How to tackle the Biol5 essay – part 1

The essay can be a bit frightening

Welcome to part 1 of How to tackle the BIOL5 essaywhere I will describe what the BIOL5 essay is all about and what it expects.

The AQA BIOL5 essay is worth 25 marks – that’s worth 25% of the marks in the whole paper, so it’s definitely something to focus on. The essay is designed to test your synoptic skills i.e. your ability to put everything that you have learnt over the A level Biology course together by making connections between the principles, concepts, themes and ideas in the AS and A2 units.

This is your opportunity to show off your scientific knowledge and understanding. Of course essay writing isn’t easy and at first glance this essay can be frightening but with early preparation and lots of practice, you will be able to tackle this essay well when it comes to the time.

But firstly, it is important to know the format of the BIOL5  exam. Afterwards we will focus on what the essay expects of us. So let’s turn to the AQA specification. If you don’t already have a copy, you can download the latest version from the AQA website.


Unit 5 – BIOL5

  • Control in cells and in organisms
  • 100 raw marks = 140 UMS marks
  • 8 – 10 short answer questions
  • plus 2 longer questions (data-handling question and the synoptic essay)
  • The synoptic essay is a choice of 1 out of 2
  • The exam is 2 hours 15 minutes long
  • Available only in June
  • The exam is worth: 23.3% of the total A level marks
  • The essay is therefore worth just under 6 % of the total A level marks

Alright, now that we know the format of the Unit 5 exam, let’s turn our attention to the essay. Here is a breakdown of the marks available:

  • Scientific content: 16 marks
  • Breadth: 3 marks
  • Relevance: 3 marks
  • Quality of written communication: 3 marks

Clearly, scientific knowledge is the place where you can gain most marks, often this is where people fall down. It is difficult to gain the maximum 16 marks, but it isn’t impossible to gain a good 12 marks for scientific content. The reason being is due to the Stretch and Challenge element in A2 which is designed to be a real challenge for the most able candidates. Therefore in the Unit 5 essay, some marks will be gained only by those who include material above and beyond that of the A level course – and so if you really want to go for 16/16 marks, it’s recommended that you do further reading outside of the A level biology syllabus. Of course, that isn’t necessary in order to do well in this essay.

I shall now refer you to a document taken from studentcreche, which is an essay information pack. In it, how the marks are allocated are explained, along with essays, spider diagrams and a list of past titles from old AQA past papers. Click on the link below to download the document:

Synoptic Essay Pack.pdf

Breadth refers to the wide range of content in your essay. It is not necessary to refer to something from every single unit in the A level course, that’s not the intention and sometimes a topic does not have links to a particular unit – so don’t worry if you cannot include a topic from each unit in your essay. What you want is to avoid focusing on just one topic, but at the end of the day breadth is worth only 3 marks – it’s still scientific content that will gain you the most marks.

Candidates may gain credit for any information providing that it is biologically accurate, relevant and of a depth in keeping with an A-level course of study. Even the topics suggested in the mark scheme do not have to be all included to gain credit; AQA say: “Material used in the essay does not have to be taken from the specification, although it is likely that it will be.” Also, extra credit if given for evidence of a greater breadth of study – again referring to the Stretch and Challenge element.

In determining the mark awarded for breadth, content should ideally come from each of the areas specified if maximum credit is to be awarded. Where the content is drawn from two areas, two marks should be awarded and where it is taken only from a single area, one mark should be awarded. However, this should only serve as a guide. This list is not exhaustive and examiners should be prepared to offer credit for the incorporation of relevant material from other areas of study. – AQA mark scheme

Relevance refers to including material that actually relates to the essay title. These marks should be easy to gain if the essay is properly planned beforehand. I shall discuss essay planning later on.

Quality of Written Communication requires you to remember that you are writing an essay. That means writing in full sentences and legible handwriting, not using bullet points or scribbling (a temptation given the time limit and pressure of an exam). It also means using key words and spelling scientific terms accurately. Your points should be clear, concise and the essay overall should be coherent. This does not mean that you use flowery language or write a 5000 word English Literature essay on the underlying meanings of the definition of osmosis, it just means display your scientific knowledge in sentences that we can understand.

So overall in this essay, you want to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your biological knowledge using proper English and scientific terms. Try to avoid repetition and make sure the points you raise are relevant to the essay title – so remember to keep referring back to the question and your essay plan.

Essay planning will be dealt with in the next post, so stay tuned!

Have a question about the essay?

Leave a comment below or send me a message.


11 thoughts on “How to tackle the Biol5 essay – part 1

  1. I’m really enjoying reading these posts. I still need to read the next two but its making me feel better about the essay. Honestly the essay in the paper is what’s worrying me the most!

    • Hi Sanna, I’m glad you like it. I know what you mean, the essay is scary because it could be about almost anything, but don’t worry; you can do this!

    • Hi,

      I would say that making a brief essay plan helps to make an essay flow as it helps to structure your essay more tightly and keeps you on track under time pressure.

      In an introduction, you can define key words in the question, for example: Homeostasis is defined as the maintenance of relatively constant conditions in the body by physiological processes that act to counter any departure from the normal.” You can then proceed to briefly discuss what you will include in the body of your essay, for example: physiological variables that are homeostatically controlled include body temperature, arterial blood pressure, and osmotic pressure, and I will discuss the mechanisms by which this is achieved in this essay.

      You then have a clear structure of how the rest of your essay will proceed, so a paragraph about thermoregulation, then blood pressure regulation and osmoregulation.

      Your conclusion does not have to be long, but do include a conclusion to let the examiner know that you have finished the essay and have not simply run out of time. Use it to summarise what you have said, and to show that you have addressed the question.

      I hope that helps 🙂
      Good luck with your exam.

  2. If I do not understand the essay title and feel I cannot gain many marks from writing about the desired topics, if I then write about topics I know in large detail, can I still gain the scientific knowledge marks? and just lose the relevance marks.

    • Hi Josh,

      Since I’m not an examiner or a teacher, I don’t think I can answer your question properly, because honestly I don’t know.

      I do know that you would lose the relevance marks if the topics you are writing about deviate from those the question is addressing – I remember getting penalized in an essay I did for my mock exam back then because I went into too much detail for something that deviated from the question i.e. The essay titles was something along the lines of the advantages and disadvantages of bacteria and I was talking about how genetically engineered bacteria could be used to produce insulin, but then proceeded to talk about how insulin was used in the management of diabetes and that there were two types of diabetes – type I and type II etc. However, the rest of the essay was relevant, and I only lost the one mark for relevance – I didn’t lose any for scientific content.

      However at university, if the content is irrelevant to the essay titles, a lot of marks are lost, regardless of the scientific content. So I’m not really sure how it works for the BIOL5 exam. I’d be quite wary.

      In the exam, there are a few essay titles that you can choose from, so I would advise you to make a quick brain storm for each title. Chances are, you will be able to write a sufficient amount for at least one of the essay titles – if the situation does arise in which you really can’t write anything about the topics in the question, you’ve chosen the wrong question. A technique you could use in this situation is to look through all of the essay titles at the beginning of the exam and make your plans, if really nothing at all comes to mind, at least you’ve had a look at the titles – then go complete the other questions in the paper. That way, the essay titles will be processing at the back of your mind and you’ll hopefully be able to get more ideas for the essay by completing the questions in the paper. Hopefully after finishing those questions, you’ll have a better idea of what to write in your essay.

      Remember that the essay titles that have been chosen are designed to not be too narrow in scope and so will allow room for you to really make it into your own essay. You can take it in any direction you want as long as you can justify why. So don’t put too much detail into just one specific aspect, have a broad scope too. I’ll give the exam of the June 2010 past paper essay question: The causes of disease in humans, the mark scheme suggested the following points that could be mentioned:

      1. Pathogens
      Pathogens include bacteria, viruses and fungi
      Pathogens cause disease by damaging cells and producing toxins
      Cholera bacteria produce toxins resulting in diarrhoea
      Symptoms and transmission of pulmonary tuberculosis
      Horizontal gene transmission and MRSA

      2. Lifestyle
      Risk factors associated with cancer and coronary heart disease
      The effects of fibrosis, asthma and emphysema on lung function
      The biological basis of heart disease

      3. Genetics
      Differences in bases may lead to non-functional enzymes
      Relationship between the cell cycle and cancer

      Clearly you aren’t going to have the time to mention all of these points and explain them all in detail – but if you did do some planning beforehand, you’ll be able to choose one or two examples from pathogens, from lifestyle and from genetics and write about those.

      Definitely put some thought into the structure of your essay before you write it. Think about the themes and principles that the question is addressing – and then you should be fine.

      Sorry for such a long answer. Hope it helped in some way. Good luck for your exam!

  3. Hi, do have any resources/spider diagrams of how the topics link? I just really struggle to make my spider diagram plans?

    • Yes of course it is! If it helps to structure the essay and makes the essay easier to read, by all means go ahead. Just try to avoid making the essay really disjointed.

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