English Essay Templates

You’ve probably heard that tests are a big deal in China, and thus test prep is big business. This applies even to such “un-gameable” forms of tests as free response essay questions. But how do you game the free response portion of an English test?

Well, you memorize a number of essay templates, then just fit your essay answer into one of the templates. All you have to do is plug in a few relevant words and phrases, and with any luck, they’ll all be included in the essay topic.

Curious what these templates might look like? I give you two examples below, taken from an MBA prep course in Shanghai (mistakes preserved):

> Essay Template 1: 优缺点类

> At present, there is no doubt that 主题 plays an increasingly indispensable role in 领域/运用范围. We are all aware that, like everything else, 主题 has both favorable and unfavorable aspects. Generally speaking, the advantages can be listed as follows. First of all, (优点1)… makes people’s everyday life more convenient. In addition, (优点2)… connects its users with the outside world. Most importantly, with a…, (优点3) people’s life will be greatly enriched.

> Nevertheless, it is a pity that every medal has two sides and the disadvantages of 主题 can’t be ignored. To begin with, there will be a danger of (缺点1) spending too much time on it therefore ignoring what you should concentrate on. To make matters worse, (缺点2)主题 is most likely to add to your daily expenses. Worst of all, (缺点3)主题 may plunge you into an unexpected trouble.

> As is known to all, 主题 is neither good nor bad itself. Its effects on people depends, to a large extent, on how 主题 is used. Now that the disadvantages have been put out, they will be paid attention to and eliminated to some degree.

> Essay Template 2: 意义影响类

> We are very glad and excited that our dream of 主题 will come true/ have come true after a long waiting. People throughout the country have been celebrating the coming of 主题 in various ways and they are eager to participate in or experience in … person.

> There is no doubt that 主题 will benefit China and Chinese people in more than one aspect. First of all, 主题 will expose China and Chinese to more domestic and foreign visitors, thus promoting the mutual understanding and friendship between people from different regions and cultures. More importantly, by interacting with people from different regions and cultures, people can learn from each other. Finally, 主题 will undoubtedly promote the development of the national and local economy.

> Now that 主题 is significant to our country and the people, everybody involved should make his effort to contribute something to 主题. With everyone’s involvement and participation, 主题 will be a great success and is bound to benefit the country and the people involved.

Somehow those “generic” topics don’t seem totally generic, do they? The templates above definitely used “topics with Chinese characteristics,” and they should certainly come to no surprise to anyone who’s lived in China in the past year.

Can you imagine grading hundreds of these essays that mostly use the same templates? That would drive me insane.

For those of you that find some morbid amusement in these essay templates like I do, here’s one site that hosts more of them online. There are some slight differences in wording between the ones I have in front of me and that site, but they clearly came from the same source.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Oh, my. I feel my English getting happy everyday.

  2. “There is no doubt that mad-lib essays play an increasingly indispensable role in academia, journalism, and any number of other areas. We are all aware that, like everything else, mad-lib essays have both favorable and unfavorable aspects. Generally speaking, the advantages can be listed as follows. First of all, the availability of pre-prepared templates into which nouns can be inserted makes people’s everyday life more convenient. In addition, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the essays have been previously written means that no student will ever have to find themselves in the awkward position of forming an opinion, reasoning through an argument, or thinking ever again. Most importantly, with all of the time mad-lib essay writing frees up for more rewarding pursuits like World of Warcraft, the downloading of crappy pop music, or pointless blathering on QQ, people’s life will be greatly enriched.”

    How’d I do?

  3. (To be fair, I think US-based test prep programs like Kaplan and such recommend similar strategies for essay-based tests like the SAT II English.)

  4. Highly interesting. Hope our students don’t start this.
    Of course, templates are pivotal to improve efficiency.

    Like the “Keep your Chinese [teacher | partner] busy” templates:

    • Why is there [a | no] 了 in [sentence]?

    • Why can’t I use [arbitrary synonym from dictionary] here?

    • Why don’t you add [咯, 啦, 呢, 呢]?

    • What is the measure word for [exotic noun, the more abstract the better]?

    • Can I also say [sentence with randomly reversed word order]? If no, why not, is there a rule? If yes, does it affect the meaning?

    • Is [verb] more formal or more colloquial? How would I make it more [formal | colloquial]?

    • This sentence somehow does not sound elegant to me. Can you put it in better words?

    • Isn’t there a 成语 for this?

  5. @Brendan: Completely thought of Mad-Lib, too!

    In my high school English classes, there was a certain way you were supposed to write an essay, but that was just to teach students to provide enough support to each claim they made in an essay, and in college they kind of get rid of that.

    I used one of the ones from that site after I realized that the spelling and grammar were rather atrocious, leaving in some of the errors and pointing them out:

    “Nowadays there is a widespread concern over plagiarism in essays. However, when it comes to this hot topic, people’s view vary [There’s only one? How does it vary, then?] from person to person. Some people hold that reusing the same darn template for writing essays saves time for more important things, like rotting one’s brains out by listening to mediocre singing groups after stealing their songs through Baidu, taking care of my virtual pets, and spamming YouTube. However, others list the opposite idea with regard to it. They argue that the spelling and grammar that said essays use is horrible and no English teacher in his right mind wants to read essays with such horrible grammar/spelling and such a lack of originality.

    As far as I am conserned [<=”concerned”?], I am in favor of the latter idea. I make out my case as follows: In the first place, while it is true that using templates to write bland essays may save me time to download songs from annoying singing groups who only cover mediocre songs from other countries anyways, it doesn’t follow [Contractions? My English teachers hated for us to use those!] that I should not use spell check when using something I stole through the Internet or listen to better music while I write my own, original essays. Admittedly, everyone needs free time, but this is not [Where’s “to”?] say that teachers should not throw trashy essays in the garbage where they belong and fail everyone who uses such templates.”

    If I had written that visual argument essay about the album cover from Jay Chou’s “七里香” last semester using this method, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten the “A” that I did, and I’m also pretty sure I would have failed my Argumentative Essay class. Really, it took a lot of effort to get 100 on an essay about a photo of Jay Chou, in English, with the fact that the reader knows nothing about Jay Chou in mind! This template thing is so lazy, just like copying and pasting. How can students think they can get by with this?

  6. But essay templates don’t really help the student in thinking, right? They just memorize and memorize.

  7. Now this is interesting. I remember when I taught ESL in Chengdu that many students would use template “key phrases” like using the same set phrase at the start of every introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion. I think that while helpful, these rigid templates undermine the creative flow and creative potential that writers may have.

  8. When I taught in Chinese Universities, I would estimate that roughly 25% of all essays I received were copied straight off the Internet. The funny thing is, it takes only about half a sentence to realize that plagiarism has occurred. For a little fun, I would type the first sentence into Google and find the original article online. Then I would call the student over to my computer, and with concerned demeanor, show them that apparently somebody from the Internet had been copied their paper.

    “How in the world did John Greenberg from the St. Louis-Post Dispatch get ahold of YOUR movie review and post it on his own website?”

    This would usually get the message across, and none of my students ever figured out how I had caught them all red handed.

  9. Thanks for posting this, John. Writing (and more over, creation) can never follow a templete model. My students will be exposed to this through my lessons, and discouraged from using such un-creative methods.

    I hope the judges to the CET, TEM, ToEFL, GRE have access to these cheats – but that’s just wishful thinkin’

  10. I remember once getting an essay that had been copied from a book of sample essays that I HAD EDITED! How 可巧 is that?

  11. The norm for format and grammar in school essays is no longer how most writing is done. Give me contractions, abbreviations, first-person, dashed parentheticals, abbreviations, and bullet points! These are all acceptable (except maybe first-person perspective) even in academic textbooks.

    If this were a national test on website design, the stated goal may be to test your creative ability, but anyone who didn’t follow the standard banner/navbar/sidebar/content/footer would run the risk of being downgraded by a reviewer who didn’t appreciate your artistic independence. Having decided on doing the usual boring but risk-averse website, you can do it from basic principles of html and css coding, or you can flat-out memorize the html and css code line by line. The testers would prefer you did it the first way, but they can’t take points off for the second method, because it’s still correct, and is possibly indistinguishable from the first.

    We native English speakers use plenty of stock phrases and formulaic constructions when writing essays, whether we’re aware of it or not. If memorizing them is a shortcut to learning writing skills (versus 4 years of trial and error against the teachers’ red markers?), then best of luck to them.

  12. Regarding the usage of “key phrases” – my humble guess would be that this is an extremely common phenomenon that can be found in classrooms all over the world. At least that’s what I see my fellow students doing – memorize. Doesn’t quite work if you can’t distinguish between “find” and “found”, or if you can’t wrap your head around different usages of prepositions or even nuances (“prospect” isn’t interchangeable with “perspective” most of the time). Our teacher even hands out huge vocabulary/phrase lists every time we start dealing with a new topic, be it climate change, US politics or cultural diversity, 我们都准备好了. As for set phrases, “Everything was/is/has been (no consensus there among the students) mentioned.” is an all-time favorite – it’s used at least once per discussion. Our essays don’t read any different from those templates. And this isn’t China, it’s a European country. We really do need innovations in ESL teaching (or any other language, for that matter) – and dedicated students as well as teachers. Neither of them ought to cheat.

  13. Amusing, yes, very amusing. I feel your pain – imagine screening applicants to a college or school. For example, screening thousands of 2 page essays from high school/junior college transfer students into the UC system. Your faith in humanity might take a hit!

  14. Part of me (English teacher, son of two teachers, lover of good writing) wants to cry reading these.

    Part of me says “Damn, I could probably make some money writing some GOOD essay templates and charging for them.”

    Then I remember that this is China, and there is no way to charge money for any kind of intellectual property.

  15. […] present, there is no doubt that 主题 plays an increasingly indispensable role in 领域/运用范围. We are all aware that, like everything else, 主题 has both favorable and unfavorable […]

  16. haha, like Ben Ross, I sometimes Google student’s essays and in one Business English class I found more than 50% had copied off the internet.

    To drive home my ‘rage’, I picked out one student and totally ripped into her, quoting the company website where her essay was copied from. After about 15 minutes of moralising about the ethics of cheating, she asked me to click the ‘About Us’ section and pointed to her own picture on the webpage. Turns out she was the owner of the company. Crap!

  17. Makes me wonder why I’m spending so much time teaching academic writing to grad students.

  18. I find it particularly amusing that my browser flagged your link as unsecure, with Chrome’s typical “Oh noes! Please don’t stay on this page!” giant red screen.

    (We need to name that screen. Microsoft Windows had the Blue Screen of Death — maybe Google Chrome has the “Big Red Panic Screen”?)

  19. Mere use of formulas does not bad writing make—see Brendan’s charming mad-lib. Teaching writing in China, I’ve found that the most reliable way to detect things written by template or copied wholesale is not the suspiciously, intermittently advanced English or even the key phrases, but rather the trite and soulless tone of the whole piece. Written by nobody to express nothing!

    On the other hand, who besides the unlucky graders cares if people write lame, pointless essays on standardized language exams? In fact it seems like the ideal context for them. I just wish the influence of the tests on the classroom were less, so I didn’t have to resort to threats, punishment and cunningly designed assignments to keep the mad-libs out.

    Surely, hopefully, students are not being taught to write such empty nonsense when they’re doing their real writing, in their native language…but that’s out of my 外教 hands.

  20. Using “Chaon’s penis” as the 主题 in Essay Template 2 results in a perfectly logical and undeniably correct written work.

  21. This would explain the uncanny similarity between students’ practice SAT writing essays that I grade every week as test prep instructor here in Shanghai. I’m two weeks new to China and I assumed that culture was the reason behind the soulless and formulaic writing I’ve seen here compared to the US – but some of these essays look identical to these templates. Thanks for the heads up.

  22. Any templates for Chinese language essay writing?! This could save me loads of time every week!!!

  23. “Any templates for Chinese language essay writing?! This could save me loads of time every week!!!”

    Which is why so many chinese do it, why waste time and energy being creative.

    Only now I know why a Chinese girl gave me her Essay and told me she was afraid someone on the internet had stolen it and got me to check, she was doing a degree coarse in Business here in Ireland and must have wanted to check if I could find the source of her hard work. She passed also.

  24. First of all, I want to thank you for this post. I find this subject and the corresponding site very interesting. I’d never been to your site, but a friend of mine said she read this post and thought I’d find it interesting because I teach writing at Shenzhen University.

    I honestly do not have a problem with formulaic essays as in my experience there is a lot to be learned through copying good structures. In English writing classes in the US (I was a high school English teacher before), we teach a very formulaic 5 paragraph essay. It is not a fill-in-the-blank structure, but it has enough of a strict format and plenty of stock phrases that make it more like putting a puzzle together than painting a picture. The point of a 5 paragraph essay and perhaps these stock essays that the Chinese use is to communicate one’s point in a short period of time for testing purposes. This standard structure makes the essays easier to grade.

    The issue is that some students mistake these stock essays-for-the-purposes-of-tests-and-other-large-group-assessments for real writing which seeks to express a point through the most appropriate format and convey a feeling through the most carefully chosen words and sentences. In my classes, I teach the American essay format as a part of our writing course. I then differentiate that kind of essay writing from more creative essay writing. But of course, if the student does not have anything he/she cares about saying then there is nothing a teacher can do to prevent him/her from using stock essays and copying other people’s writing. I also only teach writing as a process and require my students to show me all stages of writing. This makes copying much harder.

    Anyway, my two cents or my two cent as my homies like to say.

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