Use one content paragraph for each main point
One key is that you use one content paragraph for each main point in your essay. This means if you have 2 main points you should then have two content paragraphs and if you have 3 then you should have 3 content paragraphs. This applies to all types of essay question. See these examples where you should see that there are different solutions to different essay questions. All these approaches can work
Eg Problem/solution essay – 4 paragraphs
Main point – this is the problem
Main point – this is the solution
Problem/solution essay – 5 paragraphs
Main point – this is a problem
Main point – this is another problem
Main point – these are the solutions
Eg To what extent you agree essay – 4 paragraphs
Main point – I agree for this reason
Main point – I also agree for this reason
To what extent you agree essay – 5 paragraphs
Main point – I agree for this reason
Main point _ I agree for that reason
Main point – I disagree fort his reason
Answer the question according to what you know not a fixed structure
The next point is that the best way to answer an IELTS essay question is to think about what you know about that question and then decide on your essay structure. For some essays YOU may have 3 ideas and for others 2 ideas.
It can be a mistake to learn one structure and try and follow that for every essay – simply because you’ll know different things about different questions.
4 paragraphs – why
- To be efficient you don’t want to write more than 270 words or so. If you choose 5 paragraphs, you may become inefficient by writing too many words.
- You should develop your paragraphs properly – this is important for coherence and cohesion. That means adding reasons and examples to support your main idea. Very often in a 5 paragraph essay one paragraph is undeveloped – a main idea that is unsupported. It’s often better to just leave out this idea.
- It is typically more impressive to write more about less, than less about more.
- In an exam simple is good: It is normally quite easy to balance 2 content paragraphs (e.g. for and against, reason 1 and reason 2, problems and solutions). In a 5 paragraph essay, however, the structure can be more complex and hard to control.
5 paragraphs – why
- You get a question that you feel you can answer better in 5 paragraphs – perhaps you have 3 main points to cover and not 2. That means 3 content paragraphs.
- You are a “top” level candidate aiming for a score of 8 or above – ie you are at the very highest learner level of English. In this case it can often be easier to write more words than fewer words.
- You are a “low” level candidate aiming for a score around 5.0 – 5.5. At this level it can sometimes be difficult to extend your ideas as you do not have the words, so 3 shorter content paragraphs make sense
- You prefer a structure where you argue more on one side than the other, so for example you use two content paragraphs arguing for and one against
What about 3 paragraphs? Or 6?
I’ll be careful here. There are always different approaches possible but I don’t like either of these options:
If you do this it is likely that you don’t develop your points clearly but have one long and confused content paragraph and/or you don’t have a clear introduction or conclusion. It is much easier for an examiner to see the structure of a 4 or 5 paragraph essay. Make their life easy for them.
There is a real danger here of just adding points without developing them. Your task is to develop and support your main points. If you are tempted to write 6 paragraphs, you should think bout just deleting the points you can’t develop.
I can’t give you that answer: it depends on who you are and what the question is.
More connected lessons
You can check out some of my sample IELTS essays and see how some follow a 4 and some a 5 paragraph model:
I also suggest you look at this lesson on what to think about when write your main content paragraphs
I can also recommend this quick lesson by Liz: you’ll find that we say much the same thing: