The Test Essay

The test essay follows a generally standard formula. It is of limited scope, requires certain basic elements, and is evaluated at a holistic level, meaning it takes into account the whole, as opposed to individual parts. With this in mind, it is possible to analyze the requirements of the essay and develop a process by which to tackle it.

As with any problem that we need to solve, we must first understand the problem itself. The same applies to the essay component of standardized tests such as the IELTS, TOEFL, SAT, and others. More specifically, we must first understand what it is that we are asked to do:

Reading the task

The essay writing section begins with the task given (the question). Let’s look at the following example:

The threat of nuclear weapons maintains world peace. Nuclear power provides cheap and clean energy. The benefits of nuclear technology far outweigh the disadvantages. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your knowledge or experience.Write at least 250 words.

(source: IELTS sample writing question)

Let’s now analyze the information we are provided with and what we are being asked to do with that information.

First, we are given two statements that express two points of view (The threat of nuclear weapons maintains world peace. Nuclear power provides cheap and clean energy.) These are not statements of fact or even observation; both can be argued against. They are simply two points of view about different aspects of a shared topic. In other words, there is a statement about nuclear weapons, and there is a statement about nuclear power. These two statements have no relation to each other so far; they do not oppose or contradict each other, or raise any argument whatsoever. Therefore, this is not the question or statement(s) you are being asked to address. Rather, the purpose of these statements is to stimulate thought about the topic. In other words, the test giver is providing the test taker with the first thoughts of the brainstorming process that we will discuss shortly.

Next, we have a direct statement of opinion (The benefits of nuclear technology far outweigh the disadvantages.) Here we are presented with opposing sides of a topic; the statement clearly states that both exist, that there are both benefits and disadvantages to nuclear technology, and that the former (benefits) far outweigh the latter (disadvantages). The topic, then, is nuclear technology. We also have a direct statement of judgment, far outweigh, which means are much greater than. So, the benefits are much greater than the disadvantages, but to whom or what? To human beings? To nature? That too is for you to decide. Yet, we still do not know (though we can guess) what our task is.

Finally, we are given our task for the essay: to agree or disagree with the statement, right? Not exactly. Pay attention to the precise language used: To what extent do you agree or disagree? If the task wanted you to take a clear side, the question would be Do you agree or disagree? The addition of to what extent suggests that you are allowed to, even encouraged to, look at both sides and “lean” more toward one than the other. In other words, this task requires a look at both sides with a clear expression of the strength of one over the other. You are not required to say one side is wrong and the other right; nuclear technology has both benefits and disadvantages. Do the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages? Or, do the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits? Or, are there some more benefits than disadvantages, or vice versa? Or, …? To what extent means to what degree, or how much do you agree/disagree with the statement. It does not ask for a clear choice of one over the other.

What does this mean in terms of your essay? It means that you have a lot of flexibility. If you cannot think of enough support for one, then you can discuss both (similar to a compare/contrast essay) with a little more support for one. You must, however, “lean” to one side, meaning you have to show more support for one side over the other.

Now that the task is clearly understood, it is time to brainstorm, plan, and organize your ideas.