- Time Management
- Grading: Content
- Grading: Communicative Achievement
- Grading: Organisation
- Grading: Language
- How to write a CAE essay/letter/report/proposal
- Our Writing Videos
- Common Mistakes in CAE Writing
- Writing Correction Online
CAE Writing Test Tips
You have 90 minutes to write two texts. Each text should be about 220-260 words long (see the Questions section at the bottom if you have concerns about the word count). Part 1 is always an essay, while in part 2 you have a choice of 3 tasks (letter/email; proposal; report; review).
The examiners assess you on 4 elements:
- Content - Did you do the task you were asked to do?
- Communicative achievement - Did you use the right tone and level of formality?
- Organisation - Did you link paragraphs together? Is there a logical flow?
- Language - Did you show off your sparkling vocabulary or did you merely use First Certificate words? Did you make lots of grammar mistakes?
Before you continue with this guide, I strongly recommend you read about this free tool that will help you with your writing:
2. Time management
You have 90 minutes to write 2 texts. Both texts will be about the same length, and are worth the same number of points. Obviously, you should spend the same amount of time on each! Personally, I'd spend as much time planning as possible, since it makes everything else easier. The exact time split will depend on how fast you write, but try something like this:
- Planning - 10 minutes (I've made a video about the planning process - it's in section 8 below.)
- Writing - 25 minutes
- Checking - 10 minutes
3. You can't cook without a recipe
A lot of students hate planning and think it's a waste of valuable exam time. But do chefs walk into a kitchen and just start cooking? Of course not - they lay out their ingredients, make sure their utensils are clean, and have their recipe nearby.
Your plan is the recipe you'll use to cook up a great piece of writing. Think about how many paragraphs you want then get some ideas about the content of each. But even at this early stage you should start planning the language you want to use. Ask yourself questions like:
- Where can I use a passive form?
- Where can I use an inversion?
- What CAE-level vocabulary do I know about this topic, and where can I use it?
- How do I link from one paragraph to the next?
Thinking about solutions before you start writing is the easiest way to solve problems!
4. Grading: Content
The first thing you're assessed on is your content. That basically means reading the task carefully and doing what you are told to do! In part 1 you are given three bullet points but are asked to talk about TWO of them. (You're also given some opinions on the topic that you can use if you want, but you don't have to.) Here's an example of the three bullet points and a task:
If I were planning my answer, I'd probably choose 'giving rules' and 'setting an example' as my two points because I feel like I have more to say about those topics. (How much would I write about 'offering advice'? Nothing! Because I should only write about two things!)
Another important point is to say which is more effective. I'd probably write one paragraph about 'giving rules', and the next paragraph would be about 'setting an example' - I would be sure to give reasons why it was a more effective way to influence younger people.
What about part 2? Again, it's important to read the question carefully and make sure you include everything it tells you to.
Here's the kind of task that will come up:
Here's an outline you could follow:
- Evaluation of the programme
- The most useful parts of the programme
- Suggested changes for next year
Not very imaginative, but you'd be guaranteed to get full marks in terms of content!
5. Grading: Communicative Achievement
Which is better English:
2. Dear Sir or Madam
Well, it depends who you're talking to! If your task is to write a report for your 'serious' organisation you should use a formal tone. If you're writing a magazine article for teenagers you can be more informal.
This is a HUGE topic and there's not enough space to go into it in detail here. I'll list a few external resources that might help, but a good coursebook will give you lots of guidance.
The main tip is to be consistent - students often write a report that is 95% formal, and then throw in some exclamation points, slang, contractions, and informal vocabulary. That's bad! It suggest you don't have control over your tone.
Learn more about formal vs informal English:
- on the Antimoon website (run by two Polish students who mastered English)
- on the EngVid site
- from the BBC
You should invest some time making sure you know the difference between a letter and an essay, and between a report and a proposal. Here are a few quick tips:
You need to give your opinion in an interesting way. CAE essays are often academic in tone, so practice of formal writing will be helpful.
Write an email with the same opening/closing as a letter. In these you write about your personal experiences. Your writing will have a purpose, like responding to a newspaper article you don't agree with.
Use headings for each paragraph. The task will tell you some of the content you need to include and you'll be able to use your imagination to add some more ideas. You may be asked to evaluate if some goal has been achieved and/or to suggest alternative courses of action. A proposal will have more scope for making suggestions and more need for polite persuasive language.
6. Grading: Organisation
Cambridge love linking words and cohesive devices. These are bits of text like 'firstly', 'whereas', 'in addition', 'however', and so on. Properly used, they will make your writing flow and make your text easier to read. You can't do well in CAE without using these phrases.
Here's a page with some ideas about cohesive devices - try to include them in your writing. Here's another one with tips for the IELTS exam.
7. Grading: Language
Organising a text, using linking words, and getting all the content points is a great start, but for a high grade you'll need to use advanced vocabulary and more difficult sentence structures.
In the planning stage of the exam think about which high-level words you know for that topic and think in which paragraph you can use them. For example, if the topic is about transport you might use phrases like 'mass transit system', 'to commute', 'congestion,' and 'pressed for time'.
Then you need to use a variety of structures - passives, inversions, cleft sentences, questions, sentences with semi-colons. The more variety the better!
Also a variety of sentence lengths. This picture explains what I mean:
So instead of writing like this:
A lot of politicians say they will improve bus and train services. Having trains is good for people who have to go to work. It means they don't have to take the car to work. It is probably faster. If everyone takes a train to work there won't be any traffic jams.
You can produce this:
Why do progressive politicians pledge to provide mass transit systems in their cities? The answer is clear: Not only do pressed-for-time commuters benefit, but there is also less pollution. Let congestion be a thing of the past; let flowers bloom next to every tram stop.
In those three sentences there is one question; one colon; one semi-colon; one 'not only but also'; one imperative. Not bad, right? You can write like this if you practice and if you're not afraid to make some mistakes along the way.
8. How to write a CAE essay/letter/report/proposal
I also made a video about writing essays - see the section below.
9. Our Videos about CAE Writing
10. Common Mistakes in CAE Writing
Most CAE students don't make obvious, basic mistakes like your/you're or its/it's. But they do struggle with things like:
You need to learn the difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses. Your non-defining clauses need commas, while your defining clauses shouldn't have commas.
I had lunch with my grandfather, who is 90 years old. (The second half of the sentence tells you more about my grandfather. It's bonus information, so there has to be a comma.)
I had lunch with my friend who lives in Prague. (I am very cool and popular - I have lots of friends. If I say 'I had lunch with my friend' you don't know which friend I mean. So the 'who lives in Prague' clause gives you essential information. Therefore, no comma!)
Note that non-defining pronouns cannot be changed to 'that', so you should never write a comma followed by 'that'. (This is especially a problem for German speakers because in German you HAVE to use a comma before 'that'.)
Gerund vs infinitive
Gerund means the -ing form of a verb. This is a tricky part of grammar because there are no rules and you have to learn every verb one by one. English! Argh! Anyway, make sure you know these structures:
I used to live in China (= I lived in China).
I'm used to hearing German (= hearing German is normal for me).
I look forward to meeting you.
I stopped smoking (= I quit).
I stopped to smoke (= I stopped what I was doing because I wanted to have a cigarette).
I recommend buying new computer equipment. (Suggest and advise are also followed by gerunds.)
I recommend you buy new computer equipment.
So hard! So many prepositions! So many mistakes! Just learn as many as you can and remember, every single student who has ever taken the CAE exam has struggled with prepositions. You are not alone!
If I get the job I will move to Zurich. (The speaker is confident.)
If I got the job I would move to Zurich. (The speaker is not confident.)
If I had got the job I would have moved to Zurich. (But the speaker didn't get the job and didn't move to Zurich.)
Not taking risks
A lot of students always write the same, safe, things they always write. To master advanced vocabulary and structures you have to use advanced vocabulary and structures!
It's hard enough to produce a well-structured piece of writing with good vocabulary that fits the content. But remember that the examiners read hundreds and hundreds of essays and most of them are very boring! If you make yours interesting (though the style, unexpectedly good vocabulary, maybe even a joke or two) the examiners will be VERY happy and you will be REWARDED.
11. Writing Correction Online
Students often ask if I offer a writing correction service. Well... to be honest I'm not very motivated to do that right now. You should find a teacher on italki instead. Click here to read about italki. (Watch the video with David to hear more about writing correction.)
12. Frequently Asked Questions
Q - Do I have to use British spelling?
A - No, it doesn't matter. But if you use American spelling, be consistent throughout your writing.
Q - How important is spelling and punctuation?
A - It's pretty important - If you make a trivial mistake it won't be a big deal. If the mistake stops the reader from understanding what you mean then you will lose points.
Q - How important is the word count? What happens if I write too many words?
A - The word count is a guide, not a rule. But if you do the task properly you will write about 220-260 words. If you write 300 words then you've probably written lots of stuff you don't need. If you write 200 words you've probably forgotten something.
DO NOT waste time in the exam counting how many words you have written! And never add or remove words just because of the word count - it'll turn out clumsy and weird.
All that said, when you are practicing for the writing section, I recommend you stick to the suggested word count.
Note that the computer-based exam will automatically count how many words you're using. Handy! See this article for more information about the computer-based CAE exam.
Q - I know I need to use complex sentences to get a good grade, but I'm worried about making mistakes. Is it better to have a simple text with no mistakes?
A - Cambridge says that students who make mistakes while trying to use complex structures will get credit for trying (as long as the mistake doesn't stop the reader from understanding).
Q - My handwriting is terrible! No-one can read it! Will I lose points?
A - No. Your handwriting is not very important. Just make sure it can be read. Also, you don't need to rewrite your text (and you don't have time to rewrite it) - if it's got lots of bits crossed out, don't worry. Every student's writing looks the same!
Is CAE hard? Buy some stuff to make it easier! Take a look at the Books and Apps page.