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Reflection on section 2 of GAMSAT from one of our students who scored a stunning 94!

Section A, the Analytical Essay

The exam is called “Written Communication” for a reason and it is not looking for opinions.  As simple as it sounds, the most important thing in an act of communication is to listen and to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood”, in that order. It is far more important to engage as sympathetically as possible with the statements that form the essay titles and to ask questions about them, which include not only “is this true?” and “what do I think about this?” but also “Why was this said?”  Don’t open the essay by repeating the title, say something about it.

It is important to take time over this, think about the variety of ways that the statement(s) might be interpreted, define the key terms unless their meaning is completely self-evident, and when you do get to express your own views, express them in as detached and circumspect a way as possible. A certain amount of detachment suits an analytical essay. 

Ideas are more important than examples. Examples are necessary, they have their place, but an essay that simply illustrates the truth or falsity of the statement made in the essay title(s) by way of an extended example does so at the expense of cutting down the ideas. For instance if the key word in the titles is “organisation” then consider what that word means in different contexts (social biological physical political etc) and how these are linked; consider the importance of organisation to success (planning), and its relative importance compared to other factors (motivation, ability, luck); consider if organisation operates best from the top down (God and governments) or from the bottom up (evolution), and whether or not it has negative aspects (cutting down spontaneity and creativity

Section B, the Reflective Essay

Section A is a test of intellectual intelligence. Section B is a test of emotional intelligence. So it is not so much about opinions and arguments as showing understanding of oneself and / or others. It’s less about objective reality and more about subjective experience.   Intra-personal (within yourself) and inter-personal (between oneself and others) material is equally valid

Even so, it isn’t about being subjective but about appraising and evaluating subjectivity. The important thing is to reflect on the material you have selected to illustrate (or refute) the statement(s) in question.  It interesting that one way this is very different from the advice given for Section A is because here the illustration is more significant than the argument. Even so this is a reflective essay. The reflections on the material should take up more space than the illustration.

The best method is to find some appropriate anecdotal material upon which to reflect! That is difficult to do in an exam room and stressful environment, but the essay titles are usually generic enough that you can sometimes adapt previously chosen material, so it is worth sketching out or even writing up some critically important moments in your personal development with a view to using them for the Section B essay if possible. 

Example Essays

Section A

Consider the following comments and develop a piece of writing in response to one or more of them

You will be judged on the quality of your response to the theme, the way you organise and present your point of view, and the effectiveness of your written expression

Comment One

That Government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves.

Comment Two

The challenge of good government is how to reconcile individual freedom with the public interest.

Comment Three

The point to remember is that what the Government gives it must first take away.

Comment Four

You can’t run a government solely on a business basis. Government should be human. It should have a heart.


Response to Comment Two

The challenge of good government is how to reconcile individual freedom with the public interest.

The really interesting question that arises here is why there should be any conflict between the two. Why do individuals want to do things that conflict with the things they should do as members of a community? Ants, presumably, do not experience any such divided interest. On the other hand, I once read a book by the famous twentieth century intellectual, Arthur Koestler, called “Janus” in which he suggested that a kind of double imperative between individual and collective interests was pervasive throughout nature. From cells to multi-cellular organisms to organisms within social groups in relation to one another, every element functions partly as a quasi-autonomous unit, experiencing itself in competition with other such units, seeking its own fulfillment, and also as part of a greater whole. On the one hand the self assertive instincts, on the other, the self transcending. Both equally vital to the well being of the part and the whole, provided the balance between the two is viable.

This division, according to another famous twentieth century intellectual ( Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance” ) characterises biological evolutionary patterns which have a dynamic function and a static function. The formation of semi-permeable cell walls to let food in and keep poisons out is a static latch. So are bones, shells, hide, fur, burrows, clothes, houses, villages, castles, rituals, symbols, laws and libraries. All of these prevent evolutionary degeneration.

On the other hand, the shift in cell reproduction from mitosis to meiosis to permit sexual choice and allow huge DNA diversification is a dynamic advance.  So are sexual choice, symbiosis, death and regeneration, communality, communication, speculative thought, curiosity and art. Sometimes a  dynamic increment goes forward but finds no latching mechanism and so falls and slips back to a previously latched position. Whole species and cultures get lost this way. Sometimes a static pattern gets so powerful it prohibits any dynamic moves forward. In both cases the evolutionary process is halted for a while. But when its not halted the result has been an increase in power to control hostile forces or an increase in versatility or both. The increase in versatility is a move towards dynamic quality. The increase in power to control hostile forces is a move towards static quality. Without dynamic quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot survive. Both are needed.

The static and dynamic tendencies are present in human societies and manifest as the conservative and radical elements in all spheres of activity, including the political. Static or conservative tendencies that are too powerful are like totalitarian systems that stifle individuality. Dynamic tendencies that are not sufficiently grounded create instability and anarchy. It is therefore perfectly true to say that the challenge of good government is to reconcile individual freedom with the public interest. This would need to be a system of government that exhibited characteristics like the evolutionary patterns described above. Interestingly, there is only one political system sufficiently flexible, ambiguous and complex to provide such government, and its name is democracy.

510 words


Section B

Consider the following comments and develop a piece of writing in response to one or more of them.

You will be judged on the quality of your response to the theme, the way you organise and present your point of view, and the effectiveness of your written expression.

Comment One

What we do for fun and entertainment both expresses who we are and develops who we are.

Comment Two

Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television.

Comment Three

News has become entertainment, and we are losing an important part of our democratic system.

Comment Four

Modern media pumps out rubbish, and we are swimming in it daily.


Response to Comment Two

Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television.

Having spent several minutes trying to relate to this title, I assume that the author of the statement means something like the following:- passionate convictions about moral issues are mere propaganda if the speaker is unable to take the feelings of the listener or audience into consideration, whereas being concerned only with pleasing the feelings of the audience without anything serious to communicate is an empty exercise ( like television ). That is true up to a point, and certainly its not something I would wish to disagree with; nevertheless I’ve had to work quite hard to paraphrase the essay title to elicit this meaning because it seems to me that there are a number of dangerous misconceptions here that the author seems unaware of, and I think its important to clarify these.

The phrase “moral passion” for instance, is used in an approving manner. The author seems to think it a good thing on the whole, and I suppose that this is sometimes the case. One thinks, perhaps, of Jesus throwing the money-lenders out of the temple, or of the suffragettes, or Gandhi. However, moral passion is more characteristically exemplified by Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Islamic Fundamentalism, not to mention every fire and brimstone preacher in the history of religion and every Hyde Park Corner soap box speaker. All mature spiritual systems (the main arbiters of morality) regard passion as the great enemy of equilibrium, clarity and harmony, and for good reason. “Passion” is emotion at a very high pitch, and, whatever might be said in its favour, however romantic our associations with that word, it is highly distorting and toxic, especially, probably, in the domain of morality.

However, some of these passionate ideologues, like Hitler, were very entertaining! No doubt the Nuremberg Rallys were quite a show. Historically, artists have always been conscripted by the church and/or the State to spread propaganda. Propagandists have always seen entertainment as an ally.  Here we run into the second bad idea in the essay title. The entertainment factor does not preserve passionate morality from being propaganda. On the contrary, millions of people tune into TV soap operas every day because they apparently enjoy the spectacle of people attacking each other verbally, emotionally, and physically. Any emotionally loaded point of view is basically a form of moral passion. TV programmers understand instinctively that nothing entertains as much as that which stimulates adrenaline; therefore competitive sports and dramas which feature conflicts of all kinds are the order of the day. TV is an addictive drug, and a successful one because nothing is as addictive as intensity. Of course this kind of intensity is synonymous with absence of content, and with the intellectually vacuous, but that does not oppose it to moral passion. On the contrary, moral passion is often empty of real meaning (which may explain why “moral passion” and self indulgent, self righteous anger thrive in situations of intellectual and cultural deprivation. Consider the Middle East…).

Politicians, preachers and ideologues of all types and persuasions are inspired by their own versions of moral passion, and they are successful to the degree that they are found to be entertaining. The most successful end up on TV…

540 words