Writing for Exams: Three things NOT to do

Starting from this month, I'm going to be contributing blog posts to the ClubMBA website (and if I haven't said it before, I'm saying it now - those of you who are doing the TOEFL exam should definitely check out their TOEFL forum - not because I'm contributing to it, but because there are a number of good testimonials from people who have done the exam and what their experiences were like.)

Anyway, one of the topics that I wanted to write about for that blog was how NOT to do the writing part of an exam. I get a lot of students asking for help with writing (especially for TOEFL and FCE), and there are three common mistakes that many students make when doing this part of the exams. Here are the three most common:

a) You don't answer the question that you're asked on the exam. It seems crazy, but, yes, apparently there are still some students who try to memorize an answer and write it down on the exam. This only works if the question they ask you is exactly the same as the question you memorized. (Don't laugh - I've had students who have tried this. The results are exactly as you would expect.)

b) You don't organize your ideas inside your writing exercise. When we talk, we're thinking and producing language in the moment. Since we have direct contact with the person we're speaking to, we can fix and adjust the language we use, and the way we present ideas. However, when we write, we don't have that luxury. We have to remember that we can't clarify AFTER ideas are on the page (or on the computer screen). Therefore, it's important to make sure that your ideas and arguments are easy to understand - because if they aren't, that makes it harder for the person marking your exam to understand what you're talking about. An essay that is hard to understand is an essay that won't get a good mark - it's the marker's job to figure out what you're trying to say.

c) You use a lot of the same tired, uninteresting words to express ideas. As I explain in this video about verbs, using "boring" verbs like say, tell, do and get are fine when you first start learning English. As your English gets better, however, your vocabulary should expand so that you're using more precise verbs (and more precise adjectives, adverbs that modify adjectives, etc.).  Obviously, you shouldn't use complicated words if you can't use them properly, or you don't know what they mean. You should also aim for maximum clarity in your writing. Your writing needs to have a certain amount of sophistication; if you're doing the TOEFL, you cannot get a good mark if you sound like you have the vocabulary of a ten-year-old child.

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