KB101 | A Comprehensive Guide to the A-Level

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

The Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A-Level) examination is an annual national examination that is taken by school and private candidates, in Singapore. It is one of the common pathways in which students opt to take once they have completed their secondary school education. The A-Level path is most likely chosen by those who wished to deepen their academic endeavour beyond their secondary school’s syllabus.


Read about a similar breakdown of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP)


The A-Level Subject Combination


Students of the A-Level in Singapore are required to complete courses across two main subject groups, namely the Mathematics & Sciences and the Humanities & the Arts. Across these two groups, candidates are expected to choose either the Science Stream, Art Stream, or the Hybrid Stream for their subject combinations. Alongside these, it is compulsory for students to take up Project Work, and General Paper. One may opt to take Knowledge & Inquiry instead of General Paper.


The Mathematics & Sciences Subjects

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Physics

  • Mathematics

  • Computing


The Humanities & the Arts Subjects

  • Arts

  • Economics

  • Literature in English

  • Geography

  • History

  • Music

  • Theatre Studies and Drama


The Science Stream

It is suited to students who have a strong passion for the natural sciences. Those who are looking to pursue a degree in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics field (STEM) in university would also benefit from choosing this stream.


Students are required to pick three subjects from the Mathematics & Sciences group and one subject from the Humanities & the Arts. A commonly used term is “contrasting subject”, denoting the subject which comes from the other subject group compared to the other three.


Ultimately, it is important for students to be aware of the expectation for each subject. For instance, Biology is frequently cited as a content-heavy subject, despite being a Science subject.


The Art Stream

Students who have a flair and passion for writing, reading, etc., may gravitate towards this option. On the contrary to Science Stream, students are required to pick three subjects from the Humanities & the Arts group and only one from the Mathematics & Sciences.


Hybrid Stream

Candidates who are blessed with a passion and flair for both subject groups may therefore benefit from choosing the Hybrid Stream instead. This option requires students to take two subjects from each subject group.


Common Pitfall

Many students who are unsure of what to choose, tend to be swayed by friends who may seem more self-assured. Many may decide their combination based on weak self-justification. However, these decisions ultimately ended not as how students expected, as they realised their true conviction has been misaligned all the while.


It is therefore important to speak to people who are able advise students on their best pathways, not only for their sake in Junior College, but also for their future endeavours.


The A-Level Grading System


Students have the option of strategising their subject combination with two main levels of difficulties: H1 and H2 levels. Typically, the expected curriculum hours for an H1 subject is half that of an H2 subject. There is a third level of difficulties - the H3 level, which would be discussed later on in the article.


Besides the compulsory H1 subjects, which are Project Work and General Paper, candidates are expected to choose either:

  • 3 H2 + 1 H1 or

  • 4 H2 (the worst-performing subject to be counted as an H1)


Each subject is graded on an alphabetical scale, with A being the highest attainable grade while U is the lowest.


The grades achieved in exams are then accordingly given a rank point. Each H2 subject is worth a maximum of 20 rank points while each H1 subject is worth 10 rank points.


Candidates could attain a maximum score of 90 ranks points: 70 of which would be accounted for by the four main subjects (3 H2 + 1 H1), whereas the other 20 rank points are accounted for by Project Work (H1) and General Paper (H1).


Ultimately, the results that truely matter is that of the final A-Level paper. Hence, scoring as low as a U grade for a test or examination in year 1 may not be the end of the world as one thought it is.


Project Work (PW)


Project Work is a group-based, compulsory H1 subject. Students are expected to complete it within the first year of A-Level. It would be assessed based on several components, including a written report, insights and reflections, and oral presentation.


Candidates are assessed both as members of their group and as individuals. It is graded on a similar scale to other subjects, with A being the highest attainable grade and a maximum of 10 rank points.


General Paper (GP)


General Paper is another compulsory H1 subject. Students would be exposed to a wide range of subject matter, from culture to technology, covering current affairs, issues of global significance and issues of significance to Singapore. Candidates are assessed based on two writing components.


The first paper is an essay, whereby students are required to select a topic from a possible 12. Some questions from the 2020 GCE A-Level General Paper, Paper 1 are:

  • How reliable are statistics as a guide for planning the future?

  • Is modern technology a benefit or a threat to democracy?

  • Should politicians pursue the popular viewpoint or their own convictions, if they conflict?


Meanwhile, the second paper is a comparative analysis. Scoring well for General Paper may allow students to be awarded pre-college credits, allowing for exemption from specific core modules.


Knowledge & Inquiry (KI)


Candidates may opt for Knowledge & Inquiry instead of General Paper, should their schools have it as an option. Since it is only an alternate to General Paper, it is not a compulsory subject.


However, Knowledge & Inquiry is an interesting option as it is counted as a contrasting H2 subject to both the Science and Humanities. Given this special "property" of the subject, most Junior Colleges require students to undergo an aptitude test, should they indicate their interest in taking Knowledge & Inquiry over General Paper.


H3 Subjects


Each year, there is a small group of students in each Junior College looking at potentially taking a H3 subjects. Since an H3 subject would not be adding value to one’s final A Level results, students should consider first and foremost whether they possess the discipline required to take on additional workload from the H3 subject.


Instead of being graded on an alphabetic scale like other subjects, it is graded as either a Merit, Pass, Distinction, or Ungraded. Depending on each junior college, there could be a variety of H3 subjects, ranging from those focusing on lab research, to those that are university-level modules.


Mother Tongue Language (MTL)


Mother Tongue Language is taken as an H1 subject in junior college as a compulsory subject, unless students achieved a passing grade or better in their Higher MTL in secondary school. Although their Mother Tongue score is not compulsory to be taken into account for their final A-Level score, it is critical for students to achieve a minimum of grade S in order to clear the requirement for university admission.


Those who took MTL B in secondary school would continue to be offered MTL B at A-Level. It is graded with the following possible grades: Merit, Pass, or Ungraded. However, a difference between MTL B and H1 MTL is that, while a good grade in H1 MTL could be used in the final A-Level calculation of one’s rank points, it is not the case for MTL B.


Conclusion


As one of the most commonly chosen pathways for those who wish to pursue a more academic focused journey post-secondary, A-Level allows students to go in-depth into the subjects chosen. This is a distinction many have remarked about the topic of A-Level compared to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Hence, the A-Level is suitable for students who wish to have an edge in knowledge as they pursue their fields of interest later in life.




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