Stay

Come into the sunshine

Why do you stay in the shade?

You’re insane if you think I’d keep you from your happiness

You always told me you let everyone down

So why am I surprised

I’m not the one who has to face your mistakes

So why should I be afraid

The only reason I keep the door open is because I know you’ll need us when it ends

When you’re left alone with her and she pushes you out before locking the door

We could be the ants in the grasshopper tale

But then we’d be like you and we need to be better than that

I’ll pretend to listen this time when you tell me how the world is cruel to her

I’ll pretend to understand this time

How someone can be so devoid of love

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Summer

“If summer comes, can fall be far behind?” – Professor Zuckermann in the novel Making History by Stephen Fry

When the mangoes ripen
And I mean, really ripen
Every bite is chock-full of flavour and sweetness
You know that Summer is here

When the sky darkens during the day
There are floods and droughts
Food poisoning in bouts
You know that Summer is here

When the sun gets into your bones
Warms your very core
Browns your skin
You know that Summer is here

When you say your goodbyes
When you try to change something in yourself
The evenings are still and beautiful
You know Summer is still here

When the rain pours down gently all day
You finally let go
Bring out the sweaters and bring on the labour
You’ll see Summer next year

The IELTS exam – beat them at their own game

The IELTS exam. Some talk about it dismissively, others know it as the monster under their bed, in their nightmares, in their closet, and so forth. This post is about my experience with this exam.
First and foremost, what you need to know is that everyone has a very different experience. This is based on their level of English, their amount of preparation, how well they understood the pattern demanded from them, what sources they used to prepare and what scores they required. A minimum of 7 in each component with an overall score of 8 is a terrible score for one person, but it’s the score of someone else’s dreams. When listening to other people who gave this exam, including this post, keep these discrepancies in mind and do not rely on a few people’s opinions. In addition, many people are not honest about their preparation. This can be due to many reasons, and a common one is simply embarrassment at the amount of work they had to put in, and the number of attempts they had.
However, one rule that applies to everyone, is that you need two things to get a good score. These are

  • Understanding the pattern of the exam
  • Reasonably good English

Some people are naturals at both of the above, and these are the lucky ones. For myself, I had to work hard to understand the pattern. Disclaimer: this rule is not my own. I heard it in a video from Jay, an IELTS expert at e2language.com.
There is some good news for those patient enough to read this far down. You do not need to be a writer, have any specialist knowledge, or be good at arguing. Creativity in this exam is a drawback if anything.
The first lesson you can learn, is start and finish preparation well in time. Aim, as with all exams, to finish preparation at least 10 days before your test. After that, stress will probably ensure you study anyway so no need to worry about being burnt out or lazy in the last ten days. If you leave your preparation solely to the last ten days however, there is the risk of getting ill (this happened to me) or some personal problem resulting in minimal or no preparation at all.
The second lesson is, try and do the exam as quickly as possible, both in practice and in real life. Leave room for error so that any distractions or, as it were, coughing fits (this also happened to me), do not make a difference to your performance. Use any extra time for rechecking. I rechecked and found mistakes in every written component of the exam.
The first time I gave this exam, the materials I used were the last three Cambridge IELTS books and the free, limited version of Road to IELTS you get when you sign up for the exam with the British council. These are generally reasonable guides to Speaking, Listening and Reading. On the other hand, they disclose almost nothing about how to get higher scores in Writing. The sample essays given are scored 7 or even lower. This makes it extremely difficult to comprehend what their criteria for marking is above band 7. So for success in Writing, I turned to the aforementioned e2language.com in my second attempt, and managed to get higher than my desired score.
I think of the test as having 2 parts, not 4. The objective, unbiased part is Listening and Reading. This is because there is one, fixed answer in the mark scheme for each question. Each question has equal marks and if you answer correctly, you get those marks. I practised about 5 passages in total, and got only one question part wrong. Thus I moved on to practice other components. In the actual exam I did even better and scored full marks in both. I recommend an exam center with headphones if you are as easily distracted as I am, or your hearing isn’t particularly good. The second time I was in a center with speakers and missed the last sentence of Listening. The take home message from this is, leave no component untouched, but work more on your weaknesses.

Moving on to where human bias can sneak in; Speaking and Writing. It is unlikely that your Speaking test will be marked unfairly because it is recorded. In Writing however, mistakes in marking do occur, as every examiner has slightly different preferences as to language and essay structure, and a different temperament. One examiner marks your essays so there is no second opinion. I found Writing the most challenging, and many if not most candidates share this view. Once I understood what they want from a candidate though, this component became easy as well. Examiners are given guidelines and if they see you following them, they’re happy to award you the marks. These guidelines are a well-kept secret though. They’re not in any of the official practice materials, nor are they divulged in most official academies by the IELTS administrators as far as I know, which is a shame. I did find E2 language to be a great source in this respect. You can find a more detailed discussion of Writing here.
That’s all for now, folks. My initial post was extremely long, so I decided to make this into a series of posts. You can find the other ones here.

Please send any queries to ruqayaidrees@gmail.com

Common mistakes in IELTS Academic Writing 2018

You will rarely, if ever, hear of people getting a 9 in either Speaking or Writing. Personally I have never heard of these scores. This should not be the case, since there is a clear mark scheme for each band. If you make no grammar mistakes, answer the task set fully, have a logical and coherent structure, handle complex arguments well and use language appropriately, there is no reason you should not get a 9. Yet, almost everybody loses 0.5 here. So, you must assume you will too and try not to lose any more. In a way, these sections are marked negatively, unlike the other sections. Realistically, you start out at 8.5. So if you want a 7.5, if you lose one band, you will make it. But if you lose two bands or even 1.5 bands, you will not get your required score. Sounds unfair? That’s life. Brace yourself, move on and learn how to beat ’em at their own game.

From what I understand, in Writing there are several common mistakes that can lose you a band, or even more. I have put what are probably the more dangerous mistakes in bold.

  • Not understanding the task fully, and answering less than required, or more. In the words of an IELTS examiner, the exam is a transaction between the candidate and the examiner.
  • Not reaching the word count (more than a fifth of candidates, according to e2language), or going high above the word count.
  • Inconsistent or wrong tenses throughout an essay
  • At least half of your sentences have grammar mistakes (and at least 2/3 should be correct if you want band 8)
  • Writing after you have been told to stop writing
  • Not sticking to the theme of a paragraph
  • Using arguments that are too complex to comprehend
  • Using words you do not fully know how to spell or use in a sentence
  • Failing to structure your essay according to what examiners are used to
  • Using only simple or compound sentences, or using sentences that are too long and complex to make sense of easily.

From this long, sad list you can see that your essay is a boat that you need to navigate carefully through troubled waters and jagged rocks. The good news is that most of these mistakes are surprisingly easy to avoid, if you learn how to. I’ll leave the teaching to the experts, but I will refer to a few resources and compile a list shortly. However, before that, let’s elaborate some of the above mistakes. Bear with me, I know this is well above 250 words.

Task achievement

So this is a big concept to understand, which is why I thought it deserved a section on its own. Answering the question sounds simple, but it is really? The answer is yes, if you know what they are looking for. Most people, including those who get high scores, don’t. The Cambridge IELTS books contain sample answers, but very few of those answers have a very high score; I couldn’t find any above 7. However, many free YouTube videos have tutorials who take you through each question type and how you can structure your answer to score the highest possible marks. Let’s run through some examples of failed task achievement to clarify this further.

You run out of time

It’s never happened to me, but it does to a lot of people. Time flies under pressure. And once it starts flying, you’re panicking, and if you miss for example the conclusion…

You give them too little

They asked you for reasons, or advantages and disadvantages. In the plural. That means you should give at least 2 each. If you gave one reason why you agree and one reason why you disagree, you lose points no matter how convincing your arguments were.

You give them too much

Writing too much can be detrimental for two reasons (see what I did there?). Firstly, giving irrelevant information weakens your argument. If they asked you why you agree or disagree, and you give both sides of the argument, you then have to state that you partially agree. This itself is a tricky position to be in. One of my friends insists that it’s not problematic, but with her skills perhaps it isn’t. For most of us, “to what extent do you agree” is a question that is difficult to answer accurately unless you completely agree or disagree. And in task achievement, accuracy and precision are everything. So why not state a strong opinion, and then support it with only reasons why you agree/disagree. With the introduction and conclusion this makes four paragraphs in total. Easier to write, easier for the examiner to read. I typically use absolutely agree/disagree as a synonym.

Secondly, you’re using up your precious time. This adds to the risk of running out of time. If your time management is great, why not use that sweet, sweet extra time to improve your essay, recheck for mistakes, count the words exactly, substitute words for more appropriate, fancier words, turn simpler sentences into more complex ones, add linking words, etc. See what I mean? Why on earth would you want to waste this time on writing something the examiner will sigh and ignore (best case scenario), or burst into tears at?
Hence, I recommend picking a side and limiting yourself to two reasons for that side if that is what the question asks for. We know you’re all brilliant and bursting with ideas but the examiners are not looking for you to convince them. They’re just looking for task achievement. If the question is, give advantages and disadvantages, give 2 each. If they ask for your opinion state it clearly and plainly, and if they do not, do not give your opinion. In task 1, you have to be especially careful not to make any assumptions, give opinions or draw conclusions from the data. The most frequent advice I get about my own essays is “rein it in mate”.

For help with this, I advise going to a teacher. Practice the various question types; they all ask you for something slightly different. You can find many tutorials online and in academies, both for free and paid. If you follow the instructions and format these wonderful people have devised, it’s easy to achieve the required word count as well without going too high either.

Cheating

Before you skip this paragraph, you must fully understand what encompasses cheating. For example, speaking or signalling to a candidate from after you have entered the examination hall to the time they allow you to leave. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the test in front of you at that moment. Use this time to pray, daydream, sleep, perform silent yoga, whatever. Just do not talk to others. Ignore them if they talk to you. Look down or straight ahead. Raise your hand to call an invigilator. Another action labelled as cheating is writing after the time has ended. You must be vigilant about time; a good practice is to write down the start and end times on your question paper. Know when time is up before the invigilator announces it. Put down your pencil, close your question paper and sit back and relax. You’ve done your best and you will be rewarded. The consequences of being accused of cheating are often terrible. You will not get a result and may be banned from future exams. It’s not worth it.

Grammar, punctuation, tenses, spelling

This is the probably the only component of the exam where your English skills are tested. This is bad news for those who think their English is “perfect” because perfect English has no additional marks, and very bad news for many non-native speakers because this is probably their weakest area and this supposedly puts a limit on the band score they can achieve. Many a post have I read on Facebook, stating they do not understand why they keep getting less than 7, with multiple mistakes in the post itself. If you are making this quantity of mistakes in 5 sentences, more than half of your sentences in Writing will be marked as incorrect in the exam. You might also lose points in the other components as well.

However, before you jump off the roof, this can be remedied. Speak in English with others and at home. Listen to the radio and television. Copy their sentences. Talk back to them. The BBC radio/TV/website is a strong recommendation for “the Queen’s English” (BBC Radio 1 and 5 are my personal favourites). Read good literature, which is sadly rare in popular modern books. Go to the classics. Practice grammar books on the toilet. Learning English can be lots of fun. Watching movies and chatting to friends? Who else gets to do that and call it studying? There is no need to be ashamed of your accent either. Somebody recently told me accents score higher in Speaking because they want to promote diversity. Many native English speakers make mistakes too so do not be embarrassed to make mistakes and importantly, accept criticism. You should be proud of who you are and the effort you are putting in, not shy.
A few tips I can give especially for Writing are:

  • Pay attention to what tense you use throughout the essay. Simple past tense for task 1 and simple present tense for task 2 are the most common requirements, but be careful. They may give you predicted data for the future in task 1. They may give you opinions about the past or future in task 2. I’ve noticed that it’s best to avoid the past present tense or other complex tenses. Even if you use complex tenses accurately, the examiner may disagree with your use.
  • Avoid semicolons altogether; personally, I think they are a beautiful invention, but again many examiners disagree over how they should be used. Similarly, best to avoid hyphens (-), colons (:), exclamation marks (!), brackets [( )], forward slashes (/), and about any other interesting symbol you can think of.
  • It is okay to use the Oxford Comma, and I will defend its use to my last breath.
  • Do use capital letters at the start of each sentence and put a full stop at the end. Practice doing this even while texting or posting on social media.
  • Avoid abbreviations such as e.g., i.e., it’s, you’re, etc., and so on. They class as informal language. In task 1, you can use the UK or the USA but don’t forget to add a “the” in front of them. In task 2, it would be even better to write them out in full on the first use and put their abbreviation in brackets. Example: It rains a lot in the United Kingdom (UK). Locals in the UK are well prepared for this and carry an umbrella or raincoat at all times.
  • You must obey these rules in Reading and Listening as well. If the fill-in-the-blank is at the start of a sentence or a proper noun, make the first letter of the word a capital letter. If it is in the middle of a sentence and a common noun, use small letters. Spell correctly; copy spellings from the reading passages. Use the time at the end to keep double checking all of this. These two sections have fixed answers and are marked with no bias, so you can lose the mark for that question even if your answer is correct. This is a mistake people with good English make often as well.

That’s all for now, folks. My initial post was extremely long, so I decided to make this into a series of posts. You can find the others here.

Please send any queries to ruqayaidrees@gmail.com

Open

You’re like an open wound
Touching only makes it worse
But it’s near impossible to ignore you

You’re like an open ending
I always feel like I’m missing something
Never want to read you again
But wistful for more

You’re like a horror film
You fill me with terror
Don’t want to see
But keep sneaking peeks

You’re like those box office hit movies
So predictable
But can never see what you’re about

Twilight

I used to look up into the night sky and wonder
How can it contain stars and pools of endless depth at the same time?
Now I merely wander in and water here and there
Watch my reflection in the half sphere

Where the water doesn’t run at night
It calmly rests
Until the light of day
When it will flow with a new pace

Blue

How do you catch a bird
Without any weapons?
You let it come to you
You are patient
You feed it crumbs
Hoping it will take them
It may take months
It may take years
It may not take at all
It may get scared
It may fly away

The truth is, you shouldn’t catch a bird at all
Would you shut it in a cage?
Keep it in a permanent rage?
Till its spirit is broken?
No, if it does not wish to come to you
You’re better off being alone and blue
And it wild, beautiful and free
Like it was always meant to be

Tried and tested chocolate cake recipe!

Okay so this is the best chocolate cake recipe I have ever come across, it’s my go-to recipe for both chocolate cake and cupcakes. It’s really moist, rises well and as long as you follow the recipe, pretty much foolproof too.

Here is the link to it: http://www.bestmoistchocolatecakerecipe.com/

Since it’s not mine, my sister discovered it on the internet.

The icing given on the site works well, but if you want it to be really chocolate-y, I use the icing from Nigella’s chocolate cherry cupcakes, which is very easy to make and is really delicious:

http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/chocolate-cherry-cupcakes-144

Happy baking!

Life In Medical College

“You! You stand up! Why you are not paying attention?”
The professor’s words made me jerk out of my seat slightly, where I had been nodding off. I looked around quickly (while mentally reviewing the professor’s grammatically incorrect sentence) and sighed with relief when I saw that he was pointing someone else out. I felt sorry for that guy though; maybe he was as tired as I was and now he had to go and see the professor at 10am to get yelled at even more. I had been fighting to stay awake the whole lesson and the room had started swimming before my eyes. Needless to say, the scare I got kept me awake for the remainder of the lesson. And as soon as the lesson ended, I went out and got cold coffee.
Oh, the woes of a medical student. I have managed to avoid addiction to caffeinated drinks so far. It might not last forever though – if you ask me, I’m fighting a losing battle.
The first time I drank coffee to stay awake was in the first few months of medical college. The system of learning was so different to what I had previously experienced in my A Levels that I came home every day, mentally exhausted. Our A Level exams had been conducted by the University of Cambridge, but the medical college I attend is a local one; most of our teachers have studied in local education systems all their lives. Our local Pakistani education system has its merits; the habit of rote learning is not one of them. It took me a few months to realise that the advice given by some of our teachers is in no way to be taken seriously (“You cannot survive medical college if you sleep more than 6 out of 24 hours!”, “Anatomy is all about learning facts, very few concepts involved”, and, what is probably the worst yet, “Be attentive and make notes of everything during the lecture and you won’t have to study much at home”). What I also learnt is that some of the advice given sounds ridiculous, but is to be taken seriously (“If you don’t give headings with a marker in the exams, you won’t make a good impression on the examiner and you won’t get full marks”, “There are more marks for writing the procedure of the practical down than for performing it” and, most incredulously, “Colour your diagrams in the exam”).
Being a complete “newbie” to this system of education, I failed my very first test.
Have you ever failed a test before? I hadn’t. My (equally dorky) friends and I maintained that one only failed if they tried to fail in A Levels. In medical college, this cockiness goes out of you and you learn to eat your words. And boy, do they taste bitter. The next test, I studied harder for than I had ever studied. I drank so much caffeine that if I didn’t drink it, I’d nod off. And I passed.
By 4 marks.
Moving on from that depressing note, I consistently improved in the tests once I learnt how and from where to study. Diagrams help. So do pacing up and down the room and reciting things out loud. The bravest ones ask their siblings to test them. Making a good impression on the teacher (alright, let’s be honest here; this is essentially sucking up) helps you sail through vivas with the most ridiculous of answers. The confidence with which you assert your answers also helps greatly; one can pass off inaccurate answers if they declare they are dead certain and one can fail miserably if their answer is correct but the examiner thinks you are guessing at it because you mumbled out of nervousness.
And do not even get me started on the people who decide to study medicine in general. Like me, there is obviously a glitch somewhere in their brain if they willingly signed up for this. In medical college, everyone is a loser. When you arrive in first year, everyone is eager for a first start. We divide them into the people who want to be popular here, the people who are firm social rejects and the people who want to top every test. I warn you this is not a clear division; the last category invariably overlaps with one of the others. Thankfully, after a month when people start failing in their very first test of a subject, some give up their dreams of topping every test and decide to focus on living their life instead. Others, however, only become more determined. This category goes on decreasing in strength throughout the year, until in the end, only a handful are left, and these are the ones to watch out for, the ones who are our future bosses.
Some people have been living in the shadows all their life and will do anything and everything for attention. These are the “mean girls” (and guys) of medical college. Fortunately, most of them realise eventually that they will have to live with the same classmates for the next five years, so they probably shouldn’t try to ruin their lives. Unfortunately, it takes quite a while for some of them to realise this, even years. This category is rather pathetic. Having never played the villain before, they are rather see-through and get left with no real friends, no career since they were too busy dreaming up plots to ruin other’s lives to plan for their own lives, and no life in general. Congratulations!
Then there are the nice enough people, who are nice enough when you don’t need their help, but disappear faster than you can say “Diagon Alley!” when you do.
There are the people whom you dismiss at first for being “not your type” but then become really good friends with later when you realise that nobody in your class is ever going to be “of your type”.
There are people whom you think might by some holy miracle be of your type, but are too shy to do more than greet them as you pass by in the hallways (and in all probability, they are too).
On the bright side, this very shyness saves you from fights because everyone in medical college, no matter how bold they appear to be, is a coward at heart and too afraid to confront you with a problem lest they make an enemy for the next five years. On the down side (I’m a glass half empty sort of person), this very cowardice means that any misunderstandings will probably never get resolved, and people pretend to be friendly while secretly puzzling over the inner workings of the other’s mind.
This could go on forever and ever; while people share some characteristics, every person is a unique blend (for better or for worse). So I will stop here. The second time I drank coffee to stay awake? That’s another story, for another time.