Writing an exam essay is different from writing an academic essay or even one for homework – you are under time pressure and you have only one chance to get it right In practice, what this means is that very often exam essays do not get reviewed. This, I believe is a mistake and in this lesson I suggest a practical way to review your essays in exams. It is based on 4 ideas:
- any time spent checking should be focussed -don’t look for “mistakes”, look for particular mistakes
- don’t leave it to the end when it may be too late to help you
- reviewing what you have written can help you write better
- checking in stages allows you to keep a clear head
I explain these ideas briefly, then suggest a model review plan that you can adapt to your needs. The key idea is that reviewing your essay is part of the process of writing it, not something best left to the end. In the exam,the last thing you do is write your conclusion – you will already have reviewed essay before then.
Idea one – focus on particular problems
This idea is simple. Everyone has mistakes that they make: so to use your time efficiently,look for problems/mistakes that you know you make. To do this,you need to review your writing before you get to the exam and have a mental checklist in your head of the type of mistakes you make and how to solve them.
A second idea here is only to check for one type of problem at a time: first spelling, then articles etc. This will certainly make you check more efficiently,but this may be too time-consuming under exam circumstances.
Idea two – check as you write and not just at the end
A further suggestion is that you go back and check each part of the essay after you have written it. Too time-consuming? Perhaps. Though with a little practice, it can work for you. Consider these thoughts:
- time is of the essence in the exam – you want to use your 40 minutes efficiently
- if you spend time reviewing your writing and find no or only few mistakes, that is inefficient
- it is much easier to check a paragraph than a whole essay – there is less to read! You are much more likely to find grammar/vocabulary problems you might otherwise miss this way
Idea three – make reviewing part of the process of writing essays – checking for Task Response and Coherence too
I highlight this idea in red as it is in many ways what this series of lessons is about. Your IELTS essay is made up of different parts that require different writing skills. Before you write each part of the essay, you should focus on what you aim to in it. Here the idea is that after you write each part of the essay, you go back and re-read it and then
- you may find problems with coherence/task response that you can fix there and then, but you can’t fix at the end – too late!
- you will get words and ideas for the next part of the essay – making your essay “flow” better and become both more coherent and cohesive
Idea 4 – keeping your head clear and relieving stress
This idea is a little different. 40 minutes is quite a long time to concentrate full on. Different people work differently, but one suggestion is to take mini-breaks in the test when you clear your head. For example, if you spend 15 seconds sitting up straight, stretching or rolling your neck, then you may concentrate better when you start writing again. Sometimes 9+9+9+9 is more than 40!
If can’t force yourself to take mini-breaks, then why not spend that time checking what you have written? It is still a break from writing, but this way you are spending the time doing something useful.
A suggested review plan
There is nothing necessary about this plan. Every learner is different and it needs to be adapted to your needs. Experiment with it to see how it may work for you and how much time in practice you spend on it. I have deliberately included “too much” and repeated some ideas in different stages to give you a choice as to what to do and when to do it.
In each phase you will check for grammar/vocab issues of course.
Step 1. Read and understand the question
Generally, you want to check that you understand the question before you write the intro.
- Can I rephrase the question in my own words?
- How many parts of the question are there?
- What is the task?
Step 2. Introduction
Generally, you want to check that your intro matches the question and leads into the essay you want to write.
- Have I identified all parts of the question?
- Have I identified the task?
Is my position clear?
- Have I repeated too much vocab from the question?
Step 3. Content paras
Generally, you want to make sure that each para is clearly about one main idea, those ideas link back to the intro and fit your essay structure. Reviewing these paras often means looking back at your intro which is a map to your essay. Something I often do with my own essays is to make sure that my language is consistent throughout the essay. You may want to change the words in your intro a little at this stage to match the language of your main paras.
- Is the main idea obvious from the first sentence? (This is a common problem and if you have a problem, a quick fix is not to rewrite the whole para but add one sentence at the end to summarise the main idea)
- Does the first sentence refer back to the introduction?
- If the content paras make different points is this clear from the introduction?
- If they make the same point in different ways, is this clear in the intro?
- Do I repeat one word too much?
Step 4. The conclusion
Generally, this is the step you are most likely to miss out. You may well be out of time by this stage. My best suggestion is that you review the whole essay before you write the conclusion.
- Do I refer to ideas in both/all 3 content paras in my conclusion?
- Do I use some of the same language in my conclusion as in the content paras to help cohesion and coherence?
- Do I explicitly answer the question as it is asked?
- Does my conclusion mirror what I say in the intro?
Footnote – sometimes the quick way to edit is simply to delete
You don’t have much time to spare in an exam. A practical suggestion for when you are stuck on how to edit something is to either rub it out or delete it neatly. You need to make sure that your essay is still complete and what is left makes sense.