How to Plan an IELTS Essay

This post will show you how to make a great plan that will help you write a clear essay every time.

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The Benefits of Planning

There are normally around 15 students in my IELTS classes. Every new class gets at least a 30 minute session with me on planning and how much it improves your essays. I normally give the students 20 minutes to plan a Task 2 essay which they finish for homework.

This is always interesting because normally only 2 or 3 students actually follow my instructions and use the time to plan. The rest of them go straight into writing the essay. The result? The students who took the time to plan always (and I mean EVERY time) produce better essays.

Writing an IELTS essay without a plan is like trying to put IKEA furniture together without any instructions. You will get half way through it, get lost and frustrated and you will lose control of your entire essay and end up with something like this:

A good plan should be like a map that guides you through the essay and makes sure you get to where the examiner wants you to go. Every sentence should have purpose, if you are just writing for the sake of writing then it won’t be a very good essay. Less is more in many cases and a good plan makes sure that every single sentence has a purpose.

But Teacher, I Don’t Have Time!


This is the number one excuse for not planning.

What if I told you that the longer you plan, the less time it will take you to write the essay?

Let’s look at two examples: student A who doesn’t like to plan and student B who spends 10 minutes planning.

Student A does this: write-think-think-write-delete-think-write-write-delete-think-write.

Student B does this: think-write.

It is impossible for most people- including IELTS examiners and teachers- to sit down and write a good essay without thinking it through first. If you don’t plan you have to think as you write and doing these two things, plus writing in a foreign language, thinking about grammar and vocabulary and thinking about writing skills all at the same time, results in a very confused piece of writing. I also find that students who don’t plan have to re-start their essays and it is not uncommon to see students delete entire essays and start again.

How Does a Plan Save You Time?

You have 40 minutes to write a Task 2 essay. Even if you took 10 minutes to plan and 5 minutes to check your work at the end this still leaves you with 25 minutes to write your essay.

The average 250 word essay is about 12 sentences long, so you have over 2 minutes to write one sentence. I think everyone is capable of doing that.

When you have a good plan, you know exactly what that sentence is going to be about already and how it fits in with the rest of the essay. You don’t have to think of ideas or about structure, just writing sentences that are grammatically correct and clearly say what you think about the question.

You don’t have to spend exactly 10 minutes planning and 5 minutes checking at the end. You could plan for 7-8 minutes and checking for 2-3 minutes. Practice to find out what works best for you.

How To Plan

Planning has  4 stages:

  1. Question Analysis 
  2. Idea Generation 
  3. Structure 
  4. Vocabulary  

Question Analysis

This is probably the most important stage. The number one problem most IELTS students have is not answering the question properly. Did you know you can’t get above a band score 5.0 if you don’t address all parts of the question?

Let’s look at an example question:

One of the consequences of improved medical care is that the people are living longer and life expectancy is increasing.

Do you think the advantages of this outweigh the disadvantages

The keywords here are ‘improved medical care‘. This is our general topic. It is important to know this, not for what we should write about but about what we shouldn’t write about. A common mistake is to highlight the main keywords, or main topic, and write about this very generally. If you do this you have not answered the question.

We therefore need to think about things more specifically and look for what I call micro-keywords. They are ‘living longer‘ and ‘life expectancy is increasing‘. We therefore need to write about these and how improved medical care has increased life expectancy. But we can’t just write a general essay about this, we must look at the instruction words next.

The instruction words are ‘Do you think the advantages of this outweigh the disadvantages?‘ 

In this example we will have to decide which side (advantages or disadvantages) is stronger. If you choose advantages then you will have to say why these are much stronger than the advantages and why the disadvantages are not so strong. If you just discuss the advantages you will not answer the question correctly. We will also need to make our opinion about his very clear.

So in summary we must:

  • Find keywords (general topic)
  • Find micro-keywords (specific topic) 
  • Find instruction words (how to answer question) 

Idea Generation

Lots of teachers and books about IELTS advise students to brainstorm (thinking of as many ideas as possible) at this stage. I don’t think that brainstorming is very effective because it leads to irrelevant ideas and wastes valuable time.

Instead of brainstorming we need to answer the questions directly. If one of your friends asked you this question in a coffee shop, you would have no problem thinking of an answer, so do the same in the exam. It helps to frame it within ‘Why?’ questions.

So for the example above we could ask ourselves two questions:

Why are the advantages of increased life expectancy strong?

Why are disadvantages of increased life expectancy weak?

We can then simply think of one or two relevant ideas for each of these questions.

The advantages of increased life expectancy are strong because most people think it is good if their friends and family don’t die too quickly and everyone is happier.

The disadvantages are that there is more demand for food and resources but this a weak argument because technology can solve these problems.

We now have two very relevant ideas and we can now move on to our next stage.


agree or disagree IELTS

Next we need to put our ideas into a structure. This is very important because it helps us organise our ideas in a coherent way, just like the examiner wants us to.

There are several different types of essay and each of them has a different structure.

For this essay our structure will look like this:


Paragraph 1- Introduction

Sentence 1- Paraphrase Sentence

Sentence 2- Thesis Statement

Sentence 3- Outline Statement

Paragraph 2- Why advantages are strong

Sentence 4- Topic Sentence

Sentence 5- Explanation

Sentence 6- Example

Paragraph 3- Why disadvantage are weak

Sentence 7- Topic Sentence

Sentence 8- Explanation

Sentence 9- Example

Paragraph 4- Conclusion

Sentence 1- Summary of main points


We can these fill in our ideas:


Paragraph 1- Introduction

Sentence 1- Paraphrase Sentence

Sentence 2- These Statement – advantages outweigh disadvantages

Sentence 3- Outline Statement – Advantages- happiness Disadvantages- technology 

Paragraph 2- Why advantages are strong

Sentence 4- Topic Sentence – happiness

Sentence 5- Explanation – death causes unhappiness and longer lives lead to happiness

Sentence 6- Example –Okinawa and Sardinia 

Paragraph 3- Why disadvantage are weak

Sentence 7- Topic Sentence – technology 

Sentence 8- Explanation – technology can solve any of the drawbacks 

Sentence 9- Example – GM crops and renewable energy

Paragraph 4- Conclusion

Sentence 1- Summary of main points


Now we have all our ideas and we can think of some vocabulary.


Another common problem students have is repeating the same words, especially words from the question, over and over again. This lowers our mark for vocabulary because it shows that we can’t think of synonyms. A solution to this problem is to identify words in the question that we might need to use more than once in the question.

Let’s look at the question again:

One of the consequences of improved medical care is that the people are living longer and life expectancy is increasing.

Do you think the advantages of this outweigh the disadvantages

We can think of the following synonyms:

Improved medical care- enhanced medical treatment

Living longer- improved longevity

Life expectancy is increasing- the length of time people live is rising

Advantages- benefits

Disadvantages- drawbacks

What It Looks Like On Paper?

That might seem like a lot to do in 5- 10 mins so here is what is looks like on paper.


Next Steps

The more you plan, the better and more quickly you will write and it will lead to every single sentence in your essay having a purpose, which is exactly what the examiner wants.

Like everything on this website, you need to not only take the advice but to practice using it. Next time you are practicing an Task 2 essay try using my advice and I guarantee your writing will improve.

If you have any questions or this article has helped you, please comment below or send me a message on Facebook. I am always glad to hear from you.

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    I am very lucky and happy to found your articles, just 10 days left in my IELTS exam, and this articles will help me a lot InshaAllah. The lessons are well-organised. very easy to follow and rich of helpful advices. Well done!
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