Brainstorming ideas for essays in exams

Writing essays is a task you are very likely to have to do for Cambridge First, Advanced and Proficiency, as well as IELTS.

Even if you've got the right level of grammar and vocabulary for your written exam, there's one more thing you need to be good at to get the best marks: having ideas and organising them. And you need to be able to get that done in about ten minutes.
Failing to plan essays is one of the biggest reasons candidates fail their writing exam. There are two reasons why you should never overlook this stage.

  • It gives you a structure to follow and ideas to include so you actually save time while writing. You don't want to have to think about writing correct English and varying your vocabulary at the same time as coming up with ideas!
  • If you run out of time at the end of the exam, at least you have some notes which you could quickly add as sentences to round off the final couple of paragraphs. This way the examiner can see that you had a complete idea and a conclusion for your essay, so you'll lose fewer marks for organisation and cohesion.

Many candidates get stuck at the brainstorming stage. The good news is that, just like with anything else, practice is the answer.

How to brainstorm

The point of brainstorming is that ALL your ideas go down on paper. You select the good ones afterwards, not before you write them down. Many people think everything they write has to be good, but that's not true at this stage. Turn off the "editor" in your head and just write whatever comes into your mind on the topic.
For essays, draw two columns:

  1. agree
  2. disagree

Not all essays have to be answered with this two-sided structure but it's the best way to start brainstorming as it makes sure all your ideas will go into the brainstorm.
Now write 4 or 5 ideas for each column. Let's use an FCE-level exam question as an example.
Famous people, such as politicians and film stars, deserve to have a private life without journalists following them all the time.


  1. It's just their job like anyone else so they deserve privacy too.
  2. The level of media attention can cause celebrities psychological/physical damage.
  3. The "gossip culture" that is created by this kind of press is harmful to society in general.
  4. The media attention can stop them actually doing their job as it takes up so much of their time.
  5. These gossip stories waste news space when we could be reading about more serious issues.


  1. If you do these kinds of jobs, you have to accept the bad parts as well as the good, like money, nice lifestyle, free clothes etc.
  2. These people use the media when they want to promote something, like a film, so they can't complain when they don't want the attention.
  3. The public have a right to know if influential people are doing bad things like drugs etc.
  4. There are famous people you never see in the papers, therefore only the ones that want to be followed are followed.
  5. Gossip magazines provide entertainment for people.

Selecting ideas
Not all your ideas should go into your essay. Choose the strongest arguments and the ones you think you can develop and give supporting arguments and examples for.
Another way to make sure you have a solid essay is to match arguments with their counter arguments. Which points from the "agree" side match up with points from the "disagree side"?**
Which ideas do you think you could develop?
Planning a structure
Once you've chosen, then it's time to organise your ideas into a structure.

  • Cross out the ideas you're not using.
  • Write a little number next to the points you want to use to show which order they're going to go in.
  • Make brief notes – one or two keywords – to remind you how you're going to support or develop the arguments. For example, Agree 2: Britney Spears, Princess Diana.
  • Plan your introduction to focus the direction your essay will take.
  • Write!

Practice essay planning until you can get it done in ten minutes.
** 1 and 1
3:3/5 and 5

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.