As a general rule, any good piece of writing is clear, concise, well organised, error free, and leaves the reader feeling informed. Writing for Cambridge exams such as the FCE, CAE or CPE is no different. However, there is always a little more to consider when writing for exams. This is because the purpose of your writing, apart from effectively communicating your ideas, is to demonstrate that you are capable of producing English of a certain level, be that B2, C1 or C2 depending on the exam you are taking. It is quite possible, for example, to produce an error-free text that effectively communicates your ideas but that is not complex enough to pass the exam you are taking.
How your Cambridge English Writing exam is scored
The writing paper always requires you to answer 2 questions – one compulsory and another from a choice of three or four. Each part is worth the same amount of points. Your writing is evaluated using 4 criteria. Those criteria are Content, Organisation, Communicative Achievement and Language. The examiner gives you a mark out of 5 for each area adding up to a total of 20 points. To achieve a minimum pass in the writing paper, you need to score at least 3 points in each area. This will give you 12 points out of 20, or 60%, which will normally be considered a pass. A score of 16 (an average of 4 in each area) is consistent with a pass at Grade B. Scoring 18 overall will usually boost your score beyond the level of the exam you are taking. This means that if you are taking the First Certificate test (B2 level) and you score 18 or more in your writing, you will be graded at C1 level. Similarly, if you are taking the Cambridge Advanced exam (C1) level, a score of 18 or more in your writing will take your writing score to C2 level. This will be shown on your statement of results. Finally, if you score 10 or 11 in your writing exam, you will be graded below the requirement of the exam at the level below, e.g. a score of 10 in your CAE writing paper will place your score at B2 level – not the C1 level of the Cambridge Advanced exam. So what is meant by Content, Communicative Achievement, Organisation and Language?
This focuses on how well you have fulfilled the task. You will score well here provided you have read and understood the question and done everything you were asked to do without leaving anything out. There is really no excuse for losing points here but it’s surprising how many candidates do. Careful paragraph planning before you begin to write should help you avoid any omissions and score a maximum 5 for content.
This focuses on how appropriate your writing is for the task and whether you have used the appropriate register, level of formality depending on the intended audience, and whether your writing conforms to the conventions of its type. For example, if you have chosen to write a report for your employer in part 2, you need to make sure to make an effort to use formal language without being overly familiar. Your tone needs to be professional, and your writing needs to be structured as a typical report would be, clearly divided into paragraphs with each one addressing a specific function of the task and concluding satisfactorily.
This focuses on how well your writing is put together. To score well for oganisation, your writing should develop in a logical way and have a clear structure that shows evidence of planning. Being certain about what you want to say in your piece before you begin writing and focussing on how to maximise its readability by presenting your points in the way that your audience would expect is key to organisation.
Your language score will depend on the complexity and accuracy of the vocabulary and grammar you use in your writing. You should be clear what kind of vocabulary and grammar is expected for the exam level you are taking. You must choose language that is sophisticated enough for the level and present it with as few errors as possible. At higher levels, you should always think of vocabulary in terms of word combinations rather than individual words. This is called “collocation”. Knowing which adverbs are commonly used with certain adjectives, or which adjectives with which nouns, for example, will boost your writing score.
Writing Exam Preparation Plan
Although all of the above seems like a lot to think about, a good exam preparation plan which addresses each of the criteria one by one will help you to build a better understanding of how to succeed. Our preparation advice is to begin by focussing on content, then organisation, before thinking about language and communicative achievement.
Firstly, you should practise reading and interpreting the question. What is it asking you to do? Usually, a question will explicitly ask you to address 3 specific points in your answer. You must think about how you can include all of these points in a natural way. Ask yourself in which order it would be most natural to introduce each point. Decide how many paragraphs you are going to write and think about which paragraph should include which point(s). The examiners will want to see evidence of planning in your writing so this step is absolutely essential but, incredibly, one that many candidates miss out.
Once you have developed the habit of quickly identifying the task requirements and planning your paragraphs, you should then begin to focus on language. You should familiarise yourself with the grammatical structures and vocabulary appropriate to your level. Pay special attention to functional vocabulary that enables you to link ideas together. Conjunctions such as “although”, “despite” and “while” can help to give your writing greater sophistication – as can the use of a wide variety of functional adverbs such as “nevertheless” and “meanwhile”. Not only do such words demonstrate the extent of your vocabulary, but they also help your reader to understand the relationship between your ideas. Inversions such as “not only… but also” as demonstrated in the previous sentence can also enhance your language score. Your teacher can help you identify other kinds of structures you should be using depending on your level.
Finally, make sure you get regular feedback on your writing. This will ensure that you are moving in the right direction and enable you to identify things to work on. Learning to write well is a process. You should not expect it to happen overnight. But, with the right kind of advice and a clear training strategy, you can learn to produce texts to be proud of. You will notice how much easier it gets each time and how many of the things you once had to think carefully about start to become automatic. It’s a great feeling when that happens and one that you can certainly achieve.