10 Most Common Mistakes in the Writing Paper

Cambridge English exam tips – B2 First, C1 Advanced, C2 Proficiency

Based on my observations and 20 years experience helping students prepare for the Cambridge English exams, it’s the writing paper that many candidates struggle with the most. In fact, I would say that in about 80% of the results statements I see from students who have taken the exams, the writing paper is the lowest score of all, and that can make a big difference. It can be the difference between a pass and a fail, or it could be the difference between an A and a B or a B and a C.

However, it’s not that difficult to get a few extra marks just by avoiding some of the most common mistakes that students make. So, the following are the top 10 most common mistakes that students make in the writing paper of the Cambridge English exams, whether it’s the B2 first C1 Advanced or C2 proficiency

10: Bad Punctuation

This is quite a common mistake, but you may be a little surprised that it’s not further up the list. I’ve put it at number 10 because there is no marking criterion which specifically evaluates punctuation. It’s very useful when writing any composition for the Cambridge English exams to keep in mind the marking criteria that the examiners use, which is as follows:

  • content
  • communicative achievement
  • organization
  • language

Punctuation is evaluated in the organization criterion because bad punctuation can really affect the flow of the text and it can be quite difficult to read a composition which is badly punctuated. What I’m really referring to here is the use of the comma because in most texts you don’t need to use a lot of different punctuation. See this video on how to use the comma in English writing for help with that.

9 Not Linking Ideas

When correcting essays, I often see paragraphs of seven or eight very short, basic sentences, without any no linking of ideas, just one sentence with one idea, then another idea, then another idea. You can use basic linkers like and, but and because if they’re appropriate, or you can use more advanced cohesive devices like furthermore, in addition however, nonetheless, nevertheless and so on. It’s also a good idea to use relative clauses (either defining or non-defining relative clauses) to link ideas rather than lots of short sentences. In my online grammar course I go into a lot of detail on clauses as it’s one of the one of the modules.

8 Including Irrelevant Content

This is related to the content criterion, and it’s very important to only do the task which is set and do not include any extra information that is not specifically asked for in the task. In the instructions to the task, Cambridge offer a guide to the word length that you should use for the composition: this is only a guide. You should get quite close to that word length, but it’s not a strict limit. However, if you write too many words it’s very possible that you have included some irrelevant content and you will be penalised for that, so be careful. Pay attention to the task and do not include any irrelevant content.

7 Not Completing the Task

This is a very common mistake. Many exam candidates don’t pay enough attention to the task, and they don’t do everything that is asked for in the task. Often there are many aspects to the task as you can see from this example:

I recommend you underline the different aspects of the task because if you’re not paying attention there is a danger that you won’t really complete the task, and the examiners will consider that the target reader is not fully informed. So, it’s a balance between completing the task (doing everything that is asked of you), but not doing too much and not including irrelevant content. If you can make sure the target reader is fully informed and you haven’t included any irrelevant content, you should get five out of five for the content criterion.

6 Not Using the Conventions of the Task

What do I mean by the conventions of the task? Well, if you’re writing an essay, for example, you should include an introductory paragraph, two or three main body paragraphs and a conclusion paragraph. If you’re writing a letter, you should start the letter in an appropriate way and end the letter in an appropriate way. If you’re writing a report or a proposal, you should have a title and sub-headings for each section – those are the conventions of report writing. If you are writing an article, the style should be quite engaging and the target reader should not feel like they are reading an essay. There should be a clear difference between the different tasks. There are different styles of writing, and that should be represented. In my online Cambridge exam preparation courses, I go into a lot of detail on how to do that, but often it is just common sense: If you read articles in your own language, you should know how to write an article. If you read reviews, you should know how to write a review, and so on.

5 Using an Inappropriate Register

I see this a lot. Exam candidates often don’t use the appropriate register, ie. the level of formality for the task. For an essay, it’s always the same, you should use a neutral to a formal register. For the part two tasks, it will always depend on the target reader. If you have to write a letter to an institution or somebody you don’t know, you should use quite a formal register, but if you’re writing a letter to a friend, of course you should use an informal register. That’s quite obvious and commonsensical, but sometimes it’s not that clear. If you have to write an article for a magazine, the register you use will depend on the type of magazine you’re writing an article for. You must identify the register that you need to use and be consistent throughout your composition. A common mistake I see a lot is when a student uses some really formal vocabulary in one sentence and then quite a colloquial expression in another sentence. Again, you will be penalised for that because you must be consistent with a register throughout

4 Not Using a Wide Range of Vocabulary

We are talking about exams here, and you need to be trying to demonstrate your level and show off the vocabulary you know, so try to avoid repetition. Sometimes you need to repeat vocabulary as it may be impossible to find a synonym, but in general you should try not to repeat yourself. Also, if you use an adjective, and you feel it’s quite a basic adjective, spend a few seconds trying to come up with a more advanced synonym. You do want to try to impress the examiners, that is part of what taking an exam is, so try to come up with more impressive, more sophisticated vocabulary. Of course, sometimes, you’ll need to use basic vocabulary and that’s okay: you need to use a mix. But, in order to get five out of five in the language criterion, the examiners are looking for some less common lexis used in the composition, but it must be appropriate. Just throwing in lots of really advanced words and expressions which are not really appropriate for the the text or for the context is not what the examiners are looking for. So, yes try to come up with a wide range of advanced vocabulary, but it must be appropriate and fit with the register.

3 Not Using a Wide Range of Grammatical Structures

In the language criteria, the examiners look at the grammar and the vocabulary you use and a big mistake that candidates often make is using very limited grammar. You need to demonstrate how much grammar you know and to be able to use it appropriately in the right context to express your ideas effectively. So, think while you’re writing a sentence: “Could I express this idea using some advanced structures?” Maybe I could use inversion, or maybe I could use a cleft sentence, or maybe I could use a conditional.” You don’t need to include every advanced grammatical structure you know in one composition, but just think about how you can make a sentence a little bit more sophisticated and advanced. So, keep the grammar in mind whenyou’re writing your your composition

2 Not Checking for Mistakes

When you finish writing, I highly recommend you give yourself a few minutesto check your composition and correct the silly little mistakes that almost everybody makes. Manage your time well and give yourself a few minutes correct some of those really basic mistakes.

1 A Lack of Planning

The most common mistake that I’ve observed students make from my 20 years experience helping students prepare for the examis a lack of planning. A lack of planning before you start writing your composition. This is number one because I know that most of you – most students who who take the the exam – don’t plan your writings before you start, usually because you’re worried about the time constraints.

You should plan what type of vocabulary you want to use, what grammatical structures to use, the organization of the text, the content you’re going to include and the way you’ll link ideas. It is really much easier and quicker to write the text if you dedicate a few minutes before you start writing. In my online preparation courses, I actually recommend that you spend about 15 minutes of the 45 minutes you have in total (40 minutes for the B2first) planning your composition before you even start writing it. I know very few students do that, but I honestly think it’s good advice because the more time you spend planning, the less time you’ll need to write and the fewer mistakes you’ll make too. I promise you’ll find it much easier.

BONUS TIP! Practise

You must practise before the exam. If the first time you write an essay, report, letter, review or article is on the day of the exam, you’re going to struggle. You’re going to struggle with how to structure your essay, you’re going to struggle with the vocabulary and the grammar. So… practise! You don’thave to show it to anybody but just write and go through the process. It’s time to bite the bullet!

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How to prepare for the Cambridge English Exams – 6 essential tips

B2 First, C1 Advanced, C2 Proficiency (FCE, CAE, CPE)

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to take exams. People would just study to gain knowledge for practical use and enjoy the process.

But, in the real world, there are situations in which it is necessary to demonstrate your English level (job interviews, university applications, immigration processes) and exam certificates are often required. The Cambridge English exams (specifically the B2 First, C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency levels) are particularly prestigious and sought after, so getting one of these qualification can be very valuable.

I’ve been helping students prepare for the Cambridge English exams for almost two decades now and these preparation tips are based on my experience and observations over those years.

1. Get to know the exam (like the back of your hand!)

I’ve had students who didn’t really have an advanced level of English but they passed the C1 exam because they prepared so well. They really got to know the exam. And, on the other hand, I’ve known people who had a very high level, maybe even C2, but they took the advanced exam and failed because they were a little bit too cocky… a little bit too confident and they didn’t really know what the exam was asking of them. So, that is the number one tip, and it’s the most important: get to know the exam like the back of your hand.

2. Start preparing early

Start your preparation early! I recommend at least two months preparation, six months would be great… why not a year? If you’re thinking of taking the exam next year, start preparing now. You can’t really have too much time preparing for this exam because it’s not really just about learning a few grammar areas a little bit of vocabulary and practicing your speaking. These are big and difficult exams; even the B2 First is a tough exam, so you need to improve your level of English in general. Don’t leave it until the last minute, you’ll soon realise that you need more time.

Don’t know where to start? Check out my Complete Cambridge English exam preparation courses here

3. Dig out your old grammar notes

This is very useful and practical tip. You’ve probably studied a lot of grammar at school and you’re probably bored with it, but that grammar will be extremely useful in the exam. You have studied it, you know it, so you need to revise it, You need to refresh your memory of all that grammar you have studied over the years. So, dig out your old notes. Your own notes are the best notes because you wrote them and you’ll remember what you were thinking when you wrote those notes and you’ll have a connection to that time, so it’s better than just reading a book that somebody else has written. Your own notes are more valuable.

4. Immerse yourself in English

Immerse yourself in the language. Surround yourself with english. This should be pretty obvious. These are not easy exams so to prepare you really need to expose yourself to as much input of the language as possible. Very obvious activities like watching films and series in English, Youtube videos in English, joining Facebook groups where you can chat to people in English, reading in English (different books if possible or just internet articles on various subjects). You need to expand your vocabulary as much as possible for the exam, and there’s a lot of text to read in little time. Generally, immerse yourself in the language as much as possible… and that leads me on to tip number five.

5. Pay attention!

It’s all well and good immersing yourself in the language, surrounding yourself with all this input… but, if you don’t pay attention, you’re not going to get the full benefit from it. You can read a book and enjoy the book, and that’s great… if you’re not preparing for an exam. But you are preparing for an exam, so you need to pay attention to the grammar that is used, the vocabulary, the punctuation, etc. When you finish the exam, I recommend that you do the opposite, I recommend you just do things in english for fun, but as you’re preparing for an exam, you need to pay attention.

6. Find a study buddy

Find a partner you can study with. Ask around… ask your friends, your family, your colleagues at work, your classmates. Try to find somebody who’s also studying for the same exam. If you can’t find anyone, look further afield. Get on the internet and find relevant Facebook groups, Discord channels, Telegram communities, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are studying for these exams, so there are a lot of people that really need to practise and find a partner like you. The advantages of finding a study partner are numerous, not only for the speaking paper of the exam (practising the speaking paper is extremely useful) but also for sharing resources, motivation and accountability purposes. Also, if you have a partner who’s taking the same exam as you, you can actually do the speaking part of the exam together, which is so benficial.

If you follow these tips, you’ll stand a much better chance of passing your exam and getting your desired score.

Want to pass with the best score possible? Check out my online preparation courses for detailed tips on how to approach every part of the B2 First, C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency Cambridge English Exams.

Ben Gill

B2 First Preparation Course

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In my Complete B2 First Cambridge English exam preparation course I share all of my 20 years of experience helping students prepare for and pass this exam. The information and tips you need in order to get the best score possible are presented in video form so I can explain exactly what's required for each part of every paper. We'll also look at sample tasks for all the parts so that you get a real understanding how to implement my tips in practice.

Regular quizzes will help to reinforce the strategies you learn and make sure you don't forget the most important aspects of the lessons.

When you purchase the course, you'll receive an email from me inviting you to join my TTP Exam Academy Telegram group where you'll have the option of asking me and your fellow members questions on the exam and/or the preparation process.

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