Answer the Question, Not the Topic
One of the biggest complaints from IELTS teachers and examiners alike is most students’ inability to answer the question. Instead, many students write very generally about the topic and do not answer the question.
If we look at an example, you will see why:
Question-Global warming is one of the biggest threats humans face in the 21st century, and sea levels are continuing to rise at alarming rates.
What problems are associated with this, and what are some possible solutions?
Many students will see this question and write as much about global warming as they can think of. This is a mistake because the IELTS writing test is not a test of your knowledge; it is a test of your ability to answer the question with a high level of written English.
A good student would read the question carefully and realise that it is not asking you to talk about global warming; it is asking you to comment on sea level rises regarding humans. So the answer to the question will only talk about the problems humans face from sea level rises and nothing else.
I often tell my students that you should answer the question with a sniper rifle rather than a shotgun. Talking about the topic is the shotgun approach; you might hit a few things, but you are unlikely to hit the target in the way a sniper would.
Analyse the Question Properly
If you don’t answer the question fully, you can’t get over a band 5. It is that simple and probably the number one thing stopping people from getting a high score. It takes a long time to improve your grammar and vocabulary, but you can improve this very quickly.
Answering the question fully means reading it carefully and doing what it asks you to do.
Spend time reading the question carefully and thinking about exactly what the question is asking you to do.
A good way to think about this is to use keywords (general topic), micro-keywords (specific sub-topic) and instructions words (what we must do) when thinking about your answer. Let’s look at an example:
The continued rise in the world’s population is the greatest problem faced by humanity at the present time.
What are the causes of this continued rise?
Do you agree that it is the greatest problem faced by humanity?
The keywords here are ‘rise in the world’s population’. This is useful because we now know the general topic (population growth). However, we can’t write about this topic generally; we must think about it in more detail and figure out exactly what the question asks us to do.
The micro-keywords are ‘greatest problem‘ and ‘continued rise‘. Therefore, we have to think about this topic more specifically and consider if it really is the greatest problem we face, and we also have to comment on why it is continuing to rise.
Now we must look for the instruction words. There are two instruction words in this question – ‘causes‘ and ‘Do you agree‘. We must therefore talk about both of these things in our essay. If we don’t, or we write a sentence or two about one and focus on the other, we have not answered the question, and we can’t get over a band 5.
The students who get the highest marks always spend time making a plan before they start writing. I normally tell my students to spend at least 5 minutes planning and another couple of minutes analysing the question.
Many students don’t plan, which leads to them getting lost in the middle of their test and either having to start over again and losing lots of time or results of a very confusing essay that is difficult to follow. Think about it this way; if you were going to travel to a new place, would you take some time to look at a map, or would you start driving?
A plan can be very simple and just used to guide you.
For example, a plan for the question above might look like this:
This only took me a few minutes to write and will mean that I have a very clear essay and save me lots of time when I start to write.
Use an Appropriate Structure
IELTS task 2 questions generally follow a standard format. They will either ask your opinion about something, ask you to discuss different points of view, as you to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of something or discuss the causes/problems and solutions of something.
The great thing about this is that you can learn standard structures for each of these essays. I am not talking about memorising essays, you should never do this, but you should familiarise yourself with the standard structures.
For example, in a problem and solution essay, your structure should look something like this:
Sentence 1- Paraphrase Sentence
Sentence 2- Outline Sentence
Sentence 3- State Problem
Sentence 4- Explain Problem
Sentence 5- Result of Problem
Sentence 7- Example
Sentence 8- State Solution
Sentence 9- Explain Solution
Sentence 10- Example
Sentence 11- Conclusion
Sentence 12- Recommendation/Prediction
We use structures because they provide us with a proven formula to practice with, and then when you get into the exam, you will be able to apply it to any question.
Have a look at my other exam structures for task 2 and use them to practice with. Some of my students have already achieved a band score of 8 using them.
Don’t Show Off
To show off is to try to tell everyone how good you are at something. IELTS candidates try to show off by using very complicated vocabulary and advanced grammar and believe this will show the examiner how good they are and that they deserve a high score. The only problem with this is that many people use vocabulary and grammar they are unsure of, leading to many mistakes.
If you try to use advanced vocabulary and grammar structures incorrectly, you will get a lower score. Using a simpler structure you are 100% sure is correct is much better. I always tell my students to follow the 100% rule- if you are not 100% sure, don’t use it.
This is one of the biggest revelations my students have after their first class with me, and it leads to clearer writing and, ultimately, higher band scores.
Let’s look at an example:
The first paragraph is very clear and comes from a band 9 essay. The second paragraph tries to show off too much, leading to many grammar mistakes and inappropriate use of vocabulary. The second paragraph comes from a band 5 essay.
Next time you practice, follow the 100% rule, and your writing will really improve.
Make Your Opinion Clear
Most of the Task 2 questions ask you to give your opinion. You should clarify this in the introduction, conclusion and main body paragraphs. Make sure you state your opinion in the introduction if asked to do so, by saying:
- I believe that….
- It is agreed that…
- It is disagreed that…
- This essays agrees that….
- This essay does not agree that…..
The rest of your essay should then be used to demonstrate why you believe this to be true.
What Are Your Common Grammar Mistakes?
After marking thousands of IELTS papers, I can tell you that students tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly.
These small grammar mistakes might not seem very significant, but unless at least half of your sentences are 100% error-free, you cannot get over a band 7 for grammatical range and accuracy.
You should therefore get a native speaker or a professional IELTS teacher to mark some of your writing and tell you what your common grammar mistakes are, and then you can fix them. If you know the mistakes you are making, you can practice hard and eliminate them from your writing.
For more information about this, look at my article on the top 10 IELTS grammar mistakes.
Write Slightly Over the Word Limit
Did you know that IELTS examiners count every word of your writing test? It’s a very boring job, but they still do it.
For task 1, you have to write at least 150 words, and for task 2, at least 250 words. That means you will lose marks if you write 149 words for task 1. It is, therefore, essential that you write over the word limit.
You will not have time to count every word, so the best thing you can do is practice using the official answer sheets, and you will then know what 150 words and 250 words looks like on the page without having to count every word.
Many students also ask if writing over the word limit is better. The answer is no because you don’t have time and writing more than is required often leads to more grammar mistakes and your ideas becoming irrelevant. Try to write about 10-15% over what is required. This way, you will always exceed the word limit but not lose time or make mistakes.
Write Clear Topic Sentences
Topic sentences should be the first sentence you write in each main body paragraph and should tell the reader what the rest of the paragraph is about. These really pop out at the examiner and tell them exactly what the whole essay is about. They make your essay very clear and easy to read, making the examiner very happy and getting you higher marks.
Let’s look at an example paragraph:
The main cause of the rise in the world’s population is economic growth. As countries get richer they can afford better health care for their people and this leads to more babies and children surviving and then having children of their own. For example, since Brazil and India became ‘developed’ nations, their populations have increased dramatically by at least 6% a year.
The very first sentence of this paragraph tells the examiner exactly what the whole paragraph is about, and you should do this for your own Task 2 paragraphs.
Explain Your Points and Give Examples
The official task 2 band descriptors state that your ideas should be ‘relevant, fully extended and have well-supported ideas’.
This means that your ideas should answer the question (see IELTS writing tip #1) and be explained and supported with examples.
When you make a point, you should assume that the writer has no previous knowledge of the subject, and you have to explain what you mean. I often tell my students to pretend they are writing to a 10-year-old who has never heard of the topic they are writing about, which will help them fully explain their ideas.
You must also include a specific example of what you are talking about. This could be a newspaper article, a personal anecdote or some research that was recently done that relates to the question. The key is to try and be specific. Including specific countries or cities and dates will help you be more specific.
Lots of students complain that they cannot think of any specific examples. If you cannot think of a real example, make one up. The examiner will not check your examples for authenticity; it is not an honesty test but an English test. Just make sure your examples sound plausible.
Learn How to Paraphrase and Use Synonyms
Paraphrasing and using synonyms are two of the key skills required in the IELTS writing test. In fact, the examiner will be looking for your ability to do this.
Paraphrasing is simply restating a phrase or sentence with different words to have the same meaning.
Let’s have a look at an example:
Synonyms are different words that have the same or very similar meanings, such as man and male.
The first paragraph of all your IELTS task 2 essays should be a paraphrase of the question.
This tells the examiner that you have understood the question and you can paraphrase.
You will also have to use synonyms throughout your essay because the examiner will be looking to see how you can vary your vocabulary, thus demonstrating that you have a wide and varied vocabulary.
Don’t Memorise Answers
Every question is unique and will therefore require a unique answer. If you memorise answers and try to write them in the exam, your grammar and vocabulary will probably be very good, but it will be very obvious to the examiner that you have memorised an answer. This is considered copying, and the examiner can give you a band score of 0 for this.
The examiner will always know, so it is really not worth the risk.
It is worthwhile looking at good sample answers and using some of the functional language and structure from these, but please don’t copy it word for word.
Start Task 2 Before Task 1
Task 2 is worth two-thirds of the total marks of the IELTS writing exam, and task 1 is worth one-third. You should take both as seriously as each other, but because task 2 is worth more marks and takes longer, I advise my students to do task 2 first.
When you mark many IELT exams, you notice that many students fail to finish task 2. I think many people try to write the perfect task 1 answer or take too long trying to understand the data in task 1, and this leaves them with very little time to finish task 2.
Timing is key in all parts of the IELTS exam, so you should practice under exam conditions before you do the test.
It’s Not an Intelligence Test
One of the biggest complaints I hear from students about the IELTS writing test is that they don’t understand the questions and they can’t think of any ‘good’ ideas.
The IELTS writing test is not a test of your ‘intelligence’ but your ability to express relevant ideas in English. Your ideas do not have to be the most amazing in the world, just those relevant to the question. When you go to university, your ideas must be ‘intelligent’, but in the IELTS test, they must be relevant and answer the question.
For each question, there are probably 10-20 ideas that could get you a band 9; there is no one perfect idea that will get you a high score.
When you are thinking of ideas for your answer, you should pick the ones you can use. What I mean by ‘use’ is the answers you can explain and extend with examples. As stated above, you can’t just list lots of ideas; you have to pick 2 or three and then fully support them with explanations and examples. It does not matter how good the idea is; if you can’t fully support and extend it, don’t use it.
Only Use Cohesive Devices Appropriately
I post many band 9 IELTS task 2 sample answers on this site, and I am often surprised when students tell me they are ‘not band 9′. They mainly think this is because ‘You haven’t used enough cohesive devices’.
Below are lots of examples of cohesive devices:
The problem with these is they are overused by most students. Some people think that the key to a good score is using as many of these as possible, but it will only harm your score if you use them incorrectly.
Similar to my rule for grammar, only use them if you are 100% sure what they mean and how they are used.
Keep It Simple
The examiners know that you have only 40 minutes to write an essay and are doing it in a foreign language. They do not expect you to write to the same standard that you would if you were given lots of time to think about the questions, research your answer, write the first draft, have it checked and then correct all of your mistakes. The examiners are not expecting an essay of that standard, so don’t try to overthink it. Just show them that you have understood the question and can express yourself in English. That’s it.
I hope you have found these tips useful. If you have any questions, let me know below.