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Common Mistakes in the DSE Writing Paper

You have memorised lists of vocabulary. You’ve done so much writing that your arm is going to fall off. You’ve followed the format of sample essays. You have even picked a topic you’re familiar with. Then why aren’t you getting the grade you deserve in your DSE writing paper?

Unfortunately, EVERYONE has done those things to prepare for the HKDSE exam, so you need to find a way to get out ahead of the pack. I see so many students making the same mistakes that I know there are a few key areas which can make all the difference to your grade.

Take a look at these four common mistakes that people make in the exam. If you can avoid doing these things, you’ll really stand out and get the grade you deserve.

Mistake 1: Using stock phrases or overly complicated vocabulary

It’s tempting to use stock phrases (i.e. frequently used phrases recommended by tutors or other students) and the fancy vocabulary you’ve worked so hard to memorise, especially when you do not have a particularly strong base in English to begin with. However, consciously using vocabulary that’s beyond your level frequently results in unnatural English and it’s a big no-no according Paper 2 mark scheme. The examiners require vocabulary that is ‘well-chosen and used appropriately to express subtleties of meaning.’ Believe it or not, the eagle-eyed markers can see exactly what you’re doing when you jam in vocabulary that you’re not comfortable with.

Here are the stock phrases to avoid, according to the DSE marker’s reports:
1. future pillars of society
2. burn the midnight oil
3. a myraid of
4. in a nutshell
5. make both ends meet
6. a hot topic
7. last but not least
8. it is crystal clear that
9. every coin has two sides
10. tip of the iceberg

Mistake 2: Overlooking the importance of sentence structures

While many students rely heavily on vocabulary lists to boost their grades, they overlook another key area which can make a big difference to their grade – sentence structures. You might be surprised to see how using a combination of carefully chosen sentence structures in your writing can enrich what you say and add emphasis to your points. In fact, the DSE English Paper 2 mark scheme specifically states that your essay should include ‘unlimited range of accurate sentence structures, with an excellent grasp of more complex structures.’ Surprisingly few students are able to do this, and sentence variety is often what separates the good from the great grades.

Mistake 3: Omitting links between paragraphs

Do you often feel that your writing is fragmented, as if each paragraph is taken from a different piece of writing? That’s a common problem for DSE candidates. It’s caused by students memorising the standard structure of a paragraph and mechanically filling the framework with information suitable for a topic. This might be enough to get you a Level 3, or even a Level 4 if you are lucky, but nothing more than that. An essay is not a list of small arguments written out consecutively. Instead, it should be a development of arguments which build upon and complement each other. To establish links between paragraphs so that your essay can become more integrated, you will have to find the common ground or differences between your arguments and try to bring the ideas together.

Mistake 4: Creating run-on sentences

You may also have heard this called a comma splice – it’s when two separate sentences are incorrectly joined together by a comma. This isn’t a grammatical problem in Chinese, and many students carry on the habit into English. Here is an example.

      The government should not implement this policy, it is infeasible.

Candidates should separate the two clauses with a full-stop:

      The government should not implement this policy. It is infeasible.

Or they can link the two clauses with a conjunction:

      The government should not implement this policy as it is infeasible.


At i-Learner, we understand the importance of catering to the needs of students of varied abilities. This is often neglected at higher levels, which prompted us to design this elaborate structure of senior secondary courses to provide the best education to students preparing for the HKDSE Examination.

Our DSE course is specifically fashioned to mould to students’ needs through small-class teaching so as to maximise their chances of attaining the best results possible in the most important examination of their lives. To better facilitate our students’ learning journey, our DSE course is paired with our specially-designed e-Learning platform so that students practise and further polish the techniques acquired in class.

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