Exam Prep: Writing Essays

English language exams typically have a writing section, and many of those require test-takers to write an essay in a timed environment. If your students are preparing for such an exam, here are some practices they can employ to better prepare themselves for the writing section.

Budget Time

Your students need to know how much time they have for the writing section (or if there are multiple parts to the writing section, how long they have to write a single essay).  The duration is dependent upon the specific exam, as it varies from one to the next.  Furthermore, some exams give students time to read a prompt and think of a response, and then a separate portion of time to actually write.  As a teacher, you can help students find out these restrictions well before they need to take the test.

It’s often a good idea to set aside some time at the beginning to plan out they major points of their essay.  Spending roughly 10% of the allotted time at the start is a good rule of thumb, although some students could benefit from a little more time while others hardly need any time at all to do this.  During this time, students can write some notes off to the side – or on a separate sheet of paper, if allowed – the major points they want to discuss and the order they want to approach them.  For some students, this will look like and orderly outline, while other students will be more comfortable with a few scribbled notes.  Once students have set aside the top-level stuff, they can focus on the details as they start to actually write.

For some students, it’s tricky to juggle topics and themes, supporting points, grammar, and spelling all at once when under the pressure of limited time.  Separating their focus in this way can help.

In a similar fashion, it might be good to set aside a couple minutes at the end to review their essay.  Whether or not they planned for such time, if they finished with any time to spare, they should review before relaxing.  Students should check spelling and grammar, and perhaps even reconsider word choices.  Keep reading for more on these techniques.

Know the Purpose

The purpose of the essay will vary from one exam to the next, and most exams will be consistent with the type of essays they expect (meaning you should be able to know the purpose ahead of time).  Many exams are fairly broad, with prompts allowing students to pick from a wide range of topics within a category, but other exams are more specific.

For example, some writing sections direct students to write a persuasive essay.  In this case, students should probably using mostly positive points about whatever stance they take (including using more positive vocabulary).

Other exams present one stance and prompt the students to either support or oppose that stance.  For these more argumentative essays, students can acknowledge both sides of the argument (and probably use a good measure of comparative language) and might want to use vocabulary that has a more logical feel.

An essay can turn out very different depending upon the purpose, so students should prepare for the specific style expected for their upcoming exam.

Watch for Common Errors

There are a handful of errors that English learners tend to make.  (For that matter, there are plenty that even native speakers tend to make).  These include mixing up there and their; its and it’s, effect and affect, etc.  You can look up lists of common mistakes, and students may even already be aware of mistakes they tend to make.  Often, we know the difference when we think about it, but we might make the wrong choice when writing in a hurry.

Students probably shouldn’t be thinking too hard about these typical errors in the middle of writing, but they are things the test-takers can easily check if they have time at the end of the section.

Use Varied Vocabulary

For many exams, graders are more likely to award a higher score when the essay features a greater breadth of vocab words.

As students write, they’ll probably use what comes easiest to them, which is probably best for the true content of the essay.  But if they have time at the end, they can read through their essay and replace certain words with synonyms.  Take a look at our post Never Say ‘Good’ or our project Synonyms Based on Emotions for some example sets of words to consider.

Apply Transition Words

Strong essays connect ideas together, and the language reinforces the structure.  An essay can go from good to great by applying connecting words in different ways.

To go from one point to another, or from a higher-level idea to a supporting one, essay writers can use words and phrases like:

for example



in contrast







in addition



after that


in conclusion

There are others you can use as well.  Which types of transition words you use depends on the purpose of the essay.  Write down a list of ones that would probably be useful for the particular exam your students are preparing for and have students memorize them and practice using them so that they can add them as needed to their essays.

Write Complex Sentences

Not every sentence needs to be a complex one, but a handful should be (or more, for students that are comfortable using them more frequently).  Complex Sentences are great for tying multiple ideas together in a single thought, which is often valuable in essays.  Once again, it’s beneficial for students to have a firm grasp on connecting words.

Hopefully, your students are already familiar with complex sentences by the time you start preparing them for the exam.  But now would be a good time to guide them in more practice with complex sentences so that they grow more comfortable with using them on a regular basis.

Check out some of our essay prompts:

Get more with Insider Access


Extra Video Content

more How-to-Teach grammar videos*

with intros, instructions, and summaries

*compared to free resources


Exclusive Supplemental Resources


posters & handouts

bonus notes


Advanced Features in Student Projects

search and filter

planning info

language illuminated

In Favor of the Oxford Comma

The comma which comes between the last two entries of a list is called the Oxford Comma.  Many people omit it, but including this comma may improve communication

Read More »
teaching tips

3 Alternate Ways to Teach Idioms

With idioms, students already know the words that make up the expression. But since idioms aren’t to be taken literally, they still need to learn the meaning. Instead of teaching idioms like you would other vocabulary terms, why not build off what they already know?

Read More »
language illuminated

Is It Okay to Break Grammar Rules?

People break grammar rules all the time. Is that okay? Which rules can we break? In what situations is it okay to break rules? Are there rules to breaking rules? Here’s a look at which rules you can break in casual writing.

Read More »
teaching tips

The Shape of Writing

The shape of paragraphs can be an indicator of the style of a piece of writing. Taking these shapes into consideration when writing or editing can help improve the final draft.

Read More »
language illuminated

Top-Down vs Bottom-Up Processing

We generally teach the structure of a grammar point, and the usage follows. That works well enough for receptive skills, but for productive skills, it feels backward. Maybe we should try the reverse approach.

Read More »
teaching tips

YLE Prep: Fill-In-The-Blanks

You can prepare for fill-in-the-blank sections of exams like the Cambridge Assessment: Young Learners English tests by combining the two techniques of recalling small, common words and writing down answers before looking at answer choices.

Read More »

Share This Post