Answering essay questions properly in writing exams

Writing essays is a task you are very likely to have to do for Cambridge First, Advanced and Proficiency, as well as IELTS. The length of the essay and the complexity of the question vary depending on the exam, but the basic skills are the same.

We've looked at writing introductions to essays and at how to brainstorm and plan them. But there's one more very important aspect to look at.

Answering the question that is actually being asked.

As a teacher, I have often had to give low marks to well-organised essays with good grammar and vocabulary with the comment "RTQ" – Read The Question. Read The Question means think about the question. Analyse it, perhaps by underlining the parts of it that are important, and then plan.

At lower levels, it's not so difficult as the questions are fairly straightforward. For example, this essay for FCE:

There is too much sport on television. To what extent do you agree with this viewpoint?

You have to say whether there is too much sport on TV or whether the amount of sport on TV is acceptable. You can go either way or choose a balance between the two positions, for example, by suggesting it depends on the audience or the country. As long as you develop and support your argument, it is hard to go wrong here.

This question looks equally straightforward at first:

Whatever your age, life in the country is always better than life in the city.

But is it? There are actually two "threads" to this question.

  1. That life in the country is better or worse than life in the city.
  2. That the conclusion in 1 is true no matter what age you are.

In this question you have to support your arguments for why one is better than the other, or why they both have pros and cons, but you also need to show why this might vary depending on age. For example, it could be true that country life is better for old people and families with young children, but not so good for teenagers and professionals.

As you progress to higher exams and further education, you will have to analyse increasingly complex questions to understand extra layers of meaning.

Look at this CAE essay question. Can you see how many parts there are to the question? What are they?

As the internet develops, it will continue to have a positive impact on our lives.

This essay title has two parts. First you must question the basic assumption. Then you need to decide whether you agree or disagree, giving reasons for your opinion.
The assumption is found in one key word: "continue". It implies that the internet has had a positive effect on our lives in the past and that this will still be true in the future. The fullest answer, with the highest marks, will adopt a critical position towards this assumption. Has the internet really been a positive thing or has it also had negative consequences for us? After that, you can talk about what will happen as the technology develops.

Are you sure your question is a simple one?
Even a question that looks simple needs careful thought before you start to plan. Let's take another example, from IELTS.

What should a government do for a country to become successful?

This looks like it has one part, but before answering the question, you need to define what "successful" means when it applies to a country.

And from FCE:

How many languages do people need to learn?

If you go straight into saying that two or three languages is necessary, or your mother tongue plus English or another variation on the number of languages, you'll probably get a reasonable mark but it might be hard to fill the word count. To give your essay the edge, it might be worth questioning the assumption that people "need" to learn languages at all. After all, plenty of people only speak their mother tongue and succeed in life.  This shouldn't be the focus of your essay but shows you can analyse the question.

As you can see, writing is as much about thinking and planning as it is about the actual writing itself.

Article contributed by Nicola Prentis who is a teacher and materials writer, based in Madrid and London. She is the author of Speaking Skills (B2+) - a self study book with Collins.