The test at a glance
There are two parts on the writing test. The first question asks you to write an essay of 140-190 words. You must answer this question and you should write it in a semi-formal style.
For the second part you're given a choice of three questions and you must answer one of these. The three questions you're given could be any of an article, an email, a letter, a report or a review. You must also write between 140-190 words like before and write your answer in the appropriate style, depending on who the reader is.
You get 80 minutes to complete both questions and the whole paper is worth 40 marks.
How this article can help you write better
There are many useful coursebooks and websites out there but most of them just outline the instructions of what you have to do. Of course, knowing what you have to do is important, and if you know how your writing is marked you can structure your writing to maximise your score.
However, what students really need to be familiar with and grasp is how to write in the appropriate style. This isn't really something that can be taught, rather it's learned from looking at examples and practising yourself, which is what you would do in your first language as well.
This article will show you how your work is assessed by the examiners, explain how to answer each question and also how to write in a style that's needed for each particular question. You'll also learn new phrases and language which you can use in your writing.
You get better at writing by taking 'chunks' of language, phrases and ideas from examples and using them for yourself in your own work.
How to use this article
Read through it all carefully and familiarise yourself with the standard you need to aim for. Then taking bits from each of the good examples, go away and write your own answers to the questions under timed conditions and in the ways explained here in the article.
Then read your work through, create an account and write your answer in the comments below and compare it to other examples and ask yourself what's good or not so good and then try again until you get it right. Keep coming back to this page and scroll to the useful language section for each kind of question and try to use the language in your writing.
I'll try to give some feedback to all of you in the comments, depending on demand levels.
What you're assessed on
The mark you will get depends on how well your text scores across four different sets of criterion:
Content - Did you write about everything that you were asked to do?
Communicative achievement - Did you write in a style that was appropriate for who you're writing to? This also depends on if you need to be formal, informal or somewhere in between
Organisation - Are your paragraphs and sentences correctly linked together? Is your text logical and ordered?
Language - did you use a wide variety of vocabulary (adjectives, adverbs and phrasal verbs etc) and grammatical structures correctly?
The things above are outlined in brief but the same set of criterion to assess your work is used for both parts one and two. If you want to get a high mark, there are a whole range of things you need to make sure that you include in your writing. If you go here you will see the mark scheme the people at Cambridge English use to assess your written text.
To ensure that you score as many marks as possible in writing part one for the content section, make sure that you CLEARLY answer the essay question in your conclusion and relate it back to the points you discussed earlier on in your essay. Too many students just write a very brief sentence that doesn't really answer the question nor relate to the points that they made.
Part one - the essay question
Part one example question
What to do first - planning!
Love it or hate it, if you make an outline, or plan of what you're going to write then it makes everything so much easier!
What should you put in your plan? Taking the above example question, write some notes about what you're going to say for each point and try to link it back to the essay question. For example, I might write:
Title - the fashion industry works for the wealthy few but not for the poor majority
Introduction - people like to be able to wear clothes that look good and make them feel good but if you're poor, is the fashion industry going to make you feel happy? (it's a good idea to try and include a rhetorical question in the introduction)
1. whether people's appearance is important - images of beautiful people in nice clothes can make people feel unhappy or insecure about themselves. On the other hand, people on modest incomes can afford nice clothes from time to time and feel good so it doesn't always necessarily have a bad effect on everybody's lives (see what I did there? I linked my points back to the essay question)
2. the price of clothes - kids want to fit in with their friends as well and if they don't have nice clothes like them then they may feel bad about themselves too, however shops like Primark have made trendy clothes more affordable for poorer people.
3. job creation - companies can build factories abroad and create jobs in a poorer country, however, people are exploited. Does this really improve the well being of people in poorer countries?
Conclusion if you're a wealthy person you can buy expensive and fashionable clothes (if that's your choice) but if you don't have much money then the fashion industry generally works against you more.
You don't have to write as much as this for your plan, but just make sure that you get all the points in there that you want to include in your essay and so that you can refer to it when you start writing.
It's a good idea to spend 40 minutes on part one and 40 minutes on part two because the word count is the same and they both carry the same number of marks. Make sure you spend about 10 minutes on planning and follow these guidelines:
- Planning - 10 minutes
- Writing - 25 minutes
- Checking - 5 minutes
Spending 10 minutes planning might seem like a long time, but the better you plan what you're going to write beforehand, the better your work is going to be.
Part one - examples of good and bad writing
Let's firstly look at a typical part one example question:
And an example of a bad answer:
The above example does not adequately address all of the criterion - content, communicative achievement, organisation and language, mainly because:
1. The student does not include their own idea, so they are limited to scoring more than one or two marks out of five for content.
2. There is little variety in the student's use of vocabulary and their sentences contain errors - e.g. 'is not good to think in everything you see on Google..'. A better way of saying this would be 'a lot of the information online is not from a reliable source and so people should be cautious when looking for important information..'.
3. Text is poorly organised, with no title and with very few linking expressions. You should answer the essay question in your conclusion and link it back to your essay title if you wrote your own. Also include some concluding phrases, such as, 'In my opinion', 'To conclude', 'In conclusion' etc. Also, when mentioning two contrasting ideas you should use other linking expressions, such as 'however' or 'on the other hand'.
4. The student makes several grammatical and vocabulary related errors, which suggests this student hasn't checked their work over for mistakes.
5. Their answer generally isn't very well communicated in the appropriate style, e.g. 'we don't know who write it??' which is not only grammatically incorrect but it's a little too informal for an essay style answer. Overall this essay would probably score less than half of all the available marks.
Here's a good answer
What makes the above answer a better one?
1. There are five well written paragraphs with clearly defined purposes - an introduction, the first idea, the second, the student's own idea and finally the conclusion.
2. The conclusion is both relevant and it answers the essay question. The answer also includes everything that's required and discusses the implications of each point in a separate paragraph, so this student would score highly for the content criterion.
3. This student makes effective use of linking expressions and conjunctions to organise and join ideas together. The essay is coherent and includes rhetorical questions to engage the reader.
4. The style is also somewhat formal and not too informal (written for a teacher). This student would score well for the organisation and communicative achievement criterion.
5. The writer uses a good range of everyday vocabulary appropriately (aspect, such people, spend time, unable to make) and a range of simple and complex grammatical forms are used with a generally high level of accuracy. So the mark for the language criterion would be graded highly.
6. While there are one or two sentences which could be written a bit better (for example, if people spend all their time talking to others on their computers, then they
become unable to make relationships might find it difficult to form real relationships), the essay scores highly on all four sets of criterion.
The above example of a good essay should give you an idea of what you need to aim for when you have to do the writing test. The best way to improve your writing ability is to look at more examples and look at how different aspects of language are used in context. Feel free to try out this question yourself and put it into the comments below.
Useful language for writing an essay
Firstly, first of all, to begin with, secondly, thirdly, finally
Adding emphasis to points
Moreover, what's more is that, on top of that, furthermore, in fact, as a matter of fact, to make matters worse
whereas, while, on the other hand, on (the) one hand, although, though, even though, however, but, in spite of (the fact that), despite (the fact that), in fact, the fact of the matter is, otherwise
such as, for example, an example of this would/might be...
Explaining reasons, causes and results
as a result, so, therefore, because, because of this
Part two - answer one question from a choice of three
You could be given any of:
- An Article
- An email
- An essay
- A letter
Whichever question you choose is entirely up to you, generally speaking; most students have some experience writing an email or a letter, either in English or their own language, but perhaps less experience writing an article or a review in English or their own language.
The chances are, however, that the review or article will ask you to write about something that you already have knowledge or experience of - for example a course you attended. And can you make it up or 'extend the truth' a little? Of course! The examiners just want to see a well written piece and if you can do it well and impress them then you should score well for this part.
The remainder of this article will tell you how to write for each of the above styles of question.
A review - example question
...and a bad example of a review
The main point to take from the above bad example of a review is that you can quite clearly see that it wouldn't be worthy of publishing in a magazine. There's no title, the text is lacking detail and there's limited variety in the writer's choice of adjectives.
How can you write it better? Plan first
Just like with the essay question in part one, you should plan what you're going to include in your review as well. Here's an outline of what I would want to include in my review:
Style: somewhat informal: it's for an English language website where other students of English are probably going to read it.
Course: my summer English course in London (easy choice, right?)
Title: I had the best summer of my life on an English course in London (something to get the attention of the reader and remember it says the best reviews will be published in next month's magazine)
What were the classes like? - lots of different class types - 'listening lab' with music, fun role-play speaking activities and the chance to mix with people from all around the world. We came up with a performance at the end of the course.
Most interesting thing I learned: that no matter which country somebody is from, it's always easy to find somebody you have something in common with - people are just the same everywhere you go!
Would I recommend the course to other people? Yes, because you get the opportunity to immerse yourself in English, meet people from all around the world and learn a lot.
Adjectives and phrases: amazing, thrilling, education,al, exciting, multi-cultural
Here's a better example based on the above plan:
It's easy to see that the second example is much better and more appropriate for a magazine. So take some of the language and phrases from it and try to work them into your own writing.
Remember that the review question could be about a book or a film too, so here's a list of useful language you can include in your reviews
Useful language for writing a review
Adjectives- brilliant, fantastic, exciting, amazing, vivid, wild, thrilling, gripping, beautiful, romantic, tragic, amusing, dangerous, memorable, surreal, mysterious, magical
Phrases - this book/film is a must-read/see, I couldn't put the book down, the story is set in..., it's based on a true story, the film/book is about..., the main character...
Making a recommendation- In my opinion, I would recommend this book/film/course because, although I enjoyed it, I would not recommend it for...but it's great for..., it was one of the best books/films I have ever read/watched
Writing a report
If you choose to write a report, you will have to write in quite a different style to the review. You won't need to include lots of adjectives and dramatic language. You're reporting on facts and then at the end you will need to make a recommendation.
Normally for this question, you'll be writing for your teacher or a group of people with a common interest and so the register you use should be more on the formal side.
Report question example
For the above question, I would use bullet points and structure the report with the following sub-headings and information:
Title: Report on how technology is used in education in Spain
The aim of this report is to summarise how technology is used to teach different subjects in Spain and to suggest which lessons teachers should observe to see technology being used in the classroom.
How technology is used for different subjects
For most of our subjects at school we use the following technology in the classroom:
- Smartboard: we use it in English class to bring our lessons to life with fun and educational games like Kahoot and Lyrics Training. It also works well in Maths class.
- Tablets: all of our homework and courseware for each subject is uploaded onto the college's online platform. This makes it easy for us to organise our work and review things we did in class.
- Smartphones: we sometimes use our phones in English class to play Kahoot. The teacher can make a quiz on grammar or vocabulary and then we can connect to compete against each other.
Most classrooms have smartboards in them and the teachers use them to make the lessons more interactive and dynamic but if you visit our English class you'll be able to see how we use our smartphones and tablets to play against each other whilst learning at the same time.
Writing an informal email or letter
You'll often be given the choice of writing a reply to an email or letter from a friend. Since you're writing to a friend and you know this person, you should use an informal style and one which is quite different to a letter or email you would write for say, a job application.
Email example question
For this question, don't be afraid to make things up! If your town doesn't have any history then there's nothing wrong with this. You could base it on a place you know well and just write about that.
Many learners lose marks on this question because they write with too many grammar/spelling/punctuation mistakes and they don't write enough detail. Yes, you use an informal style of register, however, this doesn't mean you should use bad spelling and grammar. More importantly, it's about the correct use of informal phrases/language and how you link parts together in the appropriate style.
A bad example of an email
The above example isn't a good one for a number of reasons:
1. Bad spelling and grammar - e.g.'wanna' and 'u' and 'theres'
2. Not enough detail for what there is to do in the town, nor does it relate to the historical aspects
3. There should be four separate paragraphs and each one should include enough information to reply to the email
4. The email doesn't end in the appropriate style - 'kind regards', which isn't really appropriate and a bit too formal
5. It's unlikely this student has spent some time checking their work
Do some planning
Like with the other questions you should write down a brief plan of what you're going to write about and use the question to help you. You might write something like this in your plan:
First paragraph: Hey David, thanks for your email - it's good to hear from you! I'm sorry I haven't written for a while but I've been really busy preparing for my exams. It's great that your friends are coming to visit my town, they'll have a great time and I'd love to help them out.
Second paragraph: Write about what they can do: museum about the town's history with part of an old coal mine; an old church that's 150 years old; a park with an old castle.
Third paragraph: Write about the best way to travel around: easiest to get around by bike - they can borrow some of mine. Ask if they're coming with a car. Also plenty of bus routes to reach places further away.
Final paragraph: Say that you're really looking forward to meeting them and showing them around. Ask when they'll be coming and if David is too (it would be great to catch up).
Now that you've outlined a nice structure you can go ahead and write it. You might write something like this:
Useful language for writing an informal email or letter
Beginning the email or letter
It's great to hear from you...
It's good to hear from you...
Thanks for your email/letter, it's good to hear from you...
Sorry I haven't be in touch for a while...
How are things with you?
How was your holiday?
Explaining what there is to do
There's a wide variety of tourist attractions, like...
Also there's a....
In fact there's quite a lot you can do here/there...
You might like to...
Ending the letter or email
I look forward to hearing back from you...
Anyway I better get off...
Please write back soon...
I can't wait to see you....
It'll be great to catch up when you come...
All my love...
Give my love/regards to... your family/whoever
Hope to hear from you soon...
Writing an article
Articles can sometimes be challenging for students because it requires you to be a little more creative and you need to think carefully about what might be a good idea to write about.
Nevertheless, if you can make your article interesting to read (with the appropriate language and a good idea) and express your thoughts and opinions well, then you might surprise yourself!
Normally you will be asked to write for a website, a magazine or a newsletter. You'll therefore need to give your piece a title which makes the reader want to keep reading; use paragraphs; include everything that you're asked to and just like with the other questions, you should plan before starting.
Article example question
For the above question, a lot of people can probably relate to listening to music when they want to relax, or when they're feeling in a certain way, e.g. sad or angry, which is why if you were given this question in the exam it might be a good one to choose.
To get your brain working, first let's do a quick brainstorm of vocabulary related to this topic.
- Emotions ---> mood, nostalgia
- Feelings ---> happy, sad, angry, upset, stressed
- Relaxation ---> switch off, wind down, disconnect
That should be a good starting point and we've got some phrasal verbs in there which we could use.
Use the sub-questions to help you structure what you'll write about:
When do you listen to music?
I'm going to write about listening to music when I experience different things in life and feel a certain way.
- Sad - when my friend was in hospital I felt sad and maybe a bit angry so I listened to sad angry Nirvana and Eminem
- Stressed - I might listen to music that reminds me of when I go out dancing and feel good - such as dance/hip-hop/pop
- Happy when I'm with my friends - I might play music of my personal tastes such as some of the top hits from over the last 30 years
I think that's enough to get me started
Music and me
Have you ever felt your mood change when you listen to certain types of music?
I often listen to music when I feel different emotions, such as when I feel happy or sad. I find that my mood can change depending on the kind of music i'm listening to and it feels good.
When my friend became very sick and was staying in hospital, I felt really sad and angry because I couldn't do much about it. I remember listening to Nirvana and Eminem a lot which intensified my emotions but at the same I think it provided an outlet for them. I would feel calmer after spending half an hour or so listening to my music.
Also, when I'm feeling stressed and I want to switch off from everything, I play music that puts me in the party mood that I feel when I'm with my friends. I find that my mood starts to change when I hear my favourite songs from the last twenty years or so.
It seems to me that I'm not the only person who does this either, and so if you're feeling upset for whatever reason, give it a try and you might find that your mood lifts and you're in a calmer state of mind.
Word count: 212
Useful phrases for writing an article
Getting the attention of the reader
Have you ever felt your mood change when you listen to music?
What do you feel when you listen to music?
Do you ever listen to music when you feel sad?
Giving your opinion
It seems to me that...
I think that...
It's cleat to me that....
Explaining your thoughts and experiences
I remember when I...
There was a time when...
It makes me feel...
It intensified my emotions when...
My mood lifts...
How to write a semi-formal email or letter
In the last part of this writing guide, I'm going to show you how to write an excellent semi-formal letter or email.
If you were to see a question in the exam where it's asking you to write an email or letter, you should ask yourself about the style you need to write it in. Since the above question requires you to write a letter outlining why you should be given a place on the course, and it's to the director, then your writing needs to be more on the formal side.
Firstly plan the content for each paragraph... OK you know the drill by now 😉
A model answer to the above question could be something like this:
Dear Cynthia Roddick,
I'm writing to you to apply for the free placement on one of your summer acting courses.
It's been my dream to act in a West End theatre play ever since I visited London and saw The Lion King. I remember looking at the performers and thinking that one day, it could be me up there. If I was to attend your course I would get so much out of it and it would allow me to develop my craft as an actor.
Throughout secondary school I always participated in my school drama department's yearly shows. I also studied theatre at school from the ages of 14-16. On top of that, I once auditioned for a part in an advert for television and I was selected to play the part of a teenage boy trying a new breakfast cereal.
I'm currently working two evenings per week in my local supermarket so I'm available to attend the course any day of the week up until 17:00.
Thank you for taking the time to read my application and I look forward to hearing from you,
Useful language for writing a letter in a semi-formal style
Starting the letter
I'm writing to you to apply for....
I'm writing in response to your advertised job position as a...
Explaining your reasons
One of the main reasons I want to apply for this job is because....
I think I would learn a lot and be able to develop my career / skills in...
Explaining your skills and experience
I have acquired a lot of experience in...
I have strong skills in....
My previous work experience included....</em
Ending the letter
Thank you for taking the time to read my application...
Thank you for considering my application...
I look forward to hearing from you soon...
I would be grateful if you could send me further details about the job / course.
Yours sincerely (when you know the name of the person you're writing to.
Yours faithfully (when you don't know the name of the person.
Hopefully now you can go into the exam feeling confident enough to answer any writing question the paper asks you.
If after reading this article there's anything else you'd like to see here, or you have a question to ask, then just put it in the comments down below.
Thanks for reading and happy writing!