamsat.com)
- The Ontology of Task A Structure: Video (@ YouTube.com)
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