The Five C’s
Clear and effective GAMSAT Section II writing
by Michael John Sunderland, 90plusgamsat | 29.06.21
Gosh, it’s been a minute.
I’ve focussed the bulk of my attention on extraordinary Section II writing for around 18 months now, and as a result of my tutoring and marking essays in the 90+ Facebook group, I’ve had the benefit of not only learning what scores well for myself, but how most students’ essays depart from what I learned about how to score highly in Section II.
This knowledge is going to help you fix half of all errors I see in GAMSAT writing, and let your ideas shine through.
It is an essential component to scoring highly in the GAMSAT (and communicating effectively in the written mode in general).
So let’s get to it!
The Five C’s
In the context of the GAMSAT comprehension of the material provided to you (the prompts) is crucial. You can otherwise think of it as relevance.
“Pre-prepared responses and responses that do not relate to the topic will receive a low score”
– ACER information booklet
Your response must be dynamically relevant to what is being said. As a function of this, it is essential that you have comprehended the prompts – which is to say, you have considered that they are individually, and as a set, an invitation to discuss something about the internal or external world around you.
Note: I say around you because this is what you can authoritatively talk about, versus “capitalism through history” for instance – which you can only have limited knowledge about due to the breadth of the topic and the fact that you can only see it from one vantage point. Capitalism on your street as a child, however, you could talk about. Perhaps little Jimmy used to charge the rest of you an entry fee before playing his new Xbox. This would be a perfectly acceptable lens to discuss capitalism through, and one that would have far less potential pitfalls. But I digress.
The key word here is invitation.
I will paraphrase from the content at this link to distinguish how you might approach distinguishing what is being invited by the prompts.
What is being said is but one subjective “take” on the subject matter. Therefore, not just what is being said but how the author/speaker portrays that subject matter (for example with tone, bias, or persuasive elements) contributes to it being a unique perspective. Not just what is says, but what it does by making that remark and lastly what that might mean about the person or worldview, are crucial considerations.
In combination, there are five “takes” (prompts) on a situation provided by ACER; each trying to “do” something, and in the attempt at doing, meaning something about the author, or perhaps the topic. If you consider the five prompts like a discussion between expert academics, you might see that the moment provided by the inclusion of these five perspectives invites you to have whatever opinion you might have in the domain provided by these other five perspectives. It is critical that your opinion, however, is in the domain of the five other opinions. By in the domain, I mean relevant to what they are saying. If you just came into the middle of a conversation where five people were talking deeply and passionately about communism in China, and then you start talking about capitalism in America, they may go with you, but it would be a little dissonant and weird.
So, you must understand the domain of what is being discussed so you can respond harmoniously to it. Before speaking, comprehend what is already being spoken about, and then feel free to have whatever opinion you like about it, so long as you can intelligently back it up with cogent, coherently, and with clarity.
A simple way to ensure you prevent some of the most common errors here is to imagine you are in a social setting with academic experts standing around in a circle and each of these experts says one of the quotes. Thinking of them as experts will force you to show some academic respect for what is said by the others, even if you disagree with it; it will force you to consider that each view arises out of a comprehensive set of experiences; it will ensure you don’t reduce what is being said by all five people to one word (a common GAMSAT error); and finally it will ensure that what you are replying to the circle is relevant.. otherwise, it would be weird if what you said didn’t flow from what they said.
If you would like to read more about quote interpretation in the GAMSAT I wrote a blog on it, here: How to ACE GAMSAT Section II Quote Interpretation: Task A
“The quality of being clear, logical, and convincing; lucidity.”
To be cogent is to be strong, eloquent, and effective. There are three precursors to cogent writing (according to Kavane and Cavender, 1998):
- All its premises are true.
- It considers all relevant information (it doesn’t present only the part of the case that suits).
- It is logically valid (the conclusions are plausible based on the premises).
To write cogently necessitates a certain rigorousness with the truth. You don’t argue just what is convenient, but you are instead genuinely involved in a process of exploring the truth and the limits to it, including of your own perspective.
Many people tend to imitate the way I close my essays (which, while I don’t mind at all – I just want you to score well – I would recommend you at a minimum word it your own way as ACER have updated their information book to indicate that responses are now compared against past responses) but it oftentimes comes across as conceited as they use the words but the spirit of it is absent from their writing. I tend to finish by touching on the extent to which my view may or may not be valid, and considering others’ views. I do not casually consider the objections, nor commit the “strawman fallacy” wherein I fail to address the most significant objections, or inaccurately portray them. I don’t feel personally obliged in a thirty minute essay to have to have a 100% researched and considered argument, nor to know all of the objections, nor to necessarily be accurate in conveying all of them and rebuffing them. Who knows, maybe even though I have made a logically valid argument, there may be things I innocently did not consider or understand due to ignorance, lack of experience, or just a biased perspective. I do genuinely try my best to understand and consider other views, though. It’s not an argument, or a debating championship. I can simply consider it without needing to go into all the reasons why it’s wrong. In fact, to talk in such objective terms under time pressure is to not acknowledge the very real limitations we are under when writing GAMSAT essays. Even if we weren’t in our early 20’s, and we were experts in the field that we were talking about, we are still under time, and psychological, pressure writing on an unprompted topic, with no faculties of outside research. This is bound to introduce errors into our arguments, so we really have no place saying that someone else’s perspective is wrong in objective terms.
You must write in a way that is careful. As if it were a discussion with an expert in the field. Instead of imagining yourself standing facing the opposing view, both pushing your ideas on each other, position yourself instead to the side. View both views objectively weighing up the validity of both as write from this perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to write a paragraph dealing with the ‘counter-argument.’ I find this approach devolves into a suite of psychometric errors (e.g lacking fallibilism, which the idea that ‘I think I’m right, but I could be wrong; and I think you’re wrong but you could be right’; or appreciation of situadedness, which is an appreciation of how your personal bias and experiences colour your view of things in such a way that you cannot ever see a situation perfectly, limiting the extend to which you can claim what you say is objectively true). It simply means you write from altitude.
Some of the best GAMSAT essays, or at least Task B essays, don’t arrive at a position that is labelled as the truth, or correct. But simply explore the issue, arriving at a conclusion that is logically valid, and perhaps even strong, but never stating that it is the final word, and attempting throughout to ask questions that indicate not someone who is forcing an idea down your throat, but someone who is trying to work things out for themselves. You don’t need to be a know-it-all, but you should be objective and logical.
For more on how to structure your GAMSAT arguments logically, see my blog The Ontology of Task A Structure – Logic.
- The quality of being logical and consistent.
- The quality of forming a united whole (also: cohesive)
We have addressed logic above in cogency, so the emphasis here is on consistency, and how the ideas not only linearly progress in a way that is valid, but that the various elements of essay cohere together on a macroscopic (intro, body paragraphs, conclusion) and microscopic (intra-paragraph) level.
On a macroscopic level, each paragraph or unit should be designed to forward a central idea or argument and should be ordered around achieving that end. What that doesn’t necessarily mean is having a pre-conceived structure that you write because you think that’s just how it should be done. If you write a narrative at the start of your Task B’s because I do it, but you don’t understand why I did it, it can’t be effective. What it does mean is coming up with your own approach of how to write effectively, considering mine if you wish, and if you use mine exactly as I did, knowing why I did it, or at least how it helps you achieve your goal. There are no points for doing things the way I designed them, but there are for what my design helped me achieve (which, in essence, was having a strong idea, displaying the psychometric features I often talk about, and respecting the five C’s so that that idea could be effectively and clearly communicated).
I think of my essays like a skeleton. Imagine one in the anatomy department. The central idea and premises that support it form the backbone. Each premise (topic sentence) linearly supports the frame of the argument – like vertebrae stacked on top of each other. They aren’t ‘kind of in the same domain’ as the contention, which I often see and which leads to an almost impressionistic approach to addressing the topic, with broad brush strokes each covering an idea but not relating to each other linearly and directly. They are purposefully conceived to illustrate the plausibility of a single strong opinion (contention/thesis, or key insight) that you have about a dimension of the broader theme. When you know what you want to say, and why you believe what you want to say, the structure simply facilitates you conveying it effectively and in a way that can be received by the marker.
Let me give you an example, as I often talk about balancing abstract ideas with concrete examples to facilitate clarity (coming next). Imagine your mum/dad/someone you care about and know well asked you ‘what do you think is the best form of transport’ at the dinner table (random chat but, hey, who knows). Here is what many students would reply in a GAMSAT essay:
‘Trams can be good because they are economical, people have often used cars and they are quite popular despite being terrible for the environment, bikes are best because they have no carbon footprint aside from their production. Some people would say cars are the best because they are the most popular, but this fails to acknowledge the destruction to the environment.’
It is five or so ideas loosely related thematically, but no linear development of the ideas, or conclusion that forms naturally from viable premises. I might say
‘Best is a subjective judgement, based on one’s personal beliefs and prior experiences. In order to address the topic there must be criterion for what is designated ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (which are still opinion-based judgements on inherently neutral factors) which can loosely be achieved by which, at their extreme, would benefit humanity and objectives that ‘most’ human’s desire. While this is a ‘positive’ utilitarian approach and not necessarily correct in objective terms, for the purposes of framing a considered response it is the approach that will be used. Transport is, in many respects, the vehicle for the economy, which directly affects the lives of most people; however longer-term environmental considerations are also an essential consideration as there is a ceiling value of economic output in order that that output remain sustainable for future humans. Therefore, there is a case for saying that the best form of transport is that which greatest facilitates the economic (or personal) objectives of humanity. It seems reasonable to conclude that each person’s use of transport allows them to fulfil their economic personal objectives, and there is no reason, in most cases, that people would utilise transport if not for the fulfilment of their personal or economic objectives. As this is different for each person, the mode of transport that fulfils that person’s economic and personal objectives is, initially, the best. Loosely, we can take whichever is the most popular. Of course, not all people are environmentally conscious, so the most popular forms must be indexed against the environmental impact of the use of that mode of transport. I imagine, then, that the answer would be walking, followed by cycling, public transport, bikes, cars, and finally planes.’
There is something distinct from this response compared to the rest. In this response, each idea follows on from the rest in a linear, daisy-chain-like fashion. No point can stand without the existence of the others. There are also many points where there is reference to an earlier idea. It’s like there’s glues, or stiches pulling together the many elements of the paragraph into a unified whole. Note also that there isn’t an idea at the outside that is forwarded directly. I don’t need to know it all. I show how I arrived at my thinking, and am questioning myself as I write. There is an introspective and reflective element to thinking about the prompts where you ask yourself what you believe, and then prod why you believe that. What basis do you have for that belief, and who would agree or disagree with you. Sorting through the prompts mentally and imagining how each argument would go, which you have the best supports for, which are the least contentious, which you have good examples or evidence for, and which you are passionate about, and then choosing one, is a skill in and of itself. There’s a certain judicious pragmatism that goes into selecting which path to go down, before you even begin.
When you have a framework for what you want to argue, or a skeleton, the rest becomes just laying flesh on top. But you must have a skeleton that can stand and that is logically valid and consistent, before doing that, lest you just write aimlessly. Furthermore, when your writing is ordered around a central idea, and the decisions that are made of what to write and how to write are made to facilitate that idea, your writing is naturally more coherent and cohesive.
On a microscopic level, it is also advisable to foreshadow in the introduction some of what is going to be said, and have a clear single strong contention/thesis that will be developed or explained in the essay at the end of the introduction. It is necessary that the topic sentences make the thesis and conclusion plausible. And advisable at the end of each paragraph to use a link. The link, at a minimum, must summarise what the reader was supposed to take away from the paragraph and make it explicit how that ties into the conclusion. If you can manage it, linking backward to the contention, as well as forward, via a segue, to the next paragraph is ideal. This can be achieved by using some of the words of the following topic sentence. This is like running a stich back to the intro to stich the intro and end of paragraph one together, and then another stitch tying paragraph one and two together.
Here’s an example of an essay of mine where I do just this. The prompts were about Globalisation and social responsibility.
This was my thesis (I have put in brackets what I referred to in place of the word ‘this’. As it stands beow it would be too long as a contention):
“…(the influence of Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook’s ability to monitor and influence human behaviour on a meta level) 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 are regulated to operate in socially responsible ways.”
And this is the end of body paragraph one, and the topic sentence of body paragraph two. I have boldened the cohesive elements.
“…The danger to democracy, civil, and social life clearly necessitates novel and comprehensive regulation in order to meet these challenges, if the poltico-economic ideals which are the foundations for contemporary Western societies are to be upheld.
The dangerousness implied in power necessitates regulation in order to champion socially responsible behaviour and ensure the delivery and preponderance of liberal and democratic political ideals, which characterise the politico-ontological frameworks of today’s Western societies…”
Note that there are terms linking the paragraph’s content explicitly to the contention, and terms foreshadowing the content of the next paragraph.
“The quality of being coherent and intelligible; clear”
Imagine you wrote the best ever GAMSAT essay possible. Imagine I was there in your seat acting through you, and not only that I was on fire that day. And then imagine when you finish the essay you put it in a glass box to hand to the marker to read. But the box was muddy and cloudy and the marker couldn’t make out a lot of what you and I had come up with together. Now inside the box is a 90+ essay. Maybe even a 95. We killed it! But the marker can’t quite access our ideas, or what we said. So in the end we fell short of what we could have.
I see this in SO many essays. So often there are good ideas, or in a tutorial I’ll ask what the student meant to say and they can tell me but what they tell me isn’t evident from the essay, and of course the marker doesn’t have the benefit of having you there to clarify. Essentially what is being marked is the ‘quality of thoughts and ideas’ and ‘how they are integrated into a meaningful response’ (that’s from the ACER info book). But the quality of your thoughts and ideas is delivered via the five C’s. The five C’s polish that glass box so it’s like it isn’t even there. Any impediment to the marker knowing what you mean is removed. They can see what you were thinking in a way that is crystal clear. But if you lack the five C’s, that box is all cloudy, the thoughts and ideas, no matter how good they are, can’t be seen and you will struggle to score well.
So, how can you make your writing more clear?
Firstly, through being clear on what you want to say, and planning effectively such that your ideas (skeleton) is logical and ordered. When you are clear internally, what you say will come out more clearly.
Secondly, when you are clear on what you want to say, be cautious about your word selection and the degree to which it enables you to be effective in your communication. Oftentimes students use big words to sound academic and fancy. The issue is, more often than not, what they are saying is simple and not academically rigorous (due to time pressure), so it looks like a pig in lipstick. Pigs are actually cute, I don’t know why that’s the example that came to mind, but it’ll stay with you now 😉
In short, many people are exploring simple thoughts and ideas in complex terms, and what you want to be doing is exploring complex thoughts and ideas in simple terms.
A good rule of thumb I came up with is to ask ‘is there a simpler term that could communicate this?’ and if so I selected the simpler term. I would also ask myself, ‘does the inclusion of this more complex word enhance or diminish the effectiveness and clarity?’ Sometimes there’s no other word that will do as nicely as the one you use.. for example ‘precipitously’ .. sometimes there’s just a time for saying ‘a precipitous increase.’ In this case you could say ‘a large increase’ but it doesn’t have quite the same impact or meaning. They’re not quite the same. So I would go for ‘precipitous’ (assuming I hadn’t already used many complex words previously in that paragraph. If the average 13-14 year old can’t easily understand what you are saying, it’s not written simply enough. Remember, ACER say in the info book that ‘language and structure is only marked insofar as it contributes to the thoughts and ideas, not in isolation’. (I added the underline FYI).
‘Briefness, or brevity; to be concise’
Concision is using the fewest words possible to communicate an idea effectively. Anything more is too-much and will detract momentum and pace from the development of your writing. You want to write generously to the marker and in such a way that they can move through what you say easily and enjoyably. If they enjoy your writing, they will like you, and if they like you, you will incur their positive bias, which, if it doesn’t help, can’t hurt; and avoid their negative bias, which if it doesn’t hurt you, might have.
Writing that is not concise can feel overwhelming, confusing, or boring. When you are not generous to the marker in the way that you write, they feel that marking your essay is work. GAMSAT markers might have ten minutes at best per essay, and they are reading essay after essay of drivel. You want to be the shining light that stands out, and simplifies their night. The essay that makes it feel for a moment like it isn’t work to mark. The essay that gives them relief of the burden of trying to figure out what people mean. Trust me, I’ve marked enough essays, it’s not the easiest or most fun work. But when you get one that flows it’s like “AHA! YES! Thank you!!” And that feeling of elation is a very good lens through which a marker might assess your ability to be a doctor.
Anything less that concise creates work, and this incurs grumpiness. You don’t want a grumpy marker deciding your Section II score, do you?
How to be concise?
- Reduce unnecessary words, phrases, or sentences that do not directly forward your central argument. I have, at the last minute, cut out whole sentences (multiple of them) ruthlessly. I hack like a madman at the end of my essays. Anything that is not utterly necessary can go.
- Eliminate filler phrases such as ‘needless to say.’
- Write in the active (versus passive) voice. In the active voice the subject does the verb. In the passive voice the subject is done by the verb. Basically, active is punchy, passive is long winded and takes more words and ruins momentum.
Example (passive): “Lesser men were slayed by the dragon queen” (Borrrrinnnnng.)
Example (active): “The dragon queen slayed lesser men.” (Yas queen. Slay gurl.)
If you would like some help learning where you are lacking concision or clarity I recommend copy-pasting your writing into the Hemingway App online. It will break down for you where you are using the passive voice, where you are using too many complex words, and which sentences are hard to read.
Wow, nearly 4k words. I hope you find this useful, it took me all morning. If so feel free to pop your email in below to receive hard-hitting 90+ advice and tips, blog updates, and special offers and I’ll hit you up with the goods as they come.
Feel also free to join the 90+ community on Facebook where we can help you practice and apply what you read here to track yourself towards a killer Section II.
Sorry it’s been so long since my last blog, I missed writing for you all <3