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How To Score High On A Written Exam With A Well-Structured Essay (Brainstorming, Plan, Preparation, Paragraph Structure)

Updated on August 8, 2012
Cambodian students taking an exam.
Cambodian students taking an exam. | Source

Thousands of people are studying foreign languages all over the world and a lot of them find it very stressful to take exam that require them to write an essay. This is because they are afraid that they are going to block and won't come up with anything, or that they will run out of time before they finish writing. So here is a list of useful tips and techniques that would help you prepare, feel confident and score higher when you are writing an essay on a foreign language exam.


Before The Exam

  1. Learn the requirements

  2. Teach yourself to come up with ideas

  3. Ration your time

At The Exam

  1. Play it safe! Being interesting or original should not be your priority

  2. Build your essay paying special attention to the structure

  3. Brainstorm ideas and then make a plan

  4. Proofread and double check for mistakes

Before The Exam

1. Learn the requirements

One of the most important things you should do to ensure success on an exam is to know what you are doing. You should do your best the learn the requirement and marking criteria, so you can adjust your writing accordingly. Don't do it in the dark and don't rely on your gut feeling. This information is usually available and you just need to recover it. A lot of students significantly increase their scores by simply understanding the marking criteria. This is valuable information and you should keep it in mind while you are at the actual exam writing your competitive essay.

2. Teach yourself to come up with ideas


A lot of students waste valuable time by sitting at their exams looking at the blank page and not knowing where to start from. Writers block is the last thing you want to face at an exam, so you need to learn a few simple tricks to overcome it. Coming up with ideas, topics or points is a skill like any other and it can be trained and learned and sometimes just a bit of organized practice will improve your abilities.

Exercise 1: If you haven't done it before, you need to start practice brainstroming. Brainstorming is a mental technique, which basically means that you pick a topic and you start writing words or phrases that are connected to the topic without judging if they are going to be useful or not and without trying to put them in categories. You need to aim at trying to produce the largest number of related words in the shortest amount of time. Doing this will give you a starting point for deriving the main points of your essay.

Exercise 2: Try to look at one idea from a contradicting points of view. Again take a controversial topic or even an opinion and try to come up with as many pros and cons or points that prove or disprove it. Your goal here would be to have an equal number of items in both columns no matter what you agree with or not. When you have gotten a bit better at it, take an opinion that you strongly believe in and write as many points that prove it. Then do your best to write as many point that disprove it as possible aiming at writing even more points that you wrote before. It doesn't matter if you disagree with the points, you simply need to learn to build large lists of them.

Exercise 3: Dividing a statement into substatements. This technique would help you branch the ideas you have already come up with into more ideas, so even if brainstorming doesn't work, you will not get stuck. Everything has more than one aspect and if you are albe to find more, you can write many things about one single thaught or idea. So take random topics, statements or problems and try to devide them into three different aspects. Then take each aspect and try to break it into three new aspects and so on. Try to create the largest threes possible. Since this might sound a bit unclear by itself, let me give you a few examples. Topics are the easiest so we will start with them. You have the topic "cars", which you can devide to "vans", "estates" and "small city cars". You can do the same with a problem like "global warming", which we can devide into "the temperature is rising and the weather is chaning", "the polar ice-caps are melting", and "some species are becoming endangered". For many of those you could easily do more than three. Let's look at a statement, too, taking the vague and generic "The box is black". We can devide it into "Somebody wanted it black", "it shoulding be left in the sun" and "you can't see what you have inside". The bottom line of this exercise is to create as much things to write about as possible without repeating the main thing. You don't always need to stay completely on-topic, you just need to stay clearly connected.

3. Ration your time

Many people might think that this is something that you should do during the exam, but this isn't true. If you've done your work well in finding out the requirements for the writing you would need everything you need to know in order for you to plan your time. You know how long you would have for the writing section, so based on your own abilities and pace, you can decide how much you can devote to brainstorming and planning your essay, how much for writing each section, and how much for proofreading it. Do the math in advance, make a mock run at home and adjust anything you need to. The bottom line is that you need to start your writing section knowing what you are doing and how much time you have for each task. In this way you will not waste any time thinking about time.

At The Exam

1. Play it safe! Being interesting and original should not be your priority

An Exam from 1940.
An Exam from 1940. | Source

Let's make something crystal clear. Your only goal at an exam is to prove that you have knowledge and skills by receiving a high score. Exams are measured in marks and the people that are going to read your essay would be to tired to care about the deep meaning of what you are writing. I'm not saying that your personal opinion is invaluable - it's just something that will only hold you back trying to write an essay that is going to receive a good mark.

A lof of students loose a lot of points from the writing section simple because they went on to prove a point that was to complicated for them to explain without making mistakes and they are so emotional about the topic that their essay lacks any structure. They might be great writers, but they will receive bad marks. Essays at exams are scored in a different way and what matters is not making mistakes, being clear, using vocabulary properly and writing a well-structured essay. Originality might earn you a point or two, but playing safe will most likely earn you ten or twenty.

So let's explain what is playing it safe then. To put it simply, it's to think how what you are writing will be scored. If you think it might contain a mistake and cost you points, don't write it and write something else. For example, if you are writing about your favorite color, which in reality is yellow, but you are not sure how to spell yellow it in the language you are writing it, simply pick a color you know how to spell and write about blue or red instead. You don't need to write true things, you need to write grammatically correct things. If an idea you have is too complicated to explain, or you cannot come up with enough examples to support it, simply pick another idea, even if you disagree with it. The important thing is to use grammar and vocabulary you are certain you are using correctly in a well-structured way. The people that are going to check your work will give you points for using the language, not for convincing them you are right about a topic.

2. Build your essay paying special attention to the structure

Proper Essay Structure

  • Introduction

  • Thesis Statement (Statement One, Statement Two, ....)

  • Body:

    • Paragraph One Supporting Statement One

    • Paragraph Two Supporting Statement Two

    • .......

  • Conclusion

Writing a well-structured piece of text has lot of pros and very few cons not only in the test environment. When you are writing an essay on an exam, you should always follow the structure you see on the right. This is the most widely-accepted and effective way to make what you want to say clear to your reader and in the context of a foreign language exam, it will demonstrate your ability to express yourself clearly and to communicate your ideas. Additionally, it will give you the benefit of knowing exactly what you are writing, what each sentence should say and what is coming next. Many learners see following a structure as a burden, but it is something that will actually give you the advantage of never being stuck and running out of things to say. So let's examine the structure:

Introduction: The first short paragraph you need to write is your introduction. It can be used to say why is the topic relevant, who is it relevant to, explain what the topic is. Of course, you can open with a joke and another type of hook, but thinking of an impressive opening like that can take too much time, so better be efficient and stick with the easier to write options. Of course, if something brilliant pops up in your mind right away and you know you are going to write it without any mistakes, use it. Being original is not a priority, but it is always a welcome bonus when the rest is fulfilled.

Thesis Statement: In this short paragraph that comes right after the introduction, you should mention all the points you are going to make in your essay. Each point should be a different aspect of your topic or the opinion you are defending and will be supported in a separate paragraph in the body of your essay. Make sure that you state your main points (usually three or two) clearly and separate from one another. No need for anything fancy here, just be clear and effective. If you do this well, your essay will be much easier to read, follow and understand and this will help you earn a good mark.

In some essays, especially if they are supposed to be shorter, you don't really need to write the introduction and the thesis statement into separate paragraphs. Very often learners choose to open with a simple sentence and then follow it with the thesis statement as part of the same paragraph since it's the quickest way to be done with both and the body is easier to expand and fill with content. This is OK, just make sure you do it properly and each part serves it's own function. You need to make it apparent to your reader.

The Body:This is the biggest section of your essay and this is the part where you provide support for your thesis statement. The easiest way to write quality paragraphs without having to stop to think is to follow the paragraph structure on the left. This is not hard to do and following it will help you to produce paragraph after paragraph like a well-tuned exam-taking machine. Remember - each paragraph supports a separate point from your thesis statement in the order the points were made in the beginning. If you have two points in the thesis statement, you are going to have two paragraphs. If you have seven points - seven paragraphs. Not more and not fewer. This is a rule you should never break.

The Proper Structure For Each Paragraph From Your Essay's Body

  • Topic Sentence (stating which point from your thesis is this paragraph about)

    • Statement One (giving the first aspect or reason for your point's validity)

    • Example One (giving an example supporting the statement)

    • Explanation One (explaining how the example is relevant to your statement)

    • Statement Two

    • Example Two

    • Explanation Two

    • .....

  • Conclusion Statement (restating the point from your topic sentence and/or explaining its relevance)

Useful tip...

In order to remember the structure STATEMENT-EXAMPLE-EXPLANATION you can try to memorize one of the two possible acronyms: SEE (Statement-Example-Explanation) or the punchier SEX (Statement-Example-Xplanation). You can also come up with a new word like Stexamplanation built from the three words' beginnings.

So you should open each paragraph with a topic sentence in which you actually paraphrase one point from your thesis. This sentence lets the reader know what this paragraph is going to be about. Of course, each point has several aspects and you should mention them one after the other in an organized way. So you start with aspect one, which is going to be your statement one. Then you follow it with an example and then you follow the example with an explanation of why the example is important, relevant and tightly connected to the statement it supports. Then you move on to the next aspect and you talk about it in the same fashion. Make sure you know the structure STATEMENT-EXAMPLE-EXPLANATION like the back of your hand. It is going to be your main paragraph building block and you'll see that if you follow this structure the paragraphs will be all done in no time and you would hardly ever run out of things to say. End your paragraph with a conclusion sentence that will restate the main point made and/or talk about its relevance. Then continue to the next paragraph.

Conclusion: The final paragraph of your essay is going to be your conclusion. In this last paragraph you should discuss the relevance of the points you've made, talk about the future or call the reader to do something about the topic discussed. The easiest way to think about it is to answer the question "So what?". If you really have run out of things to say or have no time left you can always repeat your thesis statement, but try to do it in a broader and more general way and never do it directly.

3. Brainstorm ideas and then make a plan

Many learners and exam takers simply hate making plans about what they are going to write about and would simply like to let the words flow onto the page. This might feel easy, but it will usually cause your essay to be disorganized and to even sound illogical or repetitive at times which will hurt your score. Since you don't want to have to fully revise everything after you've already written it, it is much better to start by organizing your thoughts and then proceeding to writing a well-structured and easy-to-follow essay.

So the first thing you need to do after you have carefully read and understood the topic is to come up with your main points. This means quickly putting to practice the techniques you have learned with the three exercises and within a few minutes you should have the three main points. If you can't think of anything you agree with, choose main points you disagree with. You don't need to write something that you believe in, you need to write something that will get you a score that you will be happy with. Chose aspects that you would be easy to write about. Then proceed to making a detailed plan for each paragraph supporting you main points. The plan should include all the statements and examples that you want to use, mentioned simply with a word or two. After you have planned all the paragraphs from your body you can start writing the essay from the beginning to the end. It is always a good idea to start by writing a draft of the thesis statement and then starting to work on the introduction.

4. Proofread and double check for mistakes


The last thing you need to do with your writing when you are taking an exam is to proofread everything you have written. Many learners feel too tired after writing a long and insightful essay, so they simply skip this step. This results in them losing points because of silly mistakes they overlooked. So in order to maximize your score, simply read everything you have written at least twice looking for grammar and spelling mistakes and for things that are illogical or stated in an unclear way. Every mistake you correct is a point earned. If you see that you have used a word you are not sure how to spell, replace it with a word you are certain you can spell correctly.

Thank you for reading and good luck on your exam!


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