UKiset is an online exam used by many British independent schools as part of their entry process for international students. The test gauges a pupil’s ability, potential and understanding of English. It is made up of three components:
– Section 1 – a Reasoning Test
– Section 2 – the Cambridge English Placement Test
– Section 3 – the English essay
This guide concentrates on section 3, the UKiset English essay.
English is not the first language of many candidates so the essay can be the most challenging part. It tests knowledge of technical aspects, such as spelling and grammar, as well as measuring a candidate’s imagination and ability to think, reason and provide an opinion.
But there are things that you can do and skills that you can practise that will help you to prepare. This guide will show you how.
An overview of the UKiset Essay
The UKiset essay requires a candidate to produce a handwritten essay on a subject given on the day. It is sent to the school to be marked by a teacher. It is not an online test. The time allowed for the creative writing section is 30 minutes. Students are provided with a timer, so they know how much time they have.
It is described as a piece of ‘expressive writing on an expository topic’. Let’s break this down.
‘Expressive writing’ in this context means personal writing which expresses and explores the feelings of the writer. ‘Expository’ means writing about something in a structured and reasoned way. Therefore in writing a UKiset essay, the candidate needs to address the topic in a logical way and provide opinion supported by relevant argument. The topic given will be age appropriate and will seek the candidate’s opinion, viewpoint or feelings about something.
The UKiset essay requires a candidate to demonstrate their command of written English (phraseology, spelling, grammar, idiom, vocabulary and register) and ability to structure a piece of writing.
Whilst all schools use their own nuanced mark scheme, there are certain set criteria that every marker will follow:
– Structure – marks will be awarded for a start, middle and end; logical argument; and clear paragraphing.
– Content – this includes appropriate vocabulary, register, idiomatic expression and the correct tone.
– Accuracy – in terms of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Up to a third of marks could be deducted for material errors.
10 Top Tips for Writing a Great UKiset Essay
Practise Planning and Writing Expository Essays on a Wide Variety of Topics
Get used to expressing your own opinion and thoughts about things in words. Allow 30 minutes to plan and write something that has a start, a middle and an end and follows a cogent argument or structure. This may sound daunting at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get.
We have included some practice essay titles at the end of this guide. Some of them explicitly ask for your opinion on something, whilst others require a more creative response in which you need to express your feelings or those of a character.
You should get used to providing your opinion orally in English and to listening to the views of others. This will help you to plan and frame your thoughts and opinions on things, which will help you when you write.
Understand the Question and Make Sure That You Answer it
If the essay title is ‘What do you think makes a brilliant friend?’, break it down and analyse it so you can answer it effectively.
‘What do you think?’ means it is asking for your opinion and you should respond in the first person.
The noun ‘friend’ with its modifying adjective ‘brilliant’ provides you with the topic and tells you what you must write about. You need to understand what the adjective ‘brilliant’ means – someone or something that is extremely clever, successful or impressive – and ensure that you address and assess this – because it is asking you what ‘makes’ a brilliant friend.
Take Time to Plan Your Response
Spend five minutes planning what you want to say by brainstorming ideas that relate to the topic. Then put them in an order that makes sense. You could also brainstorm a list of words that you associate with the topic for use in your essay.
Let’s return to our example, ‘What makes a brilliant friend?’ You could begin by thinking about the qualities that make a brilliant friend – loyalty, kindness, understanding, a great sense of humour and patience.
You could then think about a brilliant friend that you have in real life, and write down things that they do and say as evidence of what makes them so special. If you can write from experience, or use a real-life example to give you some ideas, then your writing will be more genuine and real and it will be easier to express your own feelings on something.
You could think of ways to describe them and their actions – kind, considerate, brave, funny or supportive. These words can be used later in your essay.
This will give you a great starting point. Even if you don’t have your conclusion all figured out from the start, at least you won’t be faced with a blank sheet of paper and getting started won’t be so difficult. As you write and organise your thoughts on paper, your conclusion will probably begin to form in your mind.
Structure Your Essay Clearly
As a guide, aim for four to five paragraphs. The first paragraph should introduce the topic. The middle paragraphs should explain and develop the topic in a logical way, providing description, opinion and explanation to support your idea. The final paragraph should present your conclusion and say what you think about the topic overall, addressing the question in the process.
For example, in answering the question, ‘What is your favourite sport and why?’ your opening paragraph might introduce the reader to some sports that you like to play. You’ll then want to highlight two or three that you particularly enjoy.
In the middle paragraphs, you can provide more detail on the sports that you have highlighted in your introduction and give reasons as to why you enjoy them. To structure your essay so it is easy for the reader to understand, you could dedicate one paragraph to each sport. You may want to use one paragraph to describe a sport that you don’t enjoy, to provide contrast – but make sure that this is not the focus of your essay, as the question is asking you about what you do enjoy.
In the conclusion, you can evaluate the sports you have mentioned and say which one you like the best and why.
Balance Action (Narrative) With Description and Opinion
Describing how this happened, and then how that happened and then how this happened can get repetitive, so make sure you include emotion, feelings and your opinion about things. It can be tempting just to relate a sequence of events and forget to say what you think about them.
Feelings and emotion are essential components of an expressive essay and add interest for the reader.
Revise Your Key Lists of Words and Descriptions
Make sure you remind yourself of key adjectives, adverbs, similes, metaphors, and other literary techniques before you take the exam. You must include these to show the examiner that you have a good knowledge of written English.
Have in your mind some ‘power’ words or phrases that you can use in a selection of different contexts. But don’t rely on them too much. Never learn lots of sentences by heart and then try to fit them in regardless of the topic or context. Always refer back to the question to ensure you are answering it correctly and not straying away from the topic.
Always Check Your Work
Leave five minutes at the end to read through what you have written, checking for any spelling or grammar mistakes. It is better to write less but with greater accuracy, than to write more but with mistakes. This will allow you to pick up on silly errors and correct them, so you don’t lose valuable marks.
Remember that up to a third of marks could be awarded for accuracy, so it pays to show attention to detail.
Read as Much as You Can to Gain Experience
Read lots of age appropriate English language books, newspaper articles and online blogs. Read both fiction and non-fiction. Opinion pieces by journalists and commentators can be particularly useful for providing examples of how others express their ideas and views.
Your essay title may require you to describe something – an event, a person – and to use your imagination. You may have to describe how you feel about something or how a different person/character may feel or react. You may have to present an argument in a more formal style. There are lots of different ways in which you can present your ideas and you must decide which is the most appropriate/effective, based on what the question is asking.
The best writers – even published authors! – improve their own writing and understanding of things by reading the works of others.
When Reading, Log New Words
Write down any new words that you don’t know and look up their meaning. Record them in a ‘new words’ book. This will help with your spelling, broaden your vocabulary and show you how words are used in different contexts. Challenge yourself by trying to use these new words in your next piece of creative writing.
Remember, this part of the UKiset exam is handwritten and not done on a computer. If your script is illegible, it cannot be read and therefore cannot be marked. If the Latinate alphabet is not your original alphabet, practise your handwriting so you can form letters clearly and quickly under pressure and time constraints. If need be, practise copying out sections of English language texts to build stamina and dexterity. This will also help improve your spelling, vocabulary and sentence structure too!
The Language of Expository Essay Titles
Here are some key words that are often used in expository essay titles. Make sure that you understand them so you know what the question is asking you to do. (You can also use the example questions below as practice essay titles!)
- Compare – To find the similarities and differences between things.
For example, ‘Compare your favourite and least favourite subject at school.’
- Contrast – To examine the differences between things.
For example, ‘What are the main contrasts between swimming and walking and which do you prefer and why?’
- Describe – To give a detailed account of the characteristics of something.
For example, ‘If you were Prime Minister for the day, describe what you would do and why.’
- Discuss – To investigate something by reasoning or reasoned argument. To argue by presenting the various sides of something. To consider the pros and cons, in an attempt to clarify.
For example, ‘Discuss what you think makes a brilliant friend.’
(Do you see how this is a different version of the example question we looked at earlier? This time it is asking you to present both cases and to discuss what makes and what doesn’t make a brilliant friend.)
- Evaluate – To make an appraisal of the worth of something; and include, to some extent, your personal opinion or the opinion of others.
For example, ‘Evaluate the qualities that make a brilliant friend.’
(This question is a different version of question 5 and is asking you to evaluate what makes and what doesn’t make a brilliant friend.)
- Explain – To make something plain or understandable in a clear manner. To give the reasons for something. To give the meaning or significance of something.
For example, ‘Explain the rules of your favourite sport or game and say why you like playing it so much.’
- Summarise – To give a short account of the main points of something.
For example, ‘Summarise your best day ever and explain why it was so much fun.’
UKiset is an exam taken by candidates ranging from 9 to 17 years of age. As a result, essay titles will often be more challenging for older age groups. However, how an essay question is approached and answered – and consequently, the expectations of examiner and how he or she marks it – will depend on the candidate’s age.
The same essay question could be set for a nine year old and a fifteen year old, but the marker will be looking for a more sophisticated response from the older student in terms of vocabulary, word choice, sentence structure, argument and opinion.
The sample titles below have been categorised into approximate age groups. The groupings are fluid however and some titles can be attempted by different ages.
Sample UKiset Essay Titles
9 – 11
Describe your favourite animal and what you like about it.
What is your favourite hobby and why?
‘My best birthday ever’ – write about the best birthday you ever had, explaining what was so wonderful about it and how you felt.
11 – 14
Your family has just moved house so you now live in a new town or city. Write a letter to a friend comparing your new home to your old one and also comparing your new town or city to the place you lived before.
If you suddenly won lots of money, what would you do with it?
‘My scariest moment’ – write about your scariest moment, explaining how you felt.
14 – 17
The world is a better place now than it used to be. Do you agree?
If you were Prime Minister for the day, what would you change and why?
Why is New Year such an important event to celebrate?
A Suggested Answer:
Here is a sample answer, in the 10-11 age group, with analysis below for the essay title, ‘My scariest moment’ – write about your scariest moment, explaining how you felt’.
‘My scariest moment’
I was ten years old when I experienced my most scary moment. I can remember it extremely well as I have never been that frightened in my life before. I shall now tell you about it…
Analysis of paragraph 1: ‘My scariest moment’. Use of possessive pronoun, ‘my’, in the title, requires the answer to be written in the first person. Essay topic addressed in the opening sentence shows that the candidate understands the question. ‘I shall now tell you about it…’ effortlessly guides the reader to the next paragraph. Use of ellipses ‘…’ shows a sophisticated understanding of this literary technique.
I was on holiday with my parents and younger brother, Henry, who was seven. We were staying in an apartment in Majorca. One day my parents said that we were going on a boat trip around the island. I was very excited as I love the water and we would be going in a very fast speedboat, just like James Bond!
Analysis of paragraph 2: Sets the scene and introduces other characters integral to the story. Begins to address feelings, ‘I was very excited’ and sense of anticipation. Likens the experience, via technique of simile, to a James Bond adventure.
When we reached the jetty the boat was bobbing in the sparkling blue water. Its white side panels and silver trim gleamed in the sunlight. It looked like a very expensive boat. Our driver was called Juan. He gave us a safety talk before we got into the boat and we had to wear brightly coloured life jackets, which made Henry and I look like little round oranges, with arms and legs sticking out. We both felt silly.
Analysis of paragraph 3: Nice description here, not just narrative. Good use of appropriate vocabulary like ‘jetty’, ‘bobbing, ‘gleamed’ and ‘sparkling’. Demonstrates excellent understanding of English. Unusual imagery, likening himself and his brother to an orange. Again mentions how he feels – ‘silly’ – which shows that he is continuing to address the question. This reference is also a build up for the moral at the end.
Juan started to reverse the boat away from the jetty and drove it out into the open water. It was a calm day and the sea was very smooth so I wasn’t frightened at all. As the boat went faster and faster, it began to hit the surface of the water with more power. It began to crash into the waves and got more and more bumpy. Dad was holding on to Henry, as he was smaller than me, and I sat in the back, clasping onto my seat as best I could. However, as it got bumpier, and the salty sea spray splashed into my eyes and onto my leather seat, I felt my hands slipping. Suddenly we hit a really big wave and I lurched forwards, towards the edge of the boat. All I could see were the waves and water coming towards me and I really thought I was going to go over the side. My heart pounded in my ribcage as I tried to grab on to something. Luckily, Dad spotted my bright orange lifejacket out of the corner of his eye and grabbed me, pulling me back to safety before I could fall out.
Analysis of paragraph 4: the longest paragraph, which is logical, as this is where the action happens. Compound sentence structure with appropriate use of commas. Demonstration of alliteration, ‘salty sea spray splashed’. Appropriate, precise and sophisticated vocabulary, ‘lurched’, ‘pounded’, ‘ribcage’ etc. Reference to life jacket continues the ‘arc’ (structure) of the story.
I was so pleased to get back to the shore. As I got out of the boat, my legs were shaking like jelly. I will never feel silly about wearing a lifejacket again as it saved my life.
Analysis of paragraph 5: short and to the point, but as the story is completed by the reference to the life jacket, the examiner knows that this has been the author’s intention from the beginning, which demonstrates logical structure and resolution.
A Final Word on Preparing for Your UKiset Essay
It is essential to stress that there is no right or wrong answer in writing your essay. There are technical aspects that you should aim to get right in terms of correct spelling, grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary etc, but the essay titles are deliberately subjective and do not require an in depth knowledge of a subject. They are developed to seek your opinion however, so you must be confident in expressing your views and what you think about something.
By structuring your response in a logical way, supporting your opinions through sound argument and being accurate, you are guaranteed to pick up marks.
You can improve on all of these areas through regular practice and we hope that the tips we have provided in this guide help you.
To practise the computerised maths and reasoning components of the UKiset test, visit our website where you will find our exclusively created online UKiset practice test. You can also learn more about UKiset by visiting the official site.