How to improve your IELTS writing skills

The International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, is an international standardised test of English language proficiency for people for whom English is a second language. Here are some tips that will help improve your writing skills ahead of the written part of the test.

 1. Know which type of IELTS exam you need to take 

There are two different IELTS writing exams, the Academic and the General. The Academic IELTS is suitable for people wanting to study in an English-speaking higher education environment. The General exam is suitable for people wanting to study at a lower level or who need to demonstrate their English level for work or other purposes. The main differences between the two exams are the topics and language you are expected to use. This blog post focuses on the Academic writing test. 

  • At The London School of English we offer the Academic IELTS Preparation course [link

2. Every word counts 

The written exam is split into two tasks. The first task is expected to take 20 minutes and has a minimum word count of 150 words. The second task is expected to take 40 minutes, with a minimum word count of 250 words. The word counts and time limits reflect the fact that task 2 counts for twice as many marks as task. 

You can be penalised for writing less than the minimum word count. While you can write as many words as you like, remember to use your time wisely. You need to complete both tasks and still have enough time to check and correct your work.  

3. Use the correct format 

Stay focused as you can also be penalised for going off-topic or if your answer is not written out in full. Do not use bullet points or note form in any part of the written work. And, of course,  it should be entirely your own work and not copied from another source. All answers should be written on the answer booklet provided. 

4. Read the questions carefully  

You lose marks if you answer the task incorrectly or answer it incompletely because you haven’t read the question properly. This is a common mistake to avoid. 

Task 1 

Task 1 assesses your ability to identify the most important and relevant information in a graph, chart, table, or diagram. You should give a well-structured overview using accurate, academic language in a semi-formal or neutral style. 

5. Focus on the main theme 

Write about the highlights of the information - a common mistake that candidates make is to describe the information in too much detail. This is very important as you could lose marks for not answering the question in the right way. 

6. Practise the language 

If you are writing about predicted trends, you will need to use expressions such as: 

‘Expected to’. For example, sales of X are expected to reach 20,000 by the end of 2019. 

If you are writing about a process, you will need to use the present tense because you are talking about a repeated activity that doesn’t change.  

It’s not enough just to say something ‘increased’ or ‘decreased’, ‘fell’ or ‘rose’ – you should say by how much. For example: 

Sales fell slightly between the first and second quarters (from 64 to 59)

Sales increased dramatically between the second and third quarters (from 59 to 89) 

Using expressions such as ‘about’, ‘approximately’, ‘roughly, ‘just under or just over’ is a good idea, especially when reporting figures. This is especially useful if it is not obvious from a graph what the exact number is. Don’t waste time trying to calculate the exact figure if hasn’t been made clear.   

Task 2 

This task assesses your ability to present a clear, organised argument, using relevant, appropriate language. In task 2 you will be expected to write an essay about topics like: 

  • Technology 

  • Art  

  • Education  

  • The environment  

  • Government and society  

  • Health  

  • Jobs and employment  

Again, your writing style should reflect the academic nature of the test, so use a semi-formal, neutral style. It should sound like the type of essay you would write for your tutor at university. The words you use should also be more formal, so for instance, use ‘children’ rather than ‘kids’. Avoid contractions in your formal/semi-formal writing: replace don’t with does not; can’t with cannot; doesn’t with does not, etc.

7. Read the question carefully again 

Make sure you read the task carefully and respond fully. Only respond to the actual topic in the task, for example, if the topic is about a specific aspect of education, do not write about education in general, or a different aspect of education. Remain on topic and make sure the work is your own. (It is okay to provide evidence or examples to support ideas, but do provide references if you know them to give credit to authors.) 

8. Build your essay

A sample topic would be:  

‘In the past, when students did a university degree, they tended to study in their own country. Nowadays, they have more opportunity to study abroad. Do the advantages of this development outweigh the disadvantages? Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience’. 

Begin your answer by presenting the topic and making a general statement. For example: ‘It is becoming increasingly popular for young people to leave their own countries in order to study at university.’  

You can then say that this trend has both advantages and disadvantages, and this is what you are going to discuss. (Hint: if the task asks you to discuss ‘advantages and ‘disadvantages’ you should focus on both sides of the question equally, to give a balanced answer.) 

9. Use your own ideas

Make sure that you don’t just copy the language from the instructions. You will be expected to paraphrase or use your own words as much as possible to demonstrate comprehension.  

It’s important to develop your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to say: ‘One of the advantages of studying abroad is that you can experience a different language and culture.’ You need to explain why this is an advantage, or what the benefits will be. For instance: ‘This provides you with skills which can be useful throughout your life.’ 

 10. Make your answer visually appealing 

Organise your answer into clear paragraphs. Plan these as part of your preparation before you begin to write anything. For example: For an ‘advantages/ disadvantages’ essay you would probably need four paragraphs: 

  • An introduction 

  • One paragraph to discuss the advantages 

  • One paragraph to discuss the disadvantages 

  • A conclusion 

You will lose marks if your answer has not been split up into paragraphs, or if you haven’t used them in the correct way. 

Good luck! 

Glossary: 

Improve: to make or become better 

Standardised: to assure consistency 

Proficiency: high level of skill 

Suitable: a tool or something that is right or appropriate for a purpose 

Demonstrate: to show something 

Booklet: a small thin book with paper covers 

Paraphrase: to re-write something using your own words 

Essay: a short piece of writing on a particular subject 

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