Hi, I’m Kasia. Welcome to Oxford Online English! In this lesson you can learn how to write an essay for the Cambridge FCE exam, step by step.
You’ll see exactly what to do at each stage and how to get the best possible score.
There are four steps to the writing process. You’ll see what to do at each step, then you’ll learn how the writing is assessed. I said there were four steps to the process.
So what’s first?
First, you need to read the task and identify exactly what needs to be included. Let’s look at a sample question: You’ve recently had a discussion in English class about society. Now your teacher has asked you to write an essay. Write an essay using all the notes and give reasons for your point of view. University should be free for everyone.
Do you agree or disagree? Notes Taxes Opportunity Your own idea Okay, so what do you need to do? Most importantly, you need to say if you agree or disagree that university should be free for everyone.
You also need to use all the notes and give reasons for your point of view. That means your essay needs to include three central ideas: taxes, opportunity, and one other. It also means that you need to reach a clear, justified conclusion. You can’t just say, ‘I agree’, or ‘I disagree.’ Think of it like this: you need to convince the examiner that your conclusion is correct.
You might think at this point, ‘yeah, obvious, thanks for the help, Kasia!’ Trust me; it’s harder than it sounds. Many FCE essays that we see don’t get these basic things right. It’s very easy to leave something out, or to go in the wrong direction.
Next, you’re writing this answer for your teacher so what style do you think it will be in? Formal or informal? An essay should be formal.
What does that mean?
Formal writing doesn’t use contractions, like ‘I’d’, ‘you’re’ or ‘don’t’. Write the full forms. You should also avoid using slang, colloquial vocabulary, or anything which sounds very conversational. Next, think: what do you need to include? You need to talk about taxes, opportunity, and you also need to add your own idea.
Even the ideas which are given to you—taxes and opportunity—are quite vague.
That means you need to decide exactly what to talk about. You also need to think about how to connect your ideas. For example, with taxes you could say that if you pay taxes, then this should go back into society to benefit everyone. You could add to this by pointing out that having equal opportunities also benefits society.
And for your own idea, you could talk about how people with higher education are more likely to be economically productive. This is just one example, of course! There are many paths you could take.
Let’s talk about that in more detail. Here’s what you need to do when you plan your essay. First, you need to decide what your conclusion is going to be. Are you going to agree or disagree that university should be free for everyone?
Decide your conclusion first, because everything else in your essay needs to lead to it. Secondly, you need to plan how many paragraphs you’re going to have, and what you’ll put in each one. Thirdly, you need to make sure your paragraphs are connected to your conclusion. Let’s see an example: Pause the article if you want some more time to read the plan.
You can see that we use the key idea of ‘education’ in the notes for each paragraph. Doing this can help you to stay focused and on-topic, because you’re connecting each paragraph back to the main idea of the question. When you plan, make sure that each paragraph has a clear focus. Do you know what every good paragraph starts with?
A topic sentence. What’s a topic sentence? A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph. It summarises the main point of the paragraph.
The sentences which follow are called supporting sentences. These include reasons and examples to support your topic sentence. A good exercise during planning is to take a paragraph and think to yourself: “What’s this paragraph about?” If you can answer that question in one simple sentence, then that’s a good sign. Hopefully, your plan is clear. However, if you can’t answer that question, that explains that your plan isn’t totally clear in your head.
Once you’ve finished your plan, you’re ready to write your answer! In your candidate answer book, you will now write your essay. Let’s look at a model answer: Pause the article to read, and start again when you’re ready.
First question: have we answered the question? Yes: the conclusion states that free university benefits all members of society. This explains that we agree that university should be free for everyone. Next: have we used topic sentences? Yes, we have.
The first sentence of the essay tells you what the entire essay will be about. Then, each paragraph’s topic sentence contains a key word from our plan. We have ‘taxes, ‘opportunities’ and ‘economy’. Also, the topic sentences and paragraphs all reference the idea of ‘education’, either directly or indirectly. This explains that our points are relevant and connected to the task.
So, now you’re finished, right? No–there’s one more step. This answer is not bad, but it could be better. The final step is to check your answer. What type of things do you think you should look for?
Grammar, of course, but what else? Check for spelling mistakes. Check for style—have you used any conversational language which doesn’t fit the tone of an essay like this? Check your use of linking words and phrases.
Many students overuse them; don’t use a linking word like nevertheless unless you’re sure it fits. Check for repetition of vocabulary. Could you replace any simple vocabulary with something more advanced? Look at our model answer again: The underlined parts are either mistakes, or they could be improved somehow.
How would you improve this?
Pause the article while you read and decide. The first problem is with grammar. Unless you’re talking about one specific university, you don’t use ‘the’. Okay, what’s wrong with doesn’t?
We’ve used a contraction! Don’t use contractions in your essay. So, it should be does not. The next problem is a spelling mistake. When a word ends in ‘y’, it changes to ‘ies’ in the plural.
Next is a punctuation mistake. There’s a comma missing. There are two clauses in this sentence and they need to be separated by a comma. There’s nothing wrong with people with degrees but it’s quite basic. What else could you say?
You could say educated people, or even highly-educated people, either of which is slightly more elegant. So is not a mistake, but we used ‘so’ in the second paragraph already. You want to explain the examiner your range of language, so here you could use something more precise like consequently.
Our conclusion is only one sentence, so let’s add an extra point. We’re still under the maximum word count.
Let’s change it to: In conclusion, free university should be free for everyone. It makes economic sense and ultimately benefits all members of society. At this point, it’s looking good!
Next, let’s focus on what you can do to produce a good FCE essay which will get a high score in your exam. Your essay score is made up of four parts. For each part, you get a score from zero to five. First there’s ‘Content’. The mark scheme says this “focuses on how well you have fulfilled the task”.
In other words, have you done everything you were asked to do? This corresponds to step one of our writing process. Analyse the task carefully and make sure you do everything it asks you to.
A good tip is to underline the key words in the task to help you identify what you need to do. Next there’s ‘Communicative Achievement’. This “focuses on how appropriate your writing is for the task”. Have you used the correct register?
Have you used contractions? Basically: does your essay look and sound like an essay? Then we have organisation.
This looks at “how the writing is put together”. Is it logical and organised?
By planning your writing correctly, it will already be organised. Remember to plan your paragraphs carefully and write a clear topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph. You can also use linking words and phrases to make the connections between paragraphs even clearer.
In our essay, we used many linking words, including firstly, secondly, in addition, although, consequently and in conclusion.
Look through the essay again, and note how the linking words and phrases are used. Can you find any more examples of linking words in the essay? Finally, you have ‘Language’: vocabulary and grammar. The examiners will be looking for a range of language as well as how accurate it is.
In step four, you saw how checking your essay can improve your language. Are you worried that making mistakes will affect your mark? Of course, making a lot of mistakes will lower your mark, but remember this is only one part of the score.
For B2 level, the Cambridge mark scheme says, ‘Occasional errors may be present but do not impede communication.’ That means you can still score 5 from 5, even with some small mistakes. But, hopefully, you’ll catch most of them when you’re on step four – checking and improving your answer. You’ve seen how to write an essay for FCE, but you can use the same process for other Cambridge exams, including the CAE and CPE when you get that far. If you enjoyed this lesson and would like more free lessons, you can visit our website: oxfordonlineenglish.com.
Good luck with your exam preparation and let us know when you pass! Thanks for reading!