The Synoptic essay questions in paper 3 of the AQA A-level biology course carries 25 marks, so can make a big difference to your overall grade. The essay encourages you to think across different topics (some call this “synoptic” or “holistic” thinking). This is also valuable for other areas of the exams, particularly the application questions.
Here are a few tips for tackling your A-level biology essay: (As an example, Let’s use the title “The importance of movement in cells and tissues”)
Essay titles are deliberately vague to give you the chance to show your knowledge in a variety of topics. To help you to choose what’s most relevant, look out for subjective words like “movement” and “cells”. Think of the possible alternatives. “Cells”, for example, hints that you could discuss plants, animals, single-celled organisms etc. in your essay. “Movement” could mean short distances (across a membrane) or much further (circulation or mass flow) or even the whole tissue moving (phototropism).
Visualize and catastrophize!
If you can’t think of enough topics for an “importance” essay, flip the question around – what would happen if movement in cells suddenly ground to a halt? Or if ATP suddenly vanished, or our cells were robbed of their ions? Sometimes catastrophizing in this way frees up thoughts, and helps you see what is really important. Another way is to picture every diagram in your notes or textbook that features the thing-that’s-important-in-the-question. If it’s in a diagram, it could go in your essay.
Pick your strongest topics
It’s possible to drop marks on the essay for scientific errors. With that in mind, even if you have lots of ideas for things to include, always pick the topics you can write confidently about. For bonus marks, try to order them in a way that “flows” like a story. Take care to use A-level (and not GCSE) language too.
Keep an eye on the question
While you’re writing, keep asking yourself “Where am I placing the emphasis?”. If the essay is about movement, perhaps you don’t need a whole page about nervous responses, only the bits where movement is involved – sodium ions flowing through channels, waves of depolarisation etc. Movement is the focus of the essay, after all, not neurons. Always ask yourself “Does this sentence fit with the title of the essay?”
Use outside knowledge
The top marks for the essay are reserved for displaying “evidence of reading beyond specification requirements”. Often you can drop recent scientific research or news into your writing – how vaccines tackle COVID might work in an essay about viruses, for example. I often encourage students to have a quick look at the news pages of New Scientist pages (eg https://www.newscientist.com/subject/health/) before paper 3 for inspiration – you don’t need to spend ages doing this, just long enough to have one or two ideas up your sleeve…
Good luck with your essay!
If you’d like to work through some example essay questions, please get in touch with me at Woolton Tutors (or Woolton Biology) and we can set up some online biology tutoring sessions.
Dr John Ankers
Specialist online A-level biology tutor