C2.2 – Writing (Letter) – The value of higher-education

CPE Writing Exam

Part one of the CPE writing paper is a compulsory task in which you write an article, essay, letter or proposal of between 300 and 350 words.  It is common for the letter to be one written to a newspaper in response to something that has already been published.  You are often given an extract from the piece and a question to respond to.

Task Introduction

In this post I’m going to set up a writing task based on an original web article on the topic of university degrees that you can read before writing your response.

First of all, think about the following statements.  Which do you agree with?

  • A university degree is a passport to a rewarding career and financial security – you are closing doors of opportunity on yourself if you don’t get one.
  • University study may be expensive but the cost is justified when you consider the quality of the courses on offer.
  • A university education does not prepare people for the reality of the world of work.  More can be learned about business and life in six months working than in three or four years studying.
  • What’s the point of studying hard and paying for a degree and masters when all you are doing in reality is becoming over-qualified for the first job you’re likely to be able to get when you finally start working?
  • The quality of university teaching is in a state of continuous decline.  A degree today is worth less than one ten, fifteen or twenty years ago.
  • If your objective is to own your own home, drive your own car and gain financial independence and security for your retirement, you’d be better off leaving school before you are 18, finding a job, working hard and working your way up in that company.  You’ll find that by the time your contemporaries are finishing their university degree, you’ll be well on the way to achieving your goal while they are up to their necks in debt.
  • In the future we’ll see a reversal in the growth in the number of people going on to study at university.  Not everyone needs a degree.  Practical apprenticeships for skilled labour jobs like carpentry and plumbing will become more popular again.

You are now going to read a summary of an article on this topic which appeared in The Week (18th September 2010).  Which points above does the writer agree or disagree with?

Like the housing bubble before it, “the higher-education bubble” is about to burst, says Michael Barone.  Over recent decades, yearly tuition fees at most of America’s private universities have climbed far beyond the rate of inflation, to $30,000 and above, on the widespread assumption that a college degree guarantees a successful life.  Many young people and their parents have taken on debts of $100,000 or more, only to find that in our new economy, graduates can’t find the high-paying jobs they assumed would be there – or any jobs at all.  More troubling still is that many graduates emerge with subpar educations, as colleges water down standards and squander millions on administrators and star professors who do little teaching.  For many students, two years in a low-cost community college might make more economic sense; for others, training in a specific trade, such as carpentry might provide a more secure future.  “America leads the world in higher education”, but this success has led colleges to assume they are immune to the business cycle and the law of supply and demand.  “Turns out that’s wrong.”  The skyrocketing cost of college “is not sustainable” now that people are starting to “figure out they’re not getting their money’s worth”.

Writing Task

Having read the article summary, you decide to write a letter to the editor of the newspaper, commenting on the article and giving your own opinions.  You should write between 300 to 350 words.

Preparing to write (ideas)

In preparation for writing, here are some steps you might like to follow:

  • Brainstorm your own opinions on the topic.  Identify the key points the writer makes about higher education in the U.S.  Do they apply to Spain?  Europe in general?  Can you relate any of the points to current debates about education in Spain?  How do they relate to your own experience and that of people you know?  Note down your opinion to each of the key points – do you agree/disagree with them?  Why?  What examples can you give to support your opinions?  What are the effects of the points the writer makes on people today and their implications for society in the future?
  • Read the original article in full here.     Add any further ideas to your notes.
  • Read some of the comments offered by readers at the bottom of the article.  Which of them agree or disagree with your original ideas about the article.  Can you ‘borrow’ any of these ideas and use them in your letter?
  • Evaluate your notes.  Do you now have enough ‘content’ to write a response of 300-350 words?

Preparing to write (planning the text)

  • Try setting out a paragraph plan for your letter based on your notes.  This may help you produce a letter which is suitably coherent.  You could start with giving a reason for writing this letter (Paragraph One), and end by rounding off your ideas in a summary paragraph.
  • Think about the key vocabulary you will need.  You could brainstorm words and expressions related to the topics of higher education, value for money, the world of work etc.
  • Get writing!  If you want to, it would be great if you could write your answer in the comment box on this page.  That way I can offer feedback on your text and other readers can compare their ideas to yours.  Please don’t be shy!  Feedback will be constructive and we are not aiming for perfection yet.  We are practising.  Don’t think of the piece ‘finished.’  It’s always a work in progress that can be edited, amended and improved on.

Post-writing evaluation

When you have written your text, before posting the response here, it might be useful to check…

  • Spelling.  Look up and check any words you were not sure about as you wrote.
  • Word choice.  Look back at your text as an editor.  Look out for words/expressions/phrases which you think may not fit the overall register of your text (e.g. slang expressions in a semi-formal/formal text) – can you substitute any of these?  Evaluate how cohesive your letter is – do the sections link together clearly?  Have you used suitable linking expressions to help you do this.
  • Read your text through for clarity.  Are your opinions about the topic clearly stated?
  • Ask for feedback – is there something in particular you want me to focus on when I give feedback (e.g. how can I make my writing more engaging to the reader?  Do I use prepositions correctly?)

Happy writing, I look forward to reading your responses.


Summary of Michael Barone’s article from The Week (18 September 2010) (Dennis Publishing)

Original article by Michael Barone, Higher Education Bubble Poised to Burst from The Examiner (Washington) (http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/politics/Higher-education-bubble-poised-to-burst-720594-102180809.html)


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