Why would you spend time studying for an English language exam, revise, prepare well before the exam day and then hand marks to the examiner on a plate? It doesn’t make sense, yet I see students time and time again doing this because they don’t plan or check their essays well enough in the exam itself.
Let me dispel some myths:
- I don’t need to plan my essays, they flow – er.. I think you do, no, they don’t and with time and exam pressures you’ll waffle and digress.
- I don’t have time to plan, it’s wasting my writing time – yes you do and no it doesn’t, it helps you use that time to write a good essay.
- I’ll check if I have time at the end – why not check as you go along?
- I can’t check, I have to get my ideas across – but isn’t this a language exam? the ideas are important up to a point but isn’t it the way you use language to express those thoughts the priority here?
I think students often lose sight of what they are doing which is demonstrating their ability to get ideas and opinions across in English and the key word here is English. Your exam is not medicine, or sociology although the subject may be – it’s English and it’s important not to forget this!
Two things can ensure that you produce a well written and well expressed essay to the best of your ability – planning and proof reading.
Planning: some tips (I’m sure you’ve heard it all before!)
1. read the essay title carefully and underline the keywords – have a look at this essay title, what are the key words?
- Juvenile crime is often ‘blamed’ on single mothers. Young parents today do not have the commitment required to maintain a relationship and look after their children. What measures are required to help young couples keep their families together?
The most important is – What measures – that tells you what sort of essay to write, the main topic is Juvenile crime, single mothers is a possible cause and the second sentence gives you some background.
2. sketch out your paragraphs (this is just an example, your version will depend on your essay and ideas)
- introduction: re-hash the opening with phrases like People feel, Some people think that juvenile crime etc…
- paragraph 1: maybe the reasons for the situation
- paragraph 2: the measures to support families referring to your reasons above
- conclusion: this should balance your introduction and may include your own opinion
3. Decide how many ideas you want in each paragraph and make sure you support each statement and give examples for some of them
your plan will look something like this: (this would be an essay of about 200 – 250 words IELTS type)
- Intro – juvenile crime – big problem – some people say – single mothers
- P1 problems – lack of support, stress, commitment e.g. need to work, too busy, children look after themselves….
- P2 measures – good free child care, parenting classes, mentors/experienced parents in a buddy system etc…
- conclusion: – society we live in so need to help and support not criticise…..
4. write the essay – your introduction and conclusion will have 2/3 sentences and your main paragraphs perhaps between 6 and 9 (make statement, support it and give (if appropriate) examples). This should give you your 200-250 words and you simply need to convert your notes into sentences. The structure is tight and the writing therefore controlled so there is less room for mistakes.
Now make sure you proof read – don’t leave anything to chance!
Checking your writing:
You should know the mistakes you often make. If not then make sure you compile a mental list before your next exam! (see my post on Doing a language audit)
The following mistakes are very common and you should check for them:
- articles – are these used correctly? You will have used a lot so it’s a good idea to check as you write.
- subject-verb agreement – any problems here?
- ‘s’ on the 3rd person – the silliest of mistakes
- use of present perfect tense – check any you have used
- past participles – are they right?
- check any long sentences to make sure you haven’t got ‘lost’ in them and it’s clear who or what you are talking about (if your sentence is going over 2 lines I would be inclined to look at it as this can be a sign that you’ve got lost.)
For more in-depth study check out this Gapfillers section on writing.
Practice does make perfect but only if you get good feedback 3 essays written in the same evening are likely to contain the same mistakes.
Look at good models for ideas.
Try and read your work out loud and you will see and hear any mistakes more easily.