A Word on Writing Paper

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By Ng Ziqin (20S03H) and Sophia He (20S03H)

While the recent Prelims and Promos may not have held many—or any—fond memories, the pain of churning out three-hour essay after three-hour essay may have been dulled by one thing: exam season writing paper. For these are no ordinary sheets: thicker and smoother than the garden-variety Raffles Institution foolscap sold at Popular bookstore, the high quality foolscap might very well be the only highlight of the Rafflesian exam season. But much mystery enfolds these silky reams: Where do they come from? Why are they of such superior quality? Is there some closely-guarded top-secret formula governing their distribution?

Raffles Press decided to do some top-notch investigative journalism and look into these very important questions with the help of Mr Low Soo How, HOD of Systems. Not since the hit American sitcom The Office’s treatment of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company has the topic of paper come under such close scrutiny. Here are the answers to everything you ever wanted to know about the exam writing paper.

1. Where does the elusive paper stock come from?

According to Mr Low, the exam writing paper is purchased in bulk every year from the same company that runs the RI printing shop. This has been the practice for the past two to three years, since the school decided to make the switch from its previous paper supplier. The school’s supply of writing paper is usually restocked sometime between the end of one year and the beginning of the next. 

The paper costs about $10 for a ream of 500 sheets, and the school usually orders at least 200 reams per year. The school’s yearly expenditure on exam writing paper is typically about $2,000 a year.

2. What is the net Rafflesian paper depletion rate?

The amount of paper purchased by the school varies every year, and are estimated based on paper usage in the previous year. Since Math is the most paper-intensive subject, Mr Low says that it is usually safe to use it as a rough guide for his estimations on how much paper to buy for the year. He orders twice the amount of paper needed for Math for each batch. “Math is the one that is constant. Because basically Math, y’all just use a lot of paper. GP—how much can you write? I give you four pieces, sometimes also cannot finish, right?”

Of course, this estimate is also volatile and heavily dependent on how much paper students actually use for that year. 

“Sometimes, it also depends on the amount of paper that y’all will use. So sometimes at the end of the year: how come I’m left with so much paper? And then I realise, oh that’s because the students wrote less. And then after that I order less. Then, the next year: how come the paper diminish so fast? Some years students write more, some years students write less. It’s not really a ‘formula’ to actually decide; you just play by ear.”

3. How much paper for each subject?

While there is similarly no formula for how much paper the invigilators should give out per student for each subject, Mr Low was able to supply us with an unofficial guideline. It’s actually pretty standard for some subjects: Econs usually gets about 6–8 sheets, while around 4 sheets are given out for GP. For other subjects such as History, it depends on whether the paper being administered is a two-hour paper with two essays, or a three-hour paper with three essays. Typically, the setters of the paper would also advise the invigilators on the appropriate amount of paper to distribute.

Except for Math, which needs no clarification—for extremely practical reasons. “Math is usually around 10. If I give seven sheets for Math, the invigilator will be giving out [writing paper] for the whole two or three hours. Math, [needs to be] at least 10.”

4. I really want this superior foolscap. Can I buy some?

Sadly, despite the superior quality of the exam writing paper compared to the foolscap found at Popular, the exam writing paper is not available for private sale to students to preserve the integrity of the exams; allowing students to purchase the exam writing paper could potentially open a can of worms with regards to cheating. 

“That’s why if you look at most schools, the foolscap that is used for daily work is usually different from the exam foolscap.”

5. Why the quality disparity?

When asked about the difference in quality between the exam writing paper and the ‘daily foolscap’ available at Popular, Mr Low was more than ready to share his theories. 

Hint: it has a lot to do with Economics.

“When you talk about foolscap that’s being sold to students at the bookshop, it’s all about profits. When a school wants to order in bulk for writing material, it’s about who can give me the best deal. If you quote me $10, I find someone who gives me $9, I will go for the $9- one. And of course, if you quote me $9 and then give me a quality that is not so good, I will say, ‘How come your quality has dropped?’ So there are different considerations. Business is business; they want to earn the most profit. But if you give me a discount for bulk purchase for [exam writing] paper… how many reams do I order in a year? A hundred, at least? So, if you give me something that’s a little better quality and give me a discount, the profit margin will still be able to compensate [for it].”

While it was certainly saddening to hear that these papers would not be available for private purchase, it was also a great relief to know that there would be a healthy length of time before the Year 5s would have to encounter them again.

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