How to maximise your IELTS writing score
Having rich vocabulary and accurate grammar isn't enough to succeed in IELTS. The writing section in the academic IELTS exam also tests your ability to organise your ideas and communicate your ideas appropriately. In this article, trainer Daragh gives effective strategies that help you use your time in the exam effectively, gain extra points, and not lose points unnecessarily. He also gives a detailed overview of writing tasks one and two, and the question types that may be included in your exam.
Overview of the IELTS writing section
The IELTS writing exam lasts for an hour, and it consists of two tasks. Both of these are compulsory, so you have to do them both. Before we look at each one, here’s some general advice for the writing exam as a whole.
The first thing you should do is to read the rubric (the instructions for the task) very carefully. As you read, underline or circle the key words – the most important words or ideas in the question. This will help you to focus on what you need to write about. One of the most common mistakes that candidates make is not answering the task correctly, or answering it incompletely, because they haven’t read the question properly. If this happens you will lose marks – so be careful!
Once you’ve finished reading the task, you should spend time planning your answer. It’s very tempting to start writing immediately, but this really isn’t a good idea – you need to think about what information or ideas you’re going to include, how you’re going to structure your answer and what language you’re going to use. Good preparation will improve your chances of getting a good band score.
Organise your time so that you have enough time to answer both tasks. Another common mistake is for candidates to spend too much time on one task, so that they don’t have enough time for the other. Task 2 is worth twice as many marks as Task 1, so you should spend about 40 minutes on Task 2, and twenty minutes on Task 1.
Make sure that your answers are long enough. For Task 1, you are expected to write about 150 words and for task 2, about 250 words. If you write less than this, you may lose marks because you haven’t shown the examiner that your language is good enough for a higher band score. There’s no maximum word limit, but if you want to write more just remember that it needs to be relevant to the question. Long answers aren’t automatically better!
Let’s now turn to each individual task.
In this part you are given information about a topic and you have to write a summary of this information. It is always presented in visual form, as a graph, diagram, chart or table, and it usually describes how something has changed, or is expected to change, over a period of time. An example might be ‘sales of smartphones in three different shops in the year 2016.’
January - March
April - June
July - September
October - December
There are other types of questions that you may get in Task 1. One of these involves describing a process, which is usually about how something is made or produced (for example chocolate), or how something works. Another type of question asks you to describe the changes in two maps at two different moments in time. These maps might show a building, an outdoor area like a park or a university campus, or a town or village.
Whatever the task, it’s important to remember that you are expected to write about the main features of the information, in other words the most interesting or significant points. A common mistake that candidates make is to describe the information in detail – but that’s not what the task is asking you to do!
Tips for Writing Task 1
It’s really important that you spend time analyzing the information you have before you start writing about it. Identify the most significant features, for example where something begins or ends, or any important changes that you can see. These are the things you should concentrate on in your answer.
Think about the tenses or other structures that you will need to use in your answer. If you’re talking about past events, like in the example above, you’ll need to use past simple, e.g ‘sales of smartphones in Shop C fell slightly between the first and second quarters of 2016’. However, if you’re writing about predicted trends, you’ll need to use expressions such as ‘expected to’- ‘sales of X are expected to reach 20,000 by the end of 2019’. If you’re writing about a process you’ll only need to use present simple, because you’re talking about a repeated activity that doesn’t change.
It’s not enough just to say that something ‘increased’ or ‘decreased’, ‘fell’ or ‘rose’ – you should also say by how much. So, in the example of shop C, ‘sales fell slightly between the first and second quarters of 2016’ (from 64 to 59). Similarly, you might say that sales in shop C ‘increased dramatically’ between the second and third quarters (from 59 to 89).
It’s a good idea to use expressions like ‘about’, ‘approximately’, ‘roughly’, ‘just under/over’ when reporting figures. This is especially true when it’s not obvious from the graph what the exact number is. For example, a number like 194 can be reported as ‘just under 200’. Don’t waste time trying to calculate the exact figure if it isn’t already clear.
Writing Task 2
- This task requires you to write an essay on a given topic, and there are a number of different possible types. For example, you might be asked to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a certain topic, for example going abroad to study at university. You could also be asked if you agree or disagree with an opinion (‘prison is the best punishment for people who break the law’) or if something is a positive or negative development.
- Another type of question is the ‘problem and solution’ essay, where you have to identify the causes of a common social problem and propose some solutions to it. An example might be the problem of obesity, so you might talk about poor eating habits, lack of exercise and so on.
- It's very important that you do what the task requires, so if it refers to ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’ you need to write about both. As we said earlier, make sure that you read the question carefully so that you know exactly what you have to do. Ideally, you should focus equally on both sides of the question so that your answer will be balanced.
Tips for Task 2
Begin your answer by presenting the topic. You can start by 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 that this is what you are going to discuss. Make sure, however, that you don’t just copy the language from the rubric – you should paraphrase or use your own words as much as possible.
It’s important to develop your ideas properly. It’s not enough to say, for example, ‘one of the advantages of studying abroad is that you can experience a different language and culture’. You also need to explain why this is an advantage, or what the possible benefits are – ‘this can make you a more open-minded and tolerant person’, or ‘this provides you with a skill which can be useful throughout your life’. Don’t just present an idea and then quickly move on to the next one – you need to expand on it.
Make sure that you organise your answer into clear paragraphs. You should make a paragraph plan as part of your preparation before you write anything. For an ‘advantages/disadvantages’ essay, you would probably need four paragraphs – an introduction, one paragraph each to discuss the advantages and disadvantages and a conclusion. You will lose marks for organisation if your answer has no paragraphs, or if you haven’t used them properly.
Be careful with register – in other words, how formal your writing sounds. It should sound like the type of essay you would write for your tutor at university, so the tone should be relatively formal. For example, instead of using contractions such as ‘can’t’, ‘doesn’t, ‘won’t’, you should use the full forms instead – ‘cannot, does not, will not’ - as these sound more formal. Similarly, avoid using informal vocabulary when there’s a more formal equivalent - ‘children’ is more appropriate in an academic essay than ‘kids’.
This post was written by Daragh, one of our trainers at The London School of English.
Test your knowledge
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1. The writing exam takes sixty minutes.
2. Tasks 1 and 2 are worth equal marks.
3. There’s a minimum word limit for each task
4. You don’t need to describe every detail of the information in Task 1.
5. There’s only one type of essay question.
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