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Exam writing tips (FCE / CAE / CPE and IELTS)

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

The writing paper of an exam brings real challenges for candidates. Being able to write well in any language is tough so to write well in a foreign language under strict time conditions is especially demanding. Many candidates experience similar problems with their exam writing:

  • problems with overall essay structure

  • problems with understanding and fully answering the question

  • problems with word choice and use

In this post, I'm going to share nine strategies for successful exam writing. This is a longer post than usual, so I suggest that you skim read the contents using the subheadings to help you find information that feels relevant to you.

Make your writing as easy to read as possible Your essay will be read and marked by a trained examiner who will have many other essays to read and assess as well as yours. In addition, they are unlikely to be earning a fortune to read your writing. They may be tired, hungry or bored by the time they get to your essay. It's very important, then, that you make their job as easy as possible by doing things like:

  1. using clear, obvious paragraphs (i.e. space everything out very well!)

  2. writing legibly (if doing the exam by hand)

  3. clearly signposting your opinions throughout the essay

Choose a structure and practice it until you have memorised it The single biggest problem I see in student writing is poor structure. If your essay structure is weak, it can affect your ability to answer the question fully as well as your ability to write clearly and logically. Because the essay questions for the Cambridge exams and IELTS are very formulaic, you can make your life much easier by choosing a formula for your essays and using it every time. It is far, far easier to write consistently good essays if you know exactly how you are going to structure them.

Practice understanding the question It is essential that you fully understand the question before you begin writing! You need to be 100% clear about what you are being asked to write about. This is especially important for IELTS writing where at minimum you need to know:

  • Task One

  1. what kind of question you are being asked (there are a lot of possibilities!)

  2. how this will impact on your choice of grammar and vocabulary

  • Task Two

  1. which question type you are being asked

  2. whether your opinion is needed

Practice writing skeleton essays Skeleton essays are structured as follows:

  1. complete introduction

  2. topic sentences for each main body paragraph

  3. complete conclusion

Skeleton essays are worth practicing because they will show you (and your teacher!) if you have fully understood the question and whether you have an appropriate structure to respond to it. For example, at CPE you need to summarise and evaluate two texts. It is common for candidates to summarise well……. and to forget the evaluation! By having a clear structure that includes the evaluation, and by writing skeleton essays, a candidate is able to make sure that they have included everything Cambridge want from them, thereby gaining a high score for Content.

Build up a database of useful words and phrases People seem to have a misconception that getting a high score in vocabulary means using rare or difficult words. This is particularly true for IELTS; sometimes when I am giving free feedback on IELTS essays in Facebook groups, the essays feel more like reading a thesaurus than an essay! For all exam writing you need:

  1. topic vocabulary

  2. linking words and devices

  3. patterns and chunks

Focus on learning strong topic vocabulary and practice using it correctly. There is no point writing a word that most native speakers wouldn't use, especially if you can't use it accurately.

Invest in lessons with a reputable and professional teacher Sometimes I wonder if candidates think that having a teacher is an unaffordable luxury. I have met people who say they can't afford lessons, but who repeat their exam multiple times at great expense. To me, this is illogical. And it is worth paying for someone who truly understands your exam. In teachers' forums, I have seen posts along the lines of:

I've just been asked to teach FCE. First time! Never taught it before. Anyone got some resources I can use?

Do you really want this kind of teacher? Yes, a good teacher will be more expensive, but remember that you are paying not only for the time they give to you, but also all their previous experience which allows them to help you to your desired score. It is a false economy to prepare for an exam without assistance.

Do timed writing practice It's not easy to replicate exam conditions at home, but your exam strategies will benefit massively if you try. You MUST do AT LEAST ONE timed writing before the exam! To do a timed writing, get a question and complete it as best you can in the time you will have on the day. There is a huge difference between this and practice writing!

Always plan your writing before you start Many candidates are reluctant to make a plan. They worry that they don't have enough time to do so. If you know the structure you are going to use, however, writing a plan should take less than 10 minutes. A good plan is more likely to result in a strong, logical piece of writing, and you should find that your writing speed increases too as you already know what you want to say

Stick to the suggested word count! It is extremely important that you practice saying everything that needs to be said within the word limits for your exam. I have seen IELTS essays which are 350 words long (that's 100 words over the word count!). Although there is no direct penalty for doing this, the danger is that you run out of time in the exam. If you don't finish the essay, you will lose marks so make sure you can write the correct length of essay in the time you have available.

Essentially, these tips all come down to preparation, practice and perseverance.

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