How to write an Essay for the Cambridge CAE Exam

by Mark February 19, 2021
CAE Exam: Writing an essay

In this post, we look at writing an essay for the Cambridge CAE Exam.

So, you’re thinking of taking an Advanced exam? Welcome to this series of posts about the Cambridge C1 Advanced exam, sometimes known as the CAE exam – that is the Certificate of Advanced English. The whole exam is divided into four different ‘papers’ – Reading & Use of English, Writing, Listening, and Speaking. This page offers a guide to the first part of the Writing Exam in the Cambridge Advanced (C1) Exam in which you have to write an Essay, what it tests, how to approach it and how to revise for it. Don’t be afraid, Writing part 1 – let’s go!

General Information about the Writing Exam

The Writing exam lasts for an hour and a half (90 minutes). There are two parts to the Writing exam – in Part 1 you have to write an Essay, and in Part 2 you will be given three options from four (or five, depending on how you count them!) possibilities, and you choose one of them to do. The four (or five) possibilities for Writing part 2 are an Email, a Letter (which is exactly the same as an email, really, so you may as well consider them together), a Report, a Review, or a Proposal. You have to write the same number of words for each piece of writing: 220-260 words, so you can divide the exam time equally between them – 45 minutes on Part 1, and 45 minutes on Part 2. However, time keeping is up to you – you could spend more time on one of the tasks and less on the other, but that’s not recommended.

What the test involves

The essay always follows the same format. You are given a sentence which explains the context in which you’ll be writing – and this context is always the same – you are a ‘student’ and your ‘class/group’ has just studied something and your teacher asks you to write an essay on that subject. There are then two boxes, the first containing three topics to consider related to the main subject, the second containing three ‘opinions’ about the three topics – to help give you ideas as to what you can write. Following this you’ll find the main task instructions, which are always the same – “Write an essay discussing two of the topics in your notes”, you’ll also be asked to evaluate the two topics and make a decision about which is ‘better/more important/more useful etc…’.


45 minutes approx. (of the total 90 minutes for the exam)

What's being tested

Your ability to present an argument and to organise and develop your ideas in a logical and well-constructed way.

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How to do Writing part 1 - Essay

Read the task

The first thing to do is to study the task input. You need to identify what the subject of the essay is and think how the three topics given in the notes relate to the subject. Next you will need to decide which two of the topics you will write about in the essay. Remember, you must only write about two of them – you won’t get any extra points for writing about all three – in fact, you’ll lose points for not reading the task instructions properly! You can also look at the opinions and think about how those relate too.

Make a plan

The plan doesn’t need to be particularly detailed – just some brief notes on what you want to include in each paragraph.

The essay should always be written using four paragraphs. The first paragraph will be an introduction in which you’ll introduce the topic by explaining the general context and/or explaining why this subject is an issue.

The next paragraph should focus on one of the topics from the notes. You can use the opinions to help you get some ideas, but you must remember to use your own words when you do. If you simply copy the opinions word-for-word, that number of words will be deducted from your overall word count – which could cause you problems if your essay is closer to 220 words than 260 words.

The third paragraph will follow the same format at the second – so discuss another of the topics.

The final paragraph will be the conclusion, and this is where you will want to compare the two notes and make the necessary decision as to which one is “the best/most useful/most important” etc… (whatever the task has asked you to decide)

How to organise your time

You should spend about 45 minutes on Part 1 of the exam (and 45 minutes on Part 2). It is up to you exactly how you arrange your time, but I would suggest something like this:

5-10 minutes – Plan and think of ideas

25-30 minutes – Write

5-10 minutes – Check for spelling/grammar mistakes

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if I don’t write enough words?

You will lose points for the Content of your essay as you obviously haven’t developed the ideas sufficiently.

What happens if I write too many words?

The examiners will find word 260, and then stop counting, so any words from the two hundred and sixty-first to the end of your essay will be ignored. This could mean that a whole section of your essay (likely the conclusion) will not be considered. You’ll then lose points for the Content (no conclusion and probably no decision as to which topic is best); and lose points for Organisation.

I don’t like trying to use complicated grammar because I always make mistakes. What should I do?

Don’t worry too much about making mistakes. While it would be better not to make mistakes, if you only use simple grammar and vocabulary in your essay you are only showing the examiner that you know simple grammar and vocabulary. It won’t give a good impression if an Advanced level student only uses the Present Simple tense. By trying to use more complicated grammar, you show the examiner that you know this grammar, you are aware of it, even if you don’t quite manage to form it correctly. This is a more effective route to take – try to use high level, advanced language, even with mistakes, because that is better than using very easy grammar without mistakes.

Do I need to give my essay a title?

You can, but it’s not necessary.

I hate writing essays; do I have to write one?



The essay will always need to be written using Formal English. You should avoid using slang words and simple language – try using the Passive as much as you can.

Phrasal words can be used if you absolutely cannot think of anything else to write BUT you should try to avoid them as much as possible.

Avoid using personal pronouns (words like I, me, my etc…) until the final paragraph/conclusion.

You should try to show off your English language skills and abilities, so try to include a variety of different grammar points and a wide range of vocabulary. If you can include Passives, Conditionals, Inversions, Complex tenses, Past Modal Verbs etc… your essay will get a high mark for its Language. You can find more information about these grammar points here.

Test Yourself

Now have a go at this example task.


When you have finished you can send your essay to the school in an email and we will correct it and sent it back to you! Just write Exam Guide Essay C1 in the Subject line of the email.

[email protected]

Thank you for reading our post. For more information about the Cambridge C1 Advanced Exam (CAE) you can check out the official site here.

You’ll find more English grammar tips elsewhere on our site and if you’d like information on our English courses in Dublin, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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