Writing TEM-4 Essays

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Writing Essays for the TEM-4 Exam

Compiled for the students of Michael Krigline, MA (2005); www.krigline.com.cn


(Examples and suggestions concerning one of the writing sections on the TEM-4; for Sophomore writing)

(click "Writing Notes" above to see my comments concerning the "notes" section of the test)

Click here to see sample TEM-4 essays             Foreign Teachers: click here for more advice


General comments regarding the TEM-4 (and practice tests)


In 2005, students have 45 minutes for the writing portion (35 minutes for the essay plus 10 for the note). The essay is to be around 200 words; the note 50-60 words. This is worth 25% of the test grade.


REMEMBER that success is not about convincing the reader of your position. The grader will not be impressed by your brilliance, and probably won’t even read your support. Success comes from writing according to an expected English-style structure, giving support for your topic sentence, and using English in a grammatically correct way.


Everything I have read, and every Chinese teacher I have spoken to point in the same direction, i.e., to the structure for "academic essays" that I have been trying to teach you. I am a native English speaker so I can’t read the mind of a Chinese grader, but I am convinced that if you follow my instructions you will get a better score on the exam.


Format for an academic essay (each paragraph has two to five sentences; notice that these paragraphs do NOT have a conclusion as in a general academic paragraph—the final paragraph is the conclusion!)


Introduction (2-3 sentences introducing the subject and giving a preview/outline of the essay)


Topic sentence + support


Topic sentence + support    (plus additional support paragraphs as needed)


Conclusion (restate your subject and summarize the support; sometimes this paragraph is incorporated with the final support paragraph)


IMPORTANT: During the test, you should take about 5 minutes to come up with a quick, topical outline, and then just write as quickly and clearly as you can. If there is room on your exam paper, leave space for your corrections. (At least include wide margins and space above your words so you can squeeze things in later if you need to.)


Many old practice tests say to write three paragraphs. However, I believe the new tests (starting in 2005) allow for three sections. (that is, one section for the introduction, one section for the body--with two or three paragraphs, and one section for the conclusion.) Remember that each paragraph must have a fitting Topic Sentence (TS). (If you only have one body paragraph, be sure the TS includes BOTH points you will make, then use a suitable transition device in the middle to introduce your second point.)

The following "codes" are used when I grade TEM-4 academic essays in my beginning writing classes. If you avoid these problems, it will help you get a better score on the writing portion of the exam.

General comments (why you lost points):

GC1) Organization problem—we’ve said many times that a paragraph must have more than one sentence, that the introduction should preview (or give some hint about) the content/support, that each paragraph in the body needs a clear TS that introduces the content of the paragraph, and that the conclusion must repeat the topic and summarize the support. To get a full score on the conclusion you also need an implication that answers the question "So what?"--that is, tell the reader why this is important to him/her. (We will look at implications in more detail below.)

GC2) Tie your intro, body and conclusion together by repeating the main concepts through synonyms.

GC3) A wavy line often means that it sounds “unnatural” or “awkward” to me, but I couldn’t immediately think of an easy way to fix it.

GC4) “LOGIC” refers to a logic problem, but sometimes the problem is with logic, while at other times it is just a WC (word choice) problem. Examples:

       --Just because our university’s trees are like soldiers in one or two ways, this doesn’t MAKE our university similar to or connected with the army.

       --Likewise, just because of the similarities, it takes a big jump in logic to say that our university is THEREFORE like the army or that our students are proud of how the school is similar to the army. (These thoughts may be true, but it is not a logical conclusion based on the evidence of a few similarities.)

GC5) “ONE SENT?” or “1 sent?” means “why does this paragraph only have one sentence?” A paragraph should have at least two, and you likely lost a point for this.

GC6) If you make a mistake, cross out the whole word and write the correction above it. Don't just cross out a single letter.

       good example:                     mistake                     bad example:                              a

                            Sorry I made a misteke.                                          Sorry I made a misteke.

GC7) Too many words. For our practice tests, I will give you extra time to count your words after “time” is called. Then, if you have more than 210 words, cross some out so that you get under 210 and thus don’t lose points. After editing your essay, put your "word count" at the top. These three practice tests will give you an idea of how much 200 words is so that you don’t write too much or too little on the exam (without having to count the words at that time!).

GC8) On the practice tests, please don’t use red ink (that is the teacher’s color).

Here is the outline I would have used to complete the writing assignment for this topic:


                         Write a composition of about 200 words on the following topic: Studying Abroad


Introduction: For many years, it has been the dream of many Chinese students to continue their studies abroad. However, the advantages of obtaining an education aboard must be weighed against the disadvantages.

Body, point 1: advantages

        a) advanced technology and innovative ideas

        b) these can help China

Body, point 2: disadvantages

        a) the cost: expense and loneliness

        b) very few can get into the best schools

Conclusion: The best answer to the question of whether or not to study overseas is “it depends.” If you can get into one of the best schools, and can handle the cost (financially and emotionally), then go ahead. Learn from the ideas and technology of the West, and then return to use those assets to develop the East.


Notice that my conclusion summarizes my support (referring to both advantages and disadvantages), and ends with the implication that if you can get into a good school and handle the cost, then you should go, learn, and return.

Common issues when writing essays     (The lines below that start with ► need to be improved)


E1. Things to avoid when writing for me, but which I am not counting as “wrong” on the practice tests. Use them on the real test at your own risk.

a) “In my opinion” “I believe…” (to me these are wordy and add nothing but doubt in most cases; if you are writing it, OF COURSE it is your opinion!)

b) I/me/my writing (academic essays should not have personal references)

c) sexist language (don't write he when you mean he/she--or change the sentence so you can write they; write salesperson instead of salesman, etc.)

d) “and so on” “etc.” and other lazy/vague ways to end a sentence; remember that “such as” or “for example” already tell the reader your list is incomplete, so you don’t need “etc.”

e) overstatement, such as “everybody knows that…” or “it is universally understood…” or “everybody respects an honest man” – such things are simply not true. If it is undoubted that honesty is important, then why are there so many dishonest people??  I imagine that the problem is an inability to express a more complicated reality, rather than an overly simplistic view of life. In English, the writer’s job is to convince, not state his/her beliefs as “the obvious” and hope that the reader agrees.

f) some Chinglish is used so often in Chinese that you might want to use it on the exam (if you think the grader expects it). For example:

        --Sounds wrong to me: With the carrying out of the policy of reform and opening up, China has…

        --Slightly less awkward: Due to the policy of reform and opening up, China has…

        --Better: Due to the policy of reform and openness, China has…


E2. A few things to avoid, simply because they are overused (or colloquial):

        a) This is “a hot topic”                             b) “Nowadays, …”                   c) “…it’s high time…”


E3. I would avoid trying to answer an expository question by simply illustrating the concept with ONE story, though having a story in one paragraph and applying it or giving other support in a second paragraph (or vice versa) could work fine. Either way, I am looking for an introduction that previews the topic and a conclusion that summarizes. My guess is that the grader will look for the same things.


E4. Tricky verb tenses:

        a)   With the development of China’s economy, a father becomes more willing to send…

              With the development of China’s economy, fathers have become more willing to send…

        b)   (see E22 on how to use Recently)

        c)   Today, studying abroad becomes a common topic of conversation…

              Today, studying abroad has become a common topic of conversation…

              Today, studying abroad is a common topic of conversation…

        d)   The library is a good place to study. (awkward—are you saying people should study the library or study IN the library? Using “place for studying” is equally awkward. This is clear: “The researcher needs a new subject to study.”)

              BETTER: The library provides a good study environment.

              OR    …a good place in which to study.

              OR    …which is used for studying.

              OR    …a good place to do one’s studies. (NOTE: when referring to academic effort in general, “studies” is usually plural; e.g., “I need to devote more time to my studies.”)


E5. An implication is a statement that has not been previously given in your essay, but which is a logical extension of your evidence or support.

If the introduction says that people should study abroad because it will give them opportunities, and then the body explains the opportunities and disadvantages, you can’t use this as an implication:

    --“Because the opportunities outweigh the disadvantages, people should study abroad.”

    --This is also weak: “So people better carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages before they go abroad.”

Other implications (assuming they are not specifically mentioned in the support) could include:

    a) able to get a better job upon one’s return (it is in the future)

    b) the strength gained by overcoming the difficulties (which you have mentioned in the body) will help them throughout their lives

    c) the loneliness (which you have discussed as a problem) can strengthen the student’s love for home and country

Notice that each of these implications deal with something that might happen in the future.

If you choose to simply summarize (and give no implication), this is a good way to end:

    a) the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but the most important thing to remember is… (something you mentioned, but in the text may not have stressed it as the most important thing)

It is possible that even weak implications (like those above) are better than none. But I believe that a weak implication with several errors in it is worse than none at all. Only you can decide if it is worth the risk to try adding an implication if I have marked up every attempt so far in your practice essays. If your English level is below the middle of the class, then it might be better for you NOT to worry about adding an implication to your essay on the exam. Just organize and summarize well. You might lose more points in your attempted implication (grammar or spelling errors, logic problems, etc.) than you would by not including one at all.


E6. Common structures and words that are vague (and thus should be avoided):

        1) the word “good” can usually be replaced with something more specific.

        2) any sentence that starts with “It is,” such as “It is good to study abroad.”

            BETTER: “Studying abroad can provide many opportunities, such as…”

        3) any sentence that starts with “There are,” such as “There are two advantages to studying abroad.”

            BETTER: “The two major advantages of studying abroad are…”

        4) “in many ways” or “in two ways” (etc.), e.g., “Studying abroad can help students in many ways.”

            BETTER: “Studying abroad can help students by giving them broader insight and more knowledge.” or “Studying abroad can give students broader insight and more knowledge.”


E7. How to end an essay: (my opinion as a native speaker)

In conclusion, … (the is the best ending if you are concluding)

In short,… (OK, but I don’t like it)

Therefore,… (this is the best ending if the cause and effect is clear)

So,… (weak; avoid it)

In a word,… (UCK! don’t use it)

To conclude,… (UCK? it sounds funny to me)

In summary,… (OK I suppose)

To summarize,… (I think this sounds a little better than “In summary” IF you are really summarizing!)

In sum,… (UCK! don’t use it)

E7b. How NOT to end an essay. The word “please” should not appear in academic writing. “Please” (and exclamatory sentences like “Stop polluting now!”) can make it sound like you are begging the reader to do something, when instead you should be convincing the reader.

      ►    “Everyone knows that pollution is bad, so please take care of the environment.”

      --Better: “(…summarize your support points…) show the consequences of polluting the air and water, so it is important for us all to take better care of the environment.”


E8. Using collective nouns is tricky; although they are plural, they need an article. Some collective nouns are used with a singular verb tense, others with plural, and some can be either, depending on whether you use British or American English.

      --THE military (collective noun, so it needs “the” unless used as an adj, e.g., military ships)

      --The military is/are (USA vs. BR)


E9. Parallel problems

9a. Modifiers go with all of the terms after them, so if you ONLY want a modifier to go with ONE thing in a list, put that thing last (or reconstruct the sentence).

      ►   “NPU’s teachers and generals” (this makes no sense, since NPU does not have generals as the structure suggests.

      --Better: “generals and NPU’s teachers”

      ►   “periods of preparation and activity” (this means “periods of preparation and periods of activity”; this is fine unless you meant “activity and periods of preparation”)

9b. If one verb in a series has a modifier, then all the verbs in that series need a modifier (preferably with the same number of syllables)

      ►   “Students should read questions carefully and process them ^ so that they can answer completely.”

      --Correct: “Students should read questions carefully and process them cautiously so that they can answer completely.”

      --or (better): “Students should carefully read and process questions so that they can give a complete answer.”


E10. Watch prepositional phrases, and turn them into possessives when possible; sometimes you have no choice because a legitimate Chinese phrase cannot be used in English as a prepositional phrase.

      ►   Teachers in NPU             --better: Teachers at NPU            --even better: NPU Teachers

      ►   ships of military (this is WRONG)            --correct: military ships

E10b. Reminder: Here is how Americans use prepositions related to school and the Internet:

      NOT: I study in NPU. I am a student on / of NPU. I graduated from the English Department.

      I study/ This happened/ Students did this/ I am a student…

                                            …ON campus/ AT NPU/ AT the university/ IN the English Department

      Seniors will graduate/ I graduated…     …FROM NPU/ FROM the university

      Do this/ Find this/ This is located…      

                                            …ON our website/ AT our website/ AT www.krigline.com.cn.

      Go /Come…                     …TO our website/ TO www.krigline.com.cn/ INTO our website


E11. Using MAKE. Make means “force to be or become” and is therefore a strong word that implies a cause/effect relationship. A potter makes a vase. A father makes his child obey. Your boss makes you work on Saturday.


      --A similarity between trees and soldiers does not make NPU like the military. Honesty doesn’t make you have success or friends (but it can help you make friends). Flour doesn’t make noodles (people make noodles, and noodles are made of flour).

      --Trees and flowers don’t make up the scenery—they are part of the scenery.

      --Protection and helpfulness don’t make up the important similarities between NPU and the military (they are two of the important similarities…)


E12. Avoid the word “may.” “If you are honest, a boss may want to hire you.” This sounds like you are uncertain. “If you are honest, a boss will want to hire you.” If that seems too strong (because of doubt), say, “A boss is more likely to hire an honest person than a dishonest person.” or “If you are honest, most bosses will want to hire you.”


E13. The plural of person is people, not persons. Please remove persons from your vocabulary, unless you are writing a formal document for a lawyer.


E14. Avoid rhetorical questions. ONE, perhaps, is OK, but no more. Rephrase your point.


E15. “On one hand…”, “On the other hand….” These need to signal contrasts, not complimentary points. E.g, “On one hand, a clean campus makes most people happy. (explain)... On the other hand, a clean campus is very expensive. (explain)” or “On the other hand, a dirty campus also makes a few people happy. (explain)”

E15b. “For one thing,…” , “For another (thing),…” These clauses introduce complimentary points. If you can’t join the sentences with a semi-colon, don’t leave off “thing” in the second clause.


E16. Regarding “in addition” vs. “besides

       Use IN ADDITION or FURTHERMORE to indicate that you are adding a new point. BESIDES means more of the same, or indicates that what is about to be said ties logically into what has already been said. In addition and besides are NOT interchangeable, even though they sometimes can be used in the same way! Besides and what’s more are interchangeable, though what’s more is particularly informal (I advise students to avoid it when writing). (Also note that "beside" does not have an "s" when it is used as a preposition to mean “next to”; e.g., beside the bed.)


E17. RE “spirits”

      “We should all have the spirits of the grass and trees.” WRONG

      “We should all have (act in, adopt) the spirit of the grass and trees.” (better, but not great)

Be careful when writing the word “spirits”—it is ok to say “the spirits of patriotism and service,” but note the following:

      “Their spirit guides us to do what is right.” i.e., we are reminded to act like they did—their example “lives on” even though they are no longer around.

      “Their spirits guide us to do what is right.” i.e., these people are dead or gone, but the “vital life force” or “ghost” within them has stayed here, and that ghost is guiding us.

(Some people believe that every living thing—trees and dogs and bugs…--has a spirit that is part of “god,” and that spirit can guide or affect us. Most religious people—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian…--believe that all people have a spirit that “lives on” after we die, and also believe that there are angels and demons—also spirits—that affect our world. This assumption makes it important to be careful when you add an “s” to spirit.)

In the sense you think of when you write “spirit” you probably mean “a person’s attitude, state or mind, or feeling, especially as it reflects their values (e.g., honesty, diligence, love, honor…)


E18. not only…but also        This implies that the reader already understands your first point, so it would be hard to use it to start your first support paragraph. Also note the following rules about how to use these words, depending on where they are in your sentence (esp. note what the verbs come before/after):

subj + V + not only + adjective, but + (optional pronoun+V) + also + adjective…

       Students are not only young, but they are also open-minded.

       Students are not only young, but also open-minded. (they are is optional)

subj + not only + (V+adv) but + (optional pronoun) + also + (V+adv)

       Kids not only play hard, but they also study hard.

       Kids not only play hard but also study hard. (the comma drops when they is omitted)

Not only + V + subj + adj, but (required pronoun+V) + also + adj…

       Not only are students young, but they are also open-minded.

         WRONG:   Not only are students young, but also open-minded.  WRONG (this sentence needs they are)

Not only + V + subj + (V+adv), but (required pronoun) + also + (V+adv)…

       Not only do kids play hard, but they also study hard.

         WRONG:   Not only do kids play hard, but also study hard. WRONG (this sentence needs they)



      ►    “No matter ^ it is sunny or rainy, soldiers stand guard.” (WRONG)

      --No matter IF it is sunny or rainy, soldiers stand guard.

      --Whether it is sunny or rainy, soldiers stand guard.


E20. Using WILL can make the reader think you are only talking about the future. Use the present tense for annual, continuous or automatic things in the present AND future.

      ►   “Students will throw away empty bottles, creating pollution.” (it is a continuous activity, not a future one)

      ►    “This website will offer you free greeting cards.” (This can mean they DO NOT offer these NOW.)

      --Better: This website offers you free greeting cards (i.e., cards are offered now AND in the future).


E21. Misc. problems

a►    “Soldiers stand orderly. The same comes to the trees.” WRONG

     --“Soldiers stand in an orderly way (or in orderly rows). The same goes for the trees.”

b►    “People have many valuable characters....” WRONG (a movie has characters like Forest Gump)

     --“People have many valuable characteristics (or virtues), including honesty, fidelity, and patience. They are honest and patient, and express fidelity by being loyal to partners in marriage or business.”

c►    “Training grounds ^  to soldiers are what classrooms ^  to students.” (WRONG)

     --“Training grounds are to soldiers what classrooms are to students.” (or)  “Training grounds, to soldiers, are what classrooms are to students.”

d►   “Reducing waste on campus needs our attention.” This is awkward for several reasons. First, “reducing waste” is an activity and thus doesn’t have any “needs” (people need to do things; that machine needs to be fixed; the baby needs my attention). Second, avoid starting a paragraph with a gerund phrase—i.e., an “–ing” verb plus a noun. Gerund phrases, however, can be used occasionally to help summarize; they are often followed by the verb “to be” or a modal (e.g., “Studying is…”, “Sleeping should…” or “Writing needs to be…”). Third, an academic essay or paragraph usually sounds better without using “I/me/our/we.”

     --Better: “Students need to pay attention to the problem of waste on campus.” “Students need to work at reducing waste on campus.” “Reducing waste on campus is everybody’s responsibility.”

e►   “School must let students realize the danger in their actions.” (word choice problems)

     --“The school (authorities) must help students recognize the danger in their actions.” or “The authorities should help students realize how dangerous their actions are.”

f►   “Somethings, students throw ^ it when it should be classified.” (Chinglish?)

     --“Students throw some things away when they should be recycled.” or “Sometimes, students throw away things that should be recycled.” (Recycled means to use trash again, esp. paper, plastic and glass.)

g►    “I meet some questions these days.” (Chinglish 我遇到一些问题)

     --“I have run into some problems lately.” or “I have encountered some problems recently.” (the latter is more formal)


E22. (Recently, meaning “in the last few years” or “lately,” is usually used with the perfect tense. Unlike its Chinese equivalent, recently cannot mean "in the near future.")

              Recently (In recent years), parents are more willing to send…      (see below for a correction)

              Recently (In recent years), parents become more willing to send…      (see below for a correction)

              Recently (In recent years), parents have become more willing to send…

              Recently (In recent years), parents choose to send…      (see below for a correction)

              Recently (In recent years), parents have been choosing to send…

              Recently (In the last few days), parents have become angry when…

        (However, you can use the simple past tense when the event or trend described was completed in the recent past)

              Recently (In the last few months), parents stopped buying…

              Recently (In the last few days), parents became angry when…


Some people as me how to begin an essay. I've heard that Chinese textbooks advise writers to begin with things like this:

--a question or series of questions that relate to your topic

--a brief narrative or an anecdote to attract the readers' attention

--a brief description that forecasts the content

--a quote from a well-known source on the subject

--with your thesis or a strong statement


Here are my thoughts on this matter:

--I do not advise using questions in academic essays; as I recall, a helpful Yale University guide to writing college papers calls this juvenile.
--Narratives or anecdotes are OK for starting a speech, but they are less common at the beginning of academic essays. If you use them, keep them short (one sentence) and be sure they relate to your point. Maybe this would be an acceptable way to start other forms of writing, such as a Personal Statement when applying to grad school abroad (I've seen this done well).
--If this is an academic paper or essay (i.e., about some research or academic topic), then the best way to start is with an introduction paragraph building to a clear thesis statement that is supported in the body. This paragraph could include (or even start with) "a [brief, pointed, informative, meaningful] quote from a well-known source on the subject" (but be careful, because I've seen students choose terrible, vague or unrelated quotes) or "a brief description that forecasts the content". Starting with a "strong statement" is dangerous because students often don't know the difference between "strong" and "exaggerated/unsupportable" statements. The statement must be one that can be supported in the body.


Here are some good starting paragraphs (you can see the whole essay on my "sample essays" page):

(1) Setting off firecrackers is a traditional way to celebrate a holiday or a success in China. Firecrackers are important to Chinese people because they stand for delight, festivity and good luck.

(2) The Chinese dragon is a symbol of China. Although dragons are imaginary creatures, they are well received by Chinese people as auspicious supernatural beings. People use them in many celebrations and decorations.

(3) As the society is becoming more commercialized, it seems that profit and interest are the vital important factors of life. In order to get success, some people cheat others. However, it pays to be honest if you want to get a good relationship with other and win a permanent reputation.

(4) If every student on campus wastes a gram of rice and throws away a piece of paper every day, the total waste would be beyond people’s imagination. Even small resources, when used well, can help meet needs and aid development. Students can reduce waste on campus by saving food and paper.

(5) As globalization develops, many Chinese students would like to pursue their studies abroad. Advantages such as the chance to broaden one's perspective or obtain advanced information are often promoted, but many fail to foresee the difficulties. In the end, studying abroad can not help students as much as many people think because of language difficulties, financial problems and safety concerns.

The following section relates to taking and grading the TEM-4 practice test at Northwestern Polytechnical University.


Here are my original instructions for taking the writing portion of the practice TEM-4 at NPU


TAKE extra paper when you go to these practice sessions. WRITE YOUR WRITING PARTS (essay and note) on extra paper, NOT on the answer sheet provided.

TAKE TWO TYPES OF WRITING INSTRUMENTS (e.g., a pencil and pen or two colors of ink).

You can put both (the essay and note) on the same piece of paper.

Your monitor will have the stapler, so staple multiple pages together.

DOUBLE SPACE! (you can’t do this on the actual exam!)

After you are finished with the TIMED portion of the test, DO NOT immediately turn in the essay/note. Instead, you will have 15 extra minutes to edit your work. However, USE A DIFFERENT WRITING INSTRUMENT. During this 15 minutes, you MAY use a dictionary to look up words, but you MAY NOT talk to any other student or teacher. Do NOT consult your partner.

Before you turn it in, count the words in each section. You will lose points if your essay is over 210 words and your note is over 65 words (not counting the greeting or closing/name).

After 15 minutes, be sure your English name and class number is on the paper.

Then the class monitors will call me, and arrange to get the writing papers to me as soon as possible.

This self-editing is important because I will grade the work and it will count toward your course grade (in place of the normal homework essays we would assign those weeks). Just as it will on the exam, your essay will be worth 15 points and your note will be worth 10 points.

Since you are not going to revise your “test essays” I will not mark everything the way I normally do, but I will be happy to go over your work individually by appointment or after class.



Unless someone can show me how the real exam will be graded, I will grade the work as follows:

(4 pts) content: (do you make an interesting and relevant point; also may include flow, transitions, clarity, conciseness, sentence variety, creativity, etc.)

(6 pts) organization:

     --the opening paragraph (2 pt)

     --support or body (2 pt)

     --the conclusion (2 pt)

(5 pts) grammar and the appropriate use of English (wc, wf, punctuation, etc.; for this test, I will count “awkward” or “unnatural” as a mistake—I will mark anything that sounds funny to me; unlike the way I grade homework, repeated mistakes will count each time you make them)

Failure to follow instructions may result in a loss of marks. This includes having the right number of sections (a section might have two paragraphs if needed), indenting, double spacing, word count, etc.



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