Writing Proficiently Essay Skills For English Exam Success

International language tests such as TOEFL and IELTS are a common requirement for admission to MBA and Master’s programmes. Find english language test tips about how to enjoy your preparation and achieve a high score.

If you want to be proud, with an internationally recognised Master’s degree from a graduate school with a worldwide reputation, knowing English and being able to prove it are two essential prerequisites.

Simply understanding some English or speaking a phrase or two is not enough. Students must demonstrate a level of proficiency in the English language sufficient to participate successfully in all the various activities that comprise a graduate education, including classwork, research, research presentations, group meetings, project teamwork and interaction with classmates and professors.

For that reason, business schools have set an English language test as the first requirement for being admitted to their Master’s programmes. In order to make the most of the programme and be a vital participant in the study process, non-native English speakers should be proficient in English.

There are two main internationally recognised English language tests which graduate schools accept. These tests are TOEFL, which is short of Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, which is the acronym of the International English Language Testing System. Both tests are aimed at those non-native English speakers wishing to study a Master’s programme delivered in English. The two tests are the most widely respected English-language tests in the world, recognised by thousands of colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries across the world, including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US.

Business schools set the English proficiency required for all non-native English speakers to be admitted into their Master’s programmes. They do not even exempt students from countries where the English language is recognised as an official language, such as India, Singapore, the Philippines, etc. The only exemption is for applicants whose native language is not English but who have received a Bachelor’s degree or a PhD from schools in the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand or English-speaking parts of Canada.


The test takes around 4.5 hours to complete, including a mandatory 10-minute break midway through the test. The test is divided into four parts:

  • Reading: comprising questions based on three or four passages from academic texts;
  • Listening: including questions based on audio recordings of lectures, classroom discussions and conversations;
  • Speaking: comprising 6 tasks, requiring candidates to talk about a topic familiar to them, as well as about issues relating to the material in the reading and listening tasks;
  • Writing: requiring the writing of two essays – the first based on topics introduced during the reading and listening tasks, and the second requiring candidates to express and support an opinion.

See What You Need to Know About TOEFL Speaking (Infographic)

Check out: Introduction to the TOEFL Reading Section (Video)

Each section is scored out of 30 to give an overall score out of 120. Test-takers also receive performance feedback. The test is valid for two years. The cost of the test varies from 160 USD to 250 USD depending on the test centre location. It includes free score reports for up to four institutions, and additional reports for an extra fee. The test is usually taken through a web-based platform in certified testing centres. This is the Internet based TOEFL (iBT).

Check out:Guide to the TOEFL iBT (eBook)

However, a paper-based test (PBT) is offered at some centres where the standard Internet-based test cannot be provided. This lasts about four hours, with four sections:

  • Listening Comprehension
  • Structure and Written Expression
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Test of Written English

Test takers receive a total score out of 677 on the paper-based test, and a separate score on a scale of 1-6 for the written section.

Test yourself with TOEFL Practice Questions


The duration of the test is 2.5 hours, plus 15 minutes for the speaking test. There are two versions of the test: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Both are divided into four sections, with the same content for the Listening and Speaking sections, but different Reading and Writing sections. The Academic version focuses more on English in a higher education context, while General Training focuses more on workplace and social situations. The sections are the following:

  • Listening: comprising questions based on four recordings of conversations and monologues featuring a range of different accents;
  • Reading: including questions based on three passages – for the IELTS Academic, these texts may include graphs or illustrations, and may be taken from sources including books, journals and newspapers;
  • Writing: whichincludes two tasks as for the IELTS Academic, being a short formal essay and a task in which candidates must describe or explain a table, chart or other diagram;
  • Speaking: representing a face-to-face interview, in which test-takers must answer simple questions, speak about a familiar topic, and participate in a structured discussion. This last section can be taken up to 7 days before or after the other three sections (which are taken at the same time).

Check out: IELTS Speaking Interview (Video)

Each of the four sections is marked on scale from one to nine, with band one indicating a non-user and nine an expert user. Candidates also receive an overall score on the same scale. Institutions are responsible for setting their own target scores. There is no limit to the number of times the test can be retaken. The test is valid for two years. The cost of the test varies according to location but is around 200 USD, 190 EUR or 115 GBP.

As the most internationally recognisable foreign language worldwide, many say they speak English. However, simply knowing some English is not the same as being proficient in the language and using it at a level of full working proficiency, which is the level you need when studying a Master’s programme in English. That is why those who are overconfident with their knowledge of the language underestimate the test and spend insufficient time and attention on its preparation. These poor English speakers can be in for a really bad surprise when results arrive. This is the reason why the test preparation must not be ignored or underestimated.

Watch video tips on How to Choose between TOEFL and IELTS


English language test tips:

  1. Don’t leave your exam preparation until the last minute – make sure you go over areas that you are not sure about.
  2. Do something each day – 10 minutes’ preparation per day is better than 30 minutes’ preparation once a week.
  3. Do things you enjoy – in your preparation for the oral or written parts of the tests, start by using words and phrasing you are most familiar with.
  4. When you address the topic, regardless if it’s technically true, it is important to use as much vocabulary as possible.
  5. Be critical of yourself – don’t accept mediocre preparation.
  6. Jump in and try using new words and phrases and new grammar.
  7. Use the Internet/TV/radio – listen to videos on your favourite subjects; watch films and TV programmes in English; read English-language material such as newspapers, books and academic publications; find grammar and vocabulary exercises – bookmark the ones you find useful so you can come back again.
  8. Try to think in English – do this during your short daily practice.
  9. Try to engage with native English speakers in your country.
  10. Find time to practise using past test papers that can be easily found online.
  11. Make sure you are a bit better than the exam requires you – to be that way you’ll be more relaxed when you take it.

And finally one warning:

Keep in mind that overconfidence can be a big disadvantage. It could turn out to be a real weakness. For this reason, preparation for the test must not be ignored and must be a key part of your overall preparation for your desired Master’s programme.

And of course, before taking an English proficiency exam, be sure to check which tests are accepted by the institution you are applying to. Make sure you have also checked the score you need, as each sets its own requirement.

This article has been produced by Advent Group and featured in the 2015-2016 Access Masters Guide.

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Writing is a learned skill that composition and other writing-intensive classes help you cultivate through sustained practice. Reviewing the writing skills you have learned throughout your time in high school and college can help you prepare to succeed on the WPE.

There are also a number of resources to help you with WPE preparation:

  • Review the General Strategies for Writing the WPE.
  • Familiarize yourself with the WPE Scoring Guide and learn tips for writing the WPE based on the scoring guide's four main categories: comprehension, organization, development, and expression.
  • Visit the front desk at the Writing & Rhetoric Center (Kennedy Library, Room 111C) and ask to review sample passing and failing WPE essays. Read through the essays and notice common writing characteristics evident among those earning passing scores and those earning failing scores.
  • Practice by writing an essay response—or even outline a response—to a previous WPE topic (sample topic 1, sample topic 2, sample topic 3) and bring your practice essay into the Writing & Rhetoric Center (35-111C). One of the writing consultants can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your response and discuss additional strategies for passing the WPE. 
  • Read through some additional WPE essay writing tips for more writing strategies that may assist when writing your exam response.

General Strategies for Writing the WPE

Read the prompt and underline key words before you read the article. Use these key words to help you focus as on important points in the article. This can help you remain focused on the ideas you are being asked to address instead of reacting to the content of the article itself. Consider using the key words as the basis of an outline. For example, if you are being asked whether or not Cal Poly should require students to take a GE course on personal finances to help them make better financial decisions, key words might include: required GE course, personal finances, and financial decisions. You may then want to reference content from the article (i.e., with direct quotes) to support your claims as you discuss each of these concepts.

Remember that you are being asked to make an argument, so graders will be looking for a strong thesis statement early in your essay. Consider using your thesis to directly answer the question posed in the prompt. If you are unsure of what your stance should be, briefly outline arguments for both positions. Can you make a stronger argument for why Cal Poly should require a GE course on personal finances or for why there should not be a personal finance GE requirement? Take the position that will provide you with support for the stronger argument.

Graders expect you to take a clear stance on the question asked, but addressing a counterargument in your essay can strengthen your argument, make your essay more engaging, and demonstrate to your reader that you’ve given some thought to your response. However, do not spend a lot of time setting up the counterargument. While the ability to refute an opposing viewpoint can help the development of your argument, too much discussion of why someone might disagree with you has to potential make you appear to waiver in your stance. Acknowledge the opposing view then tell your reader why it is wrong.

Writing Tips Based on the WPE Scoring Guide

Below you will find writing tips specifically aligned to the four categories on the WPE Scoring Guide.

Comprehension: Can you demonstrate an understanding of both the reading and the prompt through your response?  To meet reader expectations for the comprehension category, consider doing one or more of the following: Identify the article you will be referencing by title and author early in your introduction. In just a couple of sentences, summarize the article’s thesis in your introduction and provide a couple of key supporting points. Connect (or transition) this summation to your argument’s thesis and use your thesis statement to directly answer the prompt. You can also meet the expectations of this category by using direct quotes from the article or key words from the prompt throughout the body of your essay.

Organization: Do you address all parts of the prompt and demonstrate effective paragraph and whole-essay organization? Basic essay organization strategies apply here. If you are talking about ducks and then discuss mechanical engineering, don’t go back to ducks. Keeping all your ducks in a row can strengthen your overall essay and help your reader’s ability to follow your logic. Consider outlining your ideas before you begin writing. This can give you a chance to put your argument in a more logical order and also gives you something to reference if you forget where you were going in your argument. The topic sentences for each paragraph should do two things: 1) Tell your reader what that paragraph is about, and 2) Advance/add to your argument. Try to avoid topic sentences that include quotes from the article, but instead begin and end paragraphs in your own words to create a stronger argument. WPE scorers already know what the article says; they are more interested in what you have to say in response to the prompt, using the reading as your guide.

Development: Do you develop your controlling idea throughout the essay using specific and appropriate details presented in a logical manner? This section deals with how you support your claims. Using detailed and specific examples, with clear analysis connecting those examples back to your main argument, paints a picture for your readers that allows them to have a clearer understanding of what overall argument you are trying to make in response to the prompt. Many WPE prompts will ask you to discuss whether Cal Poly does or does not (or should or should not) do something. If this is the case, be sure to stay Cal Poly-centric as you develop your arguments because if your examples are too general, it may appear as if you are not adequately addressing the prompt. Do not be afraid of using the first person “I" in your essay (e.g., “When I took English 134 during my first year at Cal Poly…”), but be sure to avoid an overly narrative response.  In other words, toggle back and forth with examples from your own experience and examples from the reading to support your main points.  

Expression: Is your prose clear and mostly error-free? Is your tone appropriate for an academic audience? The majority of WPE essays are handwritten and this creates a lot of anxiety for writers who are accustomed to relying on technology for assistance with grammar, spelling, and mechanics. Generally speaking, if these errors do not interfere with your reader’s ability to understand what you are saying, this category should not be an issue. That being said, if a writer continually confuses homophones such as “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” a reader’s understanding may be inhibited. Extensive run-on sentences or fragments can also be problematic for reader comprehension. The rule of thumb here is to try to save a few minutes toward the end of the exam session to review your essay and revise/edit any unclear passages.

Additional WPE Essay Writing Tips

The following pages offer general WPE essay writing tips that may be helpful when preparing to take the WPE.


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