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.)

Work hard? Me? But I’m Gifted!

2014 summary: Used to be a minimum-effort student who was proud of how little effort I needed to get by. Now wish I had learnt to work hard instead.

I got full marks for pretty much everything before I got into the GEP, and I spent the first 20 years of my life with absolutely no sense of the value of hard work. I went to my exams and got by without studying, I played in a band that got by without practicing, I somehow managed to sustained a relationship and multiple friendships without any real conscious effort. I didn’t study for my O levels- I spent the time leading up to my O’s watching Friends. (On retrospect, I think spent the time leading up to my PSLEs playing basketball!) I retained a year in JC- (I wonder how many GEP students went on to retain in JC?). Throughout my entire JC life I only submitted about 5 to 10% of my tutorials, half of which were copied. I used to be proud of that. Really.

In a sense, then, I’ve been mediocre all this while because I never really saw a reason to be anything more, when I already received all the validation that I wanted without any effort. Even when I did below-average in JC, simply hearing my teachers go “you’re so smart, you’re able to grasp ideas and concepts before anyone else, if you only-” was good enough for me. “I’m awesome,” I thought. “I don’t need to jump through anybody’s hoops to feel good about myself.”

I often couldn’t be bothered to do anything because I’d always felt like I’d transcended the need to. I honestly didn’t feel like I needed a prestigious education or qualifications to validate my existence. I knew that I had worth, and immense unrealised potential, and that was good enough for me. I was and still am cerebrally quicker than most people I know- not the absolute quickest, but good enough to get me by. I’m expressive with my words, I can communicate my thoughts and ideas fairly effectively, I’m comfortable in all sorts of environments- especially new ones, where everyone starts from scratch. I have a fertile, flexible and agile mind. That is the source of my confidence. I am unfazed by mistakes and failures. From one perspective I could be described as stubbornly arrogant, but from another you could say that I’m a big picture kind of person, and my picture’s a lot bigger than most people’s.

I don’t believe or care for the idea of natural genius or talent. If it exists, it does, but it’s rare and unlikely and shouldn’t affect most of us. If you asked me ten years ago, “Visa, why are you so smart?” I’d shrug and smile and say, “I don’t know.” If you ask me now, I’d say “Me, smart? I don’t really think so! Perhaps I’m just more well-read, and spend more time and energy thinking in general. I’ve had lots of practice, that’s all. You would be just as “smart” if not “smarter” if you made a conscious and sustained effort, I’m sure!” And I would be completely sincere about it.

My mind is always wandering- and I think it might even have been inevitable that it eventually turned on itself, perhaps out of pure intellectual curiosity, but more likely as a response to a growing accumulation of ideas and knowledge- about self-knowledge, success, self-worth, discipline, self-deceit, philosophy and other fun stuff. I had to turn my criticism on myself eventually. What followed wasn’t very pretty, but it was empowering. What I ultimately distilled from it was something simple, but true- potential counts for nothing, and accomplishment counts for (almost) everything. The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is often simply that successful people Do things, and get things Done. On hindsight, I never really got much done with my life at all. And I realised, intuitively, that that didn’t satisfy me. I didn’t want to be remembered by posterity as “the really intelligent and witty and fun guy who never accomplished much.” That’s not enough for me anymore.

My life’s work lies ahead of me, and I intend to pursue it with intense drive and determination. I am consciously choosing not to define it just yet, but I have a clear vague idea. (There are such things as clear vague ideas.) I am going to work hard, harder than I’ve ever worked before, and push myself to my limits- if they even exist, because I’ve never encountered them before.