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CAE Exam: Writing Letters

Updated on July 4, 2013

If you are about to take the Cambridge Advanced English exam, particularly the writing and the speaking sections needs to be studied even if your English level is high. The speaking section is less artificial than what you will encounter in a TOEFL test, as you are in an interview situation with live interviewers. However, in my experience the problem with the speaking section, being less standardized, is that you need to know the rules beforehand and cannot rely on the interlocutor to provide instructions for each subset. Regarding the writing section you should get accustomed to the formats in the test.

I will hear give an overview of the main elements of one of the most common tasks in the writing section – writing letters. I will highly recommend that check out the books in the reference section to the right, as they not only provide sample tests, but also provide clear explanation of marking and grading, illustrated by authentic sample answers!

There are five elements your written response will be rated after: Content; Organization and cohesion; Range; Register/Tone; Target reader. What I will focus on here is Organization and Register. First, just briefly about the others elements.

Content: Make sure you answer every part of the question and try to develop the points to its fullest. Particularly not answering every part of the question will be severely punished. Cohesion refers to a text in which different parts, by using grammar and lexis, are clearly linked. Range of a text is the range of vocabulary and sentence structures. Lastly, effect on target reader refers to what effect it would have on the reader. E.g. in a letter of complaint, use of informal language and threat of legal actions will have negative effect, whereas formal, respectful, but firm language with reasonable demands will have a positive effect.

Organization and Register of letters

Register seem to be an important element in all Cambridge tests and is one of the central elements tested in all of the writing tasks in CAE. Unlike a TOEFL test where you basically are to write two essays, in the CAE test you will have to use different language based on format and target audience. The question will either contain formal text e.g. an article or add with a general target audience, and based on the information your task might be to send a letter to a close friend using the formal information. More common, however, is that you have an informal text and from that is to write a formal text or letter. One previous task has been to write a letter of complaint, based on handwritten notes about what was disappointing with a restaurant visit.

Formal Letters

Formal letters are the most common writing task. Avoid using contractions e.g. “I´m” instead write the full words “I am”. Also avoid colloquial language.

Firstly, you begin your letter with addressing the receiver.

If the receiver is unknown:
- Dear Sir/Madam
If the receiver is known:
- Dear Miss Adams

Secondly, first sentence in the letter is about WHY you are writing, examples:
- I was extremely distressed to hear about your plans to ... (Object to someone´s plans)
- I am writing to complain about / I am writing to tell you how disappointed... (Letter of Complaint)
- I am writing to you on behalf of ... (Letter of Recommendation)
- I am writing about the article published in / I have just read your article on... (Letter to de editor)

Thirdly, during the main part of the letter you will try to connect your arguments together. Using paragraphs when appropriate, and logically connecting all of the elements in your letter using connecting words and/or sequencing:
At first / To start with/In the beginning, in addition / furthermore / moreover, firstly / secondly / lastly etc.

Then, ending phrase prior to signature (just a few suggestions):
- I look forward hearing from you / I trust you will give my proposal your full consideration

Finally, signature is in general one of the two:
- Yours sincerely, (If you know the name of the person you sent the letter to)
- Yours faithfully, (If you started the letter with Dear Sir/Madam)

Informal Letters

Informal letters are less common. When writing informal letters be aware that there are differences whether we are talking about a letter to your closest friend, or whether the letter is to your friend´s mom. Common is, however, that you will try to use language very similar to spoken language.

Firstly, you have a friendly form of addressing the letter:
- Dear Mark, / Hi Katie,

Secondly, first sentence refers to last correspondence or is a general statement and not a summary of what you are going to write about. Some eamples:
- Thanks for your letter, it was great to hear from you...
- Just thought I´d drop you a line...

Thirdly, in a “real” informal letter you might waste time talking about the weather. In the CAE exam you have, however, limited space and time so just try to get to the point, connecting your arguments with informal language. Examples could be:
- You asked me about...
- As for ...
- What´s more ...
- Mind you, ...
- Having said that ...

Then, ending phrase prior to signature (just a few suggestions):
- Get back to me quickly / Let me know what you think / Can´t wait to see you again

Finally, a friendly informal signature:
- Best wishes,
- Take care,
- All the best


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    • mbergo profile image

      mbergo 5 years ago from Porto Alegre, Brazil

      Vinod - You do not put postal address in the letters. The writer just starts with "Hi..." or "Dear...".

    • profile image

      Vinod 5 years ago

      Is adress is compulsory in informal letter in exam