Essay exam prompts (writing courses)

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The following are sample question items for essays or essay exams for academic writing courses at different levels. These are somewhat sorted by level, not by category, and include academic as well as informal topics (informal ones especially at intermediate levels). Some of these topics may be dated.


1 Lower intermediate (and less formal)

Answer one of the following questions in a composition of one to several paragraphs. You may write on the back of this paper, or on a separate sheet of standard-size notebook paper or plain white paper. Write neatly, legibly, and in double-space style. You have 60 minutes. Good luck!

  1. Are I.Q. tests a valid way to measure intelligence? Should they ever be used, how should they be used, or should they be banned?
  2. What is the purpose of a university education? Is it to make better, more enlightened people, or to provide practical skills for a job and career?
  3. What direction should the U.S. or international space program take in the next century? Is the international space station justified – will its mission and benefits justify its enormous expense? Should we attempt a manned space mission to Mars? For what purposes and benefits? Focus on one of these or related issues.
  4. Should drugs be legalized in this country?
  5. Who should be the next president of the U.S.? Argue in favor of a particular person. Or, what kind of person should the next president be?
  6. Should the role or authority of the United Nations be expanded? If so, how?
  7. Will it ever be possible to create true artificial intelligence?
  8. Should violent, explicit, extremist, or pornographic materials on the Internet be banned or restricted by law? Or should freedom of speech on the Internet be fully protected without restriction? If so, explain and defend specific proposals that you would advocate to protect or restrict such materials, how they would apply, how they would be enforced, etc.
  9. Should English be made a legally official language in the United States? (This would mean that government documents, publications, voting materials, etc. could be printed only in English, not in Spanish or other minority languages, and that bilingual education would be banned.)
  10. What is the greatest political or social problem or need facing your country? What exactly should be done to resolve it?
  11. Do you believe in aliens or UFOs? Explain.
  12. In your view, what is the meaning of life? How do find meaning for your life?
  13. Is Christmas too commercialized? Has it lost its meaning as a result? How should it be celebrated, and how would you change it?
  14. Are you satisfied with how you have been taught English – at home, in the IEI, or in this class? Is there something that you would want to change significantly?


2 Intermediate=

  • cosmetics & cosmetic enhancement.
    • Is Korean society overly obsessed with cosmetics and perfume? Or how about plastic / cosmetic surgery? Is cosmetic surgery a good option, or unnecessary and unhealthy in some sense?
  • war, human rights, terrorism.
    • Is Bush's planned use of military tribunals (courts) a just and reliable means of trying terrorist suspects? Is it justifiable?

• Was the US/Alliance/Coalition justified in how it handled the Mazar prison riot? If not, how should the situation have been handled, or what should be done in response now to what the US did?

  • science and political policy.
    • Should science have a greater role in the government's policy making? Discuss a specific example from US or Korean politics.
  • reunification.
    • Of course, the North Korean government is unpredictable and often unresponsive. But is there something that the South Korean government or the US government could do differently, in order to better promote eventual reunification, or at least for better relations (detente) between North and South Korea? What specifically should be done differently?
  • technology and business (Dave Barry articles).
    • Dave Barry expresses a dislike toward cell phones that many other Americans also feel. Some cities and states, most notably, New York state, are banning the use of cell phones while driving. But Barry implies going farther in restricting public use of cell phones. Do you think public use of cell phones should be more restricted? If so, then what kinds of restrictions exactly? (Do you think the jamming devices should be legal?)
  • Are we overly dependent on technology these days? Is this possibly harmful in the long run? How should Koreans change their behavior and attitudes regarding technology?
  • GPS and/or cell phone articles
    • Barry questions the business practices of American companies [in "I changed my name to bilk you better”], especially long-distance phone companies. Do you see a similar or comparable problem in Korean business? Discuss one specific problem, and what specifically you think should be done about it.


2.1 Instructions for students (intermediate, intermediate/advanced)

An in-class writing final exam is a type of pressure writing exam. This is useful practice for several reasons. In graduate school or in the work world, you will have to write papers or documents under short deadlines or at the last minute. On the TOEFL, you have to write a short composition within a short time limit. Usually these are in response to intellectually insulting, mundane, or vague topics, like:

  • Which are better – one-humped or two-humped camels?
  • Should bank robbery be legal?
  • What is the meaning of life?

If you go to a foreign university to study, at the start of the semester you will likely have to take an English placement test (EPT), often consisting of an oral exam and a composition portion. Depending on your performance on the composition exam, you may be required to take an ESL writing class. Depending on your English abilities, your schedule, the quality of the school's ESL program, and the teacher, this may or may not be a worthwhile use of your time. To avoid an ESL writing class, you need to

  • Write a composition that effectively states and explains your opinion, based on an article
  • Clear thesis statements, topic sentences, introductions, conclusions
  • Clear evidence and support for your opinions
  • Appropriate use of sources

For the last criterion, it is not necessary that you use formal in-text citations and bibliography, but merely to mention the source article in your composition, like so:

  • According to X, ...
  • X observes / claims / notes / maintains that...
  • blah blah blah (Mr. X's article in Time, January 2001)

This final will consist of questions in response to an article, much like an EPT, and more intelligent than a TOEFL composition. You will have the full amount of time to write, and it will not be as difficult or graded as strictly as an essay assignment. You can pick one question and topic and write a composition in response to it, expressing your opinion on the subject.