10 practical tips for writing better exam essays

The key words in the title are practical and exam. Last week I ran a “competition” to write an essay on aid and poverty. The essays I received were spectacularly good and I do suggest you check them out in the comments section. My one worry though was were they really practical essays in an exam. My essay, which you will find below, is I think much simpler than almost all the essays I received – and perhaps a more practical model for exams.

I should add that these are mostly band score 8.0 writing tips and are written especially for candidates who are aiming high. The moral is:

the road to band score 8.0 often means doing the simple things well

1. Read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read

What does this mean? It means that you should go back and read the paragraph you have just written before you start the next one. You may think that this is a waste of time. If so, you’d be wrong.

  1. It’s important to link your paragraphs together – what more practical way to do that than just read what you have written?
  2. It helps you with words for the next paragraph – it is good to repeat some words as this improves your coherence. Look at my sample essay to see how I repeat/reflect language. In one paragraph I talk about the short term, this makes it easy to move onto the long term in the next paragraph.
  3. You may also want to check out my series of lessons on the process of writing IELTS essays – where you will find a much more detailed explanation of this,

2. Don’t be smart, be clear – select your best idea

One of my very first posts/articles on this site was headed “IELTS is not a test of intelligence”. While the post itself now looks a little old, the advice is still good. You are being tested on the quality of your English, not on the quality of your ideas.

This advice is particularly important for candidates who come from an academic background where they are used to being graded on quality and quantity of ideas. IELTS is different: it is quite possible to write a band 9.0 essay and not include some key ideas, let alone all the ideas.

The practical advice here is to select your best idea and write about that. That means not writing everything you know – leave some ideas out. Don’t worry if it is not your best explanation, worry about whether it is your clearest explanation.

3. Write about what you know – relax about ideas

This is a similar idea. IELTS is an international exam (that’s the “I” in IELTS) and the questions are written to be answered by anyone around the world. Some people stress about finding ideas. They shouldn’t. The ideas you need are generally simple (eg”I disagree”, “This is not a good idea”).

The practical solution is to think about what YOU know and what YOUR experience is. If you look at the question, this is what it tells you to do. If you come from Bonn, write about Bonn; if you come from Ulan Bator, write about Ulan Bator!

4. Examples are easier to write than explanations

In an exam you are under pressure. You want to make things as easy for yourself as possible. One practical idea to achieve this is to focus as much on examples as explanations when you write. Why?

It’s simply harder if you only think “because”. Some of the ideas may be very complex and, under pressure, it can be difficult to explain these with reasons. What may happen is that your sentences become too long and the ideas confused.

The practical bit is to concentrate as much on examples. This is a good idea as examples tend to be easier to write as you are simply describing situations. You should also note that the instructions tell you to use examples! All you need to do is make sure that your examples are relevant to the main idea.

5. Don’t write too much – the examiner is paid by the minute

There is no upper word limit I know of, but it really isn’t a good idea to write 350 words or more. Here’s why:

  1. Examiners will only spend so much time looking at any essay. Write too much and they will read what you wrote “less carefully”. It is easier to read/grade a 300 word essay than a 400 word essay!
  2. The more you write, the more likely you are to make language mistakes.
  3. The more you write, the more likely you are to go off topic. The examiner won’t read/grade anything that doesn’t directly relate to the question.
  4.  If you write less, you give yourself more time to choose the best words – and that’s what you are being graded on.
  5. If you write less, you give yourself more time to go back and check what you have written.

6. Writer – know yourself

One of the most famous philosophical thoughts is “know yourself”. How does this apply to exam writing? Did Plato really have IELTS in mind when he wrote his dialogues? Well, no, but…

The idea is that you should check for your mistakes when you write. The practical part here is that you shouldn’t check for mistakes generally – that’s too hard and probably a waste of time in the exam. What isn’t a waste of time though is to look for mistakes you know you can correct – the ones you normally make!

The really practical thing is to have your own checklist in your head before you start writing.

7. See the whole essay in your head before you start writing

It’s very important that your essay is a whole – that all the bits fit together. If you don’t do that, you may lose significant marks for both coherence and task response.

This means planning of course. Planning bothers some people and bores others. There are different ways to do this, but at the very least have a map of your essay in your head.

8. Focus on the backbone of your essay

This is a related point. All the essay matters of course, but perhaps some bits matter more than others. I’d suggest the practical thing to do is concentrate on the backbone of your essay, the bits that help you write better and the examiner to understand better. The backbone is:

  1.  The introduction: this should identify the question and outline your position. Don’t rush it as it is the first thing the examiner will read. First impressions count.
  2. The first/topic sentences of each paragraph: these should be clear and to the point. They should identify exactly what that paragraph is about and show how it relates to the rest of the essay. The practical tip is to keep the detail/clever ideas for the body of the paragraph. Start off general and then build towards the specific.
  3. The conclusion: this is the easiest part of the essay normally. Most often, all you need to do is go back to the introduction and rephrase it

Get these bits right and the rest of the essay tends to take care of itself.

9. Don’t just practice whole essays

The best way to learn to write essays is to write essays? True or false? My answer is a bit of both.

Yes, you do need to practise writing complete essays, but it may be a mistake to do only that. The different part of essays require slightly different skills. To write an introduction, you need to be able to paraphrase the question. To write a body paragraph, you need to be able to explain ideas. To write a conclusion, you need to be able summarise.

The practical suggestion is to practise writing introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions separately. Focus on skills.

 10. Focus on the question and refocus on the question

I have left this one to last as it is for me the most important idea. Essays go wrong for different reasons. Some of these you may not be able to avoid: the quality of your English may not be good enough yet. The one mistake you can always avoid is that you didn’t answer the question. Too many essays go wrong because candidates didn’t read and think about the question properly.

The practical suggestion: before you write each paragraph, refer back to the question to remind yourself about what you are meant to write about.

It is very easy to get carried away in exams. You may start off on topic, then you have a “good idea” as you write. So you write about that. Sadly, that “good idea” may not fully relate to the question. Big problem.

My sample essay on poverty and aid

This essay which you can download below is intended to be an example of the ideas in this post.

  • It is fairly simple in structure.
  • It focuses clearly on the question
  • I left many of my best ideas out. I concentrated on what I could explain clearly.
  • It comes in at only just over 300 words.

Download the essay

Poverty and aid essay (10232)

 More writing advice

This is where I catalogue all my writing materials. If you are looking for more specific advice, this is the place to start.

My other essay writing tips

The ideas here are similar and you will find more general guidance on dos and don’ts in IELTS essays.

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20 Responses to 10 practical tips for writing better exam essays

  1. Natalia March 15, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    Thank you, Dominic. Very useful. And a very nice essay!

  2. Goyuten March 15, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    Thankyou

  3. SangNguyen March 16, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Thanks for all your tips. I think it is really useful for me.

  4. Amethyst Dequito April 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    thank you!! This is a big help for me ;)

  5. Ajay Kumar May 17, 2013 at 4:21 am #

    Thanks for good information. Really it is very help full

  6. reigan jose k August 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    now i got why i dropped out the last two exams.

  7. subash khanal August 6, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    hope these tips will help a lot in my test to achieve a good score…thanks for tips..

  8. Lilo August 24, 2013 at 12:57 am #

    Thank you so much:D

  9. coka cola October 6, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    thanks helped a lot!!!!

  10. Buy Essays Online November 20, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    I must say that you have worked really well on this piece of writing. It brings some new thoughts in reader’s mind and that will really reflect in the way he usually thinks over a matter. The writing ideas you suggested is looking working and effective in both cases, whether for surpassing the existing skills or to have some new skills.

    Keep writing :)

  11. sandeep November 21, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Good job,thank u

  12. The Sun November 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    Thanks for helping self learners all over the world. God bless you abundantly.

  13. steph December 3, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    Thank you! You are my angel.

  14. kilari vikram December 24, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    i hope that ,it is useful my ilets exam,thanks for giving good message

  15. Steffy Augustine January 6, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    Thank you for ur kind information….. These informations will be surely useful for ma future life….

  16. Gully January 16, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    thank you, good advice is beyond price

  17. Gully January 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    thank you

  18. nugas January 22, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    thanx

  19. Rohit February 10, 2014 at 1:16 am #

    A big thank you Dominic.. I was able to clear IELTS(7) by following your website.

  20. Scariufi March 16, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    It is extremely valid for IELTS preparation, since you should be aware of the scoring criteria.

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