Exam writing tasks: Don't Do This

One thing I've noticed over the last couple of weeks....If you're doing an English exam this fall, be it IELTS, TOEFL or FCE, make sure you understand the task before you start it.

That seems obvious, right? It should be. But one common mistake that students make is that they don't think about what kind of information they're expect to write down. Writing tasks always test your ability to manipulate different kinds of information for different audiences. That means that when you do an exam, you need to understand the following information:

How do they want me to present the information? Is this a personal essay, a letter, an article or a short story?
What kind of language do I need to do this? How formal does the text have to be? What specialized vocabulary do I need to describe people, equipment, ideas?
Who's going to read this? Is the task designed so that I give information to people who I do know? Or will I be creating something more formal - closer to tone to usted - because I don't know who the end reader will be?
How can I filter my mistakes so that I don't repeat them? When I did these tasks in practice, what were the problems (spelling, grammar, syntax) that I had before? How do I stop them from happening again?

The fastest way to fail a writing task is to adapt the task to your needs...and totally ignore what the examiners want to do. If you don't do the task as it's described, you take an enormous risk of failing. Examiners cannot tell the difference between someone who didn't like the task and decided to adapt it, and someone who didn't understand what the question was.

I'm not trying to scare you, but you need to understand the risks you take when you don't do what they ask you to do!

How do you stop this from happening?

a) As you practice (and you should practice as much as you can), anticipate the kinds of tasks you will be asked to do.
b) Review the language (words, verb tenses and collocations) you need to do this task.
c) Analyze your previous mistakes. Make a list of the kinds of mistakes you tend to make and if you're not sure why you're having problems, talk to your teacher about what kind of practice you can do to eliminate those mistakes.
d) Remember that a BIG part of writing exams is knowing what isn't important, not just what you need.

And if you have any questions, please feel free to comment here!

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