Exam Tips: How to Write an Essay For an English Language Test
When you write an essay for a language exam such as Cambridge First Certificate or Proficiency, Michigan Competency or Proficiency, EdExcel/Pearson, IELTS, TOEFL, or whatever, the same principles apply. More than anything else, two things must be kept in mind: you must organize your essay well, and you must completely answer the question.
Answer the Question
Answering the question would seem to be a no-brainer, but some questions are worded more simply than others, and some questions ask you to perform not one but several tasks. You need to take the time to study the question carefully and be sure to answer it in depth, if you want to get not just a low pass (or even a fail) but a high grade.
First of all, you've got to stay on topic. Write about what you are asked to write about. Break the question down. What is it asking you to do? Is it asking you to analyze a problem and suggest solutions? Is it asking you to compare and contrast different options? Is it asking you to give your opinion on something? Most essays fall into these categories, and if they do they are easy to organize.
How to Organize Your Essay
Let me clarify here that I am speaking of essays in 150 to 350 or 400 word range, the length required for most Competency and Proficiency exams. Longer essays, of course, would be more complex – but still the same basic principles would apply.
Almost all essays of this length can be broken down into four paragraphs: that is, an introduction, a conclusion, and two paragraphs in the main part. Sometimes the main part may call for an extra paragraph or two, but not usually.
For example, a problem/solution essay would have a paragraph plan like this:
1. Introduction (You introduce the topic you are writing about.)
2. Describe the problem.
3. Suggest solutions.
4. Conclusion (You sum up what you have said.)
A for and against essay, or an essay detailing the advantages and disadvantages of something, would be organized like this:
An opinion essay would be organized similarly.
2. A paragraph justifying the opinion you agree with.
3. A paragraph with the opposing viewpoint – for example, "Some people say that...".
4. Conclusion (In which you sum up and repeat your opinion.)
Normally in an opinion essay you must mention the opposing point of view, if only to refute it. This gives your essay depth and will earn you higher marks.
One other facet of organization that is vital is paragraph organization. In the main part especially, the first sentence of each paragraph should be your topic sentence. That is, it should tell the reader what the rest of the paragraph will be about. A reader should be able to skim through the first sentences of each paragraph and be able to get a general idea of how your essay is organized and what it says.
If you follow basic rules of organization and fully answer the question, most examiners will allow a surprising number of minor spelling and grammar errors. When I say minor errors, I mean those that don't impede understanding of what you are trying to say. The whole point is communication. You must convince the examiner that you can communicate your ideas clearly and organize them logically.
There's no substitute for knowing grammar through and through and being a walking dictionary, but if exam time comes and you have not yet attained that state, follow these simple guidelines and you'll be surprised at how well you can do.