Taking your GCE ‘A’ Levels as a Private Candidate

Update: Every year I get people coming to this post either right before the A Levels, or right after they get their results. If you’d like to talk to me, you can email me at visakanv at gmail dot com, or tweet me at @visakanv.

Someone dropped by my Tumblr to ask me to write a post about my experience re-taking my A Levels as a private candidate.

Here we go.


If you want to re-take your A’s, the first thing you got to do is to register with the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board. (SEAB). Go to National Examinations -> GCE ‘A’ Levels -> Private Candidates -> Online Registration. You can just click that last link to save yourself the trouble. Registration for this year’s A’s are closed. I believe I registered for mine in late March.

Choosing Subjects

When choosing subjects, you’ll want to check out the Syllabuses. I picked Mathematics, Economics, English Literature, and English Language and Linguistics. All of them H2’s. (And H1 General Paper.)

In JC, I had taken H2 Mathematics, H2 Economics and H2 History, and H1 Literature. (And H1 General Paper.)

I got B’s for H2 Economics, H2 History and H1 Literature. I got an S for H2 Mathematics. (And an A for H1 General Paper.)

I didn’t really study at all. I just sort of skimmed through everything. It’s easy to pass Economics, History and Literature without much effort if you can think and write clearly. Actually, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that it’s the same for Mathematics- but you can’t improvise in Mathematics- you’ll have to have a thorough understanding of the language.

I’d say it’s the same for every subject, actually- every subject has its own language, in a way, and you’ll need to learn to speak it fluently if you want to score well. Maths is the most technical  or “different” of the languages… I’ll talk more about this in a later post.

I decided to do English Language and Linguistics instead of History because I didn’t really relish the idea of having to re-learn a whole bunch of history. I enjoyed learning it the first time around, but if I ever have a desire to learn history, I know where to look up the information.

I’ve always been passionate about language and linguistics to some degree, and so I thought it would be fun to try doing something I love. It’s a bit risky, though, because it’s a really young or new subject. The syllabus is vague, and I haven’t seen the specimen papers yet. Still, I imagine that in the worst case scenario I’m going to get a B. (The plan is still to get A’s.)

I specifically avoided taking any science subjects, despite my renewed passion for them. I would quite like to learn Physics, for instance, but it’s complicated- I’ll have to sign up for the practical paper and all that stuff. Messy. I’ll stick to writing, thanks!

Study Plan

I’m re-doing my A’s together with my friend and former band-mate, Adnin. It’s good to have someone else doing it with you, to keep yourself accountable.

I had sold off my graphing calculator after my A’s, so I’m borrowing one from my girlfriend.

I printed out all the syllabuses to remind myself of what I’m tested on.

I made a deal with a friend who still had his notes for Mathematics and Economics- I traded him some books for his notes, and more importantly, his old Prelim papers. I’ve been spending most of my time going through 2007 JC Prelim Papers for Economics.

I’ll be meeting up with a couple of younger friends who are doing their A’s this year, and I’ll be getting more recent prelim papers from them. I still need to get myself some ELL material.

I haven’t really started properly on Literature and ELL, because I’m fairly confident that I can get up to speed on those in a month if I have to. My strategy at the moment is to build my confidence by getting my Economics up to scratch, to practice my Mathematics at a foundation level (I’ve been watching Math lectures on YouTube and they are absolutely fantastic.) It’s already June, and soon it will be July. Throughout July and August I will be studying hardcore- it will dominate my time.

I have been deleting and removing distractions from my life. I have been decluttering my study space (this will get more dramatic as time goes by). I try to keep track of how much I study every day, and what I accomplished. (This will get more dramatic as time goes by.)

Feel free to ask questions- I don’t have the time to make this post perfect, so think of it as the start of a series of posts that will eventually be clear and useful as a collective. 🙂


Useful Stuff:

 Check the syllabuses of all the subjects you’re doing on http://www.seab.gov.sg/.  Print these out. Analyse them. Know them inside out. Tick everything you’re comfortable with and can answer easily. Focus your energy on everything you’re bad at.




I studied for Literature by…

  1. googling the books
  2. reading the summaries
  3. watching the movies (torrented them)
  4. looked up discussions and book reviews and forums
  5. THEN read the books and started answering questions.

Same for Linguistics. Borrowed a couple of library books, searched YouTube for videos. Immerse yourself.

Unsorted links that I found useful

(This post is incomplete but I just gotta put it out there)

Once you’ve picked your subjects, I think the most important thing you should do is to familiarize yourself with the syllabus. You want to know the syllabus inside out. You want to know exactly what you’re tested on, what the examiners are looking for, how to please them.

So head over to the SEAB website and save all the syllabuses of the subjects you’re doing. Print them out and look through them carefully.

Getting passionate about stuff:

Neil Tyson, on Issac Newton (2 mins)

Richard Feynman, on the inconceivable nature of nature (5 mins)

To Understand is to Perceive Patterns, by Jason Silva (1:45)

H2 Mathematics

A Level Syllabus (from the SEAB website)

Calculus in 20 minutes, by Edward Burger. This guy is amazing. He’s incredibly passionate about his subject matter, he knows his stuff inside out, and he’s an incredible educator, too. Here’s him describing how to do mathematics (2 mins). I’ve been checking him out outside of Mathematics, and he’s a phenomenal voice that needs to be shared. I recommend this video even to people who don’t do Calculus.

Richard Delaware from UKMC has an amazing video series on pre-Calculus and Calculus. He helped me understand functions better than I ever did in school.

IntegralCalc – the tutor is really pretty!

Statistics and Calculus on Wikipedia. I find it easier, more interesting and compelling to learn something when you know about the history of it, as well as its importance and relevance to humanity.

Introductory Statistics – on YouTube. 8 Videos. Watch everything once to get a rough idea of the whole subject.

Mastering Mathematics Smartly, by Wee Wen Shih. This is the guy that writes the Ten Year Series books for Dyna Publisher.

H2 Economics


H2 Literature

The first thing I did was to read the Wikipedia pages of my respective texts- Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, The Importance of Being Earnest. I did this to get familiar with the plot. I then torrented the respective movies- Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet. (I got a modern version of Wuthering Heights that was weird and hipster-ish.)

Wuthering Heights and the folly of vengeance

I choose to start with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, partially because it was a text that I choose to do when retaking my GCE A Levels, so I’ve analysed and digested it a bit more than most books. (It was sitting on my bookshelf for years, courtesy of my mother, and I had heard my secondary school Literature teacher mention it in passing as a dense and difficult book.)

CENTRAL IDEA: Wuthering Heights is about the destructiveness of selfish “love”.

A lot of Wuthering Heights is about the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, where lovers are separated by a family feud,  Heathcliff and Catherine are separated by their own selfish spitefulness towards each other, and their relentless one-upmanship.

Some people describe the book as “romantic”, which I find outright disturbing. I don’t believe that there’s anything beautiful about ‘love’ that is so consuming and possessive. It’s worse than parasitical- it destroys the host, and cascades outwards destructively. (I find myself thinking about Asian horror films, like Ju-On. Brr.)

“To say ‘you are just like me’ is just a way of talking about me.  The danger of desire is that it ‘tends to bring the object ‘close enough’ to be engulfed’ by the self, and consequently destroys the sensation of difference that generated the attraction in the first place. ” – Emmanuel Levinas

We cannot truly possess others- and we will never find satisfaction or fulfillment in doing so. We cannot subjugate others completely, as much as it might seem a “romantic” thing to do. It isn’t. 

Heathcliff and Catherine both badly needed therapy and emotional counselling. We’re looking at something vaguely Chris Brown/Rihanna-esque. Even at the heights of their passion, they speak of their own self-interest- I need you so much, because you fulfill me and my needs. I don’t actually care about your needs, your happiness, your well-being; none of that interests me.

Heathcliff even marries Isabella in a carefully plotted attempt to make Cathy suffer… Emily Bronte creates detestable, pitiful characters who spitefully destroy themselves and each other. It’s a beautiful work of writing, and to me, a warning against emotional blackmail and petty neediness.


“May she wake in torment!” he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. “Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”

“You teach me now how cruel you’ve been – cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you – they’ll damn you. You loved me – what right had you to leave me? What right – answer me – for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery, and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will did it. I have no broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine. So much the worse for me that I am strong. Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you – Oh, God! would you like to lie with your soul in the grave?”

Wuthering Heights is not about love, it’s about selfish possessiveness, and how that destroys everybody and everything. Cathy and Heathcliff not only destroy each other, they take everybody else around them down with them- marrying people they do not love to spite each other, manipulating and hurting them, passing on their hatred and vengeance to their children… it’s a horrible sight to behold.