PTE Preparation Blog

Write Essay - Understand the Essay Question

Understanding the essay question is the first and most important step towards writing a good essay. Through this exercise, you learn the essay question's

Author: GLS LLP       Date: 10-03-2017

We have observed that most PTE test takers do not address the essay question properly. They tend to write about a topic in the essay question but do not answer the essay question completely. We have further found that the reason test takers do not address the essay question properly is that they do not understand the essay question. Most test takers think that the question is simple, and straight forward, and jump straight to writing. Hence, most test takers score just 1 point for content. In this blog, you will find strategies and tips to understand the essay question in a way that is helpful in generating ideas for planning and writing essays.

Understanding the essay question is the first and most important step towards writing a good essay. Through this exercise, you learn the essay question's primary topic, it's aspects and how you are meant to write about these in your answer. If you get this first step right, you can easily generate ideas, plan and write the essay in a coherent manner as expected by the PTE machine scoring system. You will not only score full points for content; it will enable you to score full points in other enabling skills as well.

PTE essay questions generally have two parts

  • Topic Sentence
  • Instructions

Topic Sentence

Topic sentence is the first part of PTE Essay question and describes topic/ideas/facts/opinions relating to the primary topic or the problem. The purpose of the topic sentence is to introduce you to the essay problem. The topic sentence can be further divided into "Primary topic", "sub topics" and "facts/opinions". Primary topic is the general subject of the topic sentence. Sub topics are related to primary topic and give a context to primary topic. Facts are realities about the primary topic and sub topics. Opinions are viewpoints that the instructions may require you to discuss or take sides. For example in the question

Tobacco, mainly in the form of cigarettes, is one of the most widely-used drugs in the world. Over a billion adults legally smoke tobacco every day. The long-term health costs are high - for smokers themselves, and for the wider community in terms of health care costs and lost productivity.

Do governments have a legitimate role to legislate to protect citizens from the harmful effects of their own decisions to smoke, or are such decisions up to the individual?

The highlighted portion forms the topic sentence. You can easily deduce the primary topic here is "Tobacco usage", the sub topics are "smokers", "community", "health care costs", and "lost productivity", the facts are "tobacco is the most widely used drug in the world", "health care costs are high for smokers and community", "lost productivity for smokers and community". Identifying these parts of topic sentence will help much in generating ideas for your essay.

What many students do is that they start writing about the primary topic in general. They mention various aspects of the primary topic but not in the context of sub topics and facts as required by the essay question. This strategy costs points.

In your essay only address the primary topic in the context of sub topics and the facts and opinions given in the topic sentence. The question is how does the machine scoring system expect you to go about this task? This is where instructions play an important part.


Instruction is the most important part of the essay question. It tells you what the essay question is and how to go about answering it. Instructions follow the topic sentence and placed beneath the topic sentence in the PTE test. We have observed that many PTE test takers do not pay attention to the essay question and go about writing the essay in whichever way they feel comfortable. As a result, we come across answers where test takers discuss instead of taking sides; or take sides instead of discussing; or do not give examples where the question demands them and so on.

Instructions can be written in a number of ways. Inferring their meaning is an art. However, to make life easier for PTE test takers, we have identified 6 different PTE essay instruction types.

1. Agree or disagree - This instruction type expects you to give an opinion if you agree or disagree with the statement in the topic sentence and give your reasons with examples.

2. Advantages/Benefits compared with Disadvantages/Drawbacks - This instruction type expects you to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the topic/idea/point in the topic sentence.

3. Discuss - This instruction type expects you to discuss two viewpoints that will be given in the topic sentence or instructions.

4. Explain - This instruction type expects you to give a clear and detailed account. "Explain" instruction in PTE tests are usually in the context of causes/problems and solutions. Which means you have to explain the problem with causes and solutions.

5. Two part questions - This instruction type will have two questions that you will have to address in your essay. For example, the questions could ask you first to give your opinion as to why something is important and then to examine the effect on something.

6. Give your opinion - This question type expects you to give your opinion with reason and examples on the subject of the topic sentence.

You have to infer from the language in the instruction section what the instruction type is. For example in the above tobacco usage essay question, the instruction type is to give your opinion. The question gives you choice of two opinions and you must take a side. While it is not mentioned, you must know that in your essay you have to give reasons with examples in support of your opinion.

Many PTE test takers simply answer the above question by counting the reasons why smoking is bad. Well, read the question again. The fact that smoking is bad is clearly established in the topic sentence. What the instructions asks is, given the facts, if it is appropriate for governments to legislate against smoking or should it be left to the individuals. The question does not clarify what kind of legislation. Legislate to ban or legislate to impose higher taxes. Interpreting the word "legislation" is left to the test taker. You can interpret such words in any way, provided you briefly mention your interpretation of the question in the introduction. You mention in the introduction what side of the argument you are on and in your body you simply give and explain the reasons to justify your opinion.

If you know how to understand the essay question, continue to our next blog to learn how to plan and write your essay.

If you are ready for practice of essays; you can take the next step in your PTE Preparation by enrolling in one of our PTE preparation courses. You will get to practice your skills in an environment that stimulates actual PTE test. You will have the G-Analytics tool to tell you what skills you need to focus on most and personal tutor feedback to help you along the way and get you the scores you need in one attempt. Have a look at our courses section to learn more.

Protected by Copyscape


Add Comment

Note: Comments are restricted to 140 characters. Rude and abusive comments will not be approved.