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I Want to Pass the Language Proficiency Index (LPI) Essay

How to Study for the Exam

by Sally Jennings

There are LPI tutors in the metropolitan Vancouver area, many of whom are listed online on tutor boards linked to on my tutor board page.

I wrote the web page you are reading because I tutored the LPI for several years, and I really want to help people taking the exam. I know a man who claims he would have had trouble passing the LPI if he had had to take it, yet he speaks English as his first and only language, and earned a doctorate in science when he was 25 years old. He took a concentration in math and science, and made it through three degrees, including writing a doctoral thesis. For years now, he has been successfully employed in a professional career because of that doctorate. Not everyone is a natural at essay writing. Problems in composition are not indicative of inferior intelligence! You will just have to work harder to learn skills that don't come easily to you.

To help with your LPI preparation, there are many exercises available on the Internet elsewhere, or on this site on the Educational Resources page (link is at the bottom of this page).


Whether you are using an LPI tutor, or studying on your own, these are a few suggestions I have to improve your LPI grade, or make a five mark on the essay.

If you are having trouble passing the LPI at the five level, you probably have to intensively study some good materials and memorize some patterns you can use in your own essays. This is not an optional step, and you are not more cursed than all others who have ever attempted the exam and passed. Your writing will improve if you work on it. The more you work on it, the more it will improve. Yes, you can pass if you work hard.

Even writers work on improving their writing. A couple of years ago I read about 80 non-fiction and fiction books by prize-winning journalists and novelists in a twelve-month period. My writing improved because I read the books. It is faster and easier for me to write now than it was then. It was also faster and easier for me to mark papers as a tutor, because I saw errors faster and knew how to correct them. If I can improve, so can you, and you don't have to read 80 books to do it. I read for pleasure, and the skills improvement was a bonus.


The LPI is designed to fail the students who will have trouble with academic reading, interpretation, and writing. From my experience tutoring students who come to me after they have failed the LPI (sometimes many failures), I believe the exam is effective in predicting which students will have trouble with university-level academic work, especially essay writing.

In spite of this, there seems to be an urban myth out there that passing the LPI is like golfing with the masters, or shooting the rapids. You just keep trying this incredibly unfair, nearly impossible, hopelessly irrational task until you strike it incredibly lucky and get the five mark on your essay, and magically your worries are over for the rest of your degree(s)!!!

Nothing could be further from the truth. Your worries have just begun.

A "lucky" pass means your poor essay reading and writing skills will earn you bad marks in every course where essay reading, interpretation, and essay writing are required. This encompasses almost all the courses you will take in university or college, and increases exponentially at the higher levels. Most arts courses have essay mid-terms, finals, and take-home essays that count for 80 to 100% of the course mark. A tutor who corrects your take-home essay grammar won't solve all your problems because the tutor can't take exams for you. You will most likely fail out of university at some point. All that money and time wasted, and your dreams go 'POOF'.

So let's face it, you don't just need a five mark, you need five-mark skills. The time to improve your reading and writing skills is before you pass the LPI, not afterwards. Don't wait for the boat to sink before you don the life-vest.

You cannot produce writing at a level you have never read. No one can. That would be like trying to walk without ever having seen anyone walk. First you read at the level at which you want to write. Then, like someone learning to walk, you practice. In this case, you practice writing.

Even Einstein did not skip this step. Your brain wants to follow an established logical, structural, grammatical, and word-choice pattern, and you must read well written materials to establish this pattern in your subconscious. As you begin to read and write more, words, sentences, paragraphs, and whole essays will sound either right or wrong. It will become more obvious to you where the errors are, and what you must do to correct them. And you will be able to write well, and write faster.

In order to see where you must head with your writing, you should do some self-assessment. You have to know and understand where you are making errors, or you will not be able to correct them. Don't depend on a tutor to do this for you. Search online to find an "essay writing rubric" that uses about five or six divisions to classify essays. These are the standard criteria teachers use to grade essays. Make sure the rubric is for grade ten or higher, preferably first year university writing. Many students are given these rubrics in grade eleven or twelve in B.C.. Using the rubric, identify your weak areas and work on them first.

If English is not your first language, use the LPI study guides (available through their online store) to improve your grammar. You can also supplement their materials with grammar exercises you find with online searches. Why must you improve your grammar? Because university professors will not mark or correct your grammar, but they will deduct marks for it, sometimes a whole letter grade. Pay particular attention to the past tense, since almost all of the LPI essay topics will involve use of the past tense.

Whether you are ESL or a native speaker, practice the grammar, multiple choice, and summary parts of the exam until you can handle them quickly and accurately. This will leave you plenty of time to write your essay. It might benefit you to write the exam in the order it is given, since the first sections are meant to build your writing fluency until you write your exam essay.

The following essay-writing tips assume you are already studying the first parts of the exam in addition to working on writing better essays.

Read non-fiction essays, such as newspaper columns, magazine articles (Smithsonian, National Geographic, and others), and online opinion pieces written by journalists and other professional writers. Don't study blogs, because they are too informal, and imitating their style, structure, or vocabulary on the LPI will probably lower your essay mark significantly and fatally.

When you are reading the essays, make written notes about effective essay structure, paragraph structure, and sentence structure. Try reading them aloud to hear the structure. Write one thesis statement for each essay. Practice writing a few sentences like the ones you noted were the most effective. Take special note of the opening and closing of the essay. What are the special techniques the writing uses to open the essay (the "lead in")? Which concluding paragraphs did you particularly like? Try writing something similar.

Analyze the vocabulary in the essay (or the most important five paragraphs of longer essays). List the verbs and nouns used, and any unusual adjectives. Make a note of the most frequent specialized vocabulary used, including synonyms (words which have similar meanings). These will be your "sample essay word bank" lists.

Collect sample LPI essay topics from the LPI site page online, or from an LPI study guide or suggestions from friends who have written the LPI.

For each sample essay topic, develop your own "personal word bank" list of useful nouns, verbs and adjectives. Work on your list until you have as much variety as you found in the sample essay word bank lists you made.

Try to develop at least eight of these word bank lists on LPI topics you discovered in your research, so you will not have a nasty surprise at the exam, sitting in front of three LPI topics you don't have the vocabulary to discuss.

Choose one of the sample LPI topics you collected for a practice essay. Write down several ways of approaching the topic, with at least three major points you can expand, one for each paragraph. Using the notes you made about effective essay structure, and your personal word bank list, practice writing sentences with nouns and verbs. Experiment with the essay structure until you have written something similar to the sample essays you read.

Now write a sample paragraph, similar to a paragraph you found in the articles you studied. Keep experimenting with the writing until you can work out a style that flows for you.

Work up your sample essay until you have it in finished form. If you are using a tutor, now is the time to show it to your tutor and get them to mark it for you, showing you exactly where and how to improve it. Together, use the writing rubric you found online to classify the essay as an "excellent"(6), "good"(5), "satisfactory"(4), or lower grade.

If you are studying on your own without a tutor, then repeat the read essays, write essays steps until you are comfortable with your level of work. The practice you have been doing will also make you comfortable writing the exam, and more self-confident about your skills.

After all this practice, you should get the five mark you want, and you will really be ready to tackle all the academic reading and writing involved in an undergraduate degree. Just think, if you get really fast at this, you will have oodles time left over to have a social life, and someday you'll wear a cap and gown!


Everything on my Speak, Read, Write site is free. I invite you to use my Educational Materials for your LPI practice. You will find grammar articles, worksheets with answer sheets, articles about English usage, vocabulary quizzes, verb tables, word puzzles, and more. Why are there ads on the pages? I have ads so you can have more than 450 pages of materials free.

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