Top Tips for IELTS

Should you write 4 or 5 paragraphs in an IELTS essay?

A common question is whether you should write 4 or 5 paragraphs in an IELTS essay. My quick answer is that there is always more than one way to answer any IELTS essay question and my best advice is that you should practice writing essays with both 4 and 5 paragraphs so you can deal with any type of question.

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

Intro 

Main point  – this is the problem

Main point – this is the solution

conclusion 

Problem/solution essay – 5 paragraphs

Intro

Main point – this is a problem

Main point – this is another problem

Main point – these are the solutions

Conclusion 

Eg To what extent you agree essay – 4 paragraphs

Intro

Main point – I agree for this reason

Main point – I also agree for this reason

Conclusion

To what extent you agree essay – 5 paragraphs

Intro 

Main point – I agree for this reason

Main point _ I agree for that reason

Main point – I disagree fort his reason

Conclusion

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

This is my general preference. Let me explain why.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. It is typically more impressive to write more about less, than less about more.
  4. 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

I don’t want to make the opposite mistake of saying you must write 4 paragraphs. So here are some reasons why you might choose a 5 paragraph structure:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4.  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:

3 paragraphs

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.

6 paragraphs

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.

The ideal

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:

Sample IELTS essays

I also suggest you look at this lesson on what to think about when write your main content paragraphs

The content paragraphs – some checklists for before you write

More reading

I can also recommend this quick lesson by Liz: you’ll find that we say much the same thing:

How many paragraphs in an IELTS essay?

 

   

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20 Responses to Should you write 4 or 5 paragraphs in an IELTS essay?

  1. Ben April 14, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    The key is to answer the question. Most writers make the mistake of not fully answering the question, or partially/ totally misunderstanding it. You basically point this out.

    However, I do have a problem with your obsession with the word “arguments” in the instructions. This is fairly unimportant. It totally depends on how many parts there are to the question and to what degree the candidate addresses those.

    It is a similar story with types of essay. There is no requirement in the marking criteria to write an essay in any particular fashion – as long as it is in an appropriate style and addresses the question (and its parts).

    Other than that, so far the advice seems reasonable.

  2. Nina September 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    Hey Dominic, your site helped me so much in the essay-writing section. At the exam however, I didn’t have enough time and I think my essay was under length. I concluded it and all but my count was about 8×30=240. How much do you think I’ll lose for that?

    • Dominic Cole September 25, 2011 at 3:03 am #

      If the examiner thinks the essay might be short – and it is normally quite easy to tell – s/he would count the words and any essay under 250 words will be penalised. The penalty will be under task response and that score may well go down to 5/6. The idea is that you cannot write a complete answer if you don’t write at least 250 words.

  3. Brendan December 30, 2011 at 7:10 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    When working on argument essays, is it better to begin the first body paragraph with the side you are mostly against, and end strong with the side you mostly favor? Is this true with 2 body paragraph and 3 body (1st your non favored side, 2 and 3 for your favored side) paragraph structures?

    Cheers and great work

    Brendan

    • Dominic Cole December 31, 2011 at 11:03 am #

      What you suggest is the conventional approach and it applies to most forms of essays. I’m not sure that it really matters whether you have 2 or 3 body paragraphs. For what it’s worth, my favoured approach is the balanced essay where you see merit in both arguments. That way you don’t have to worry!

  4. setareh December 30, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    you always effect on me wIth your perfect sterategies.I hope i improve with your fantastic ideas.

  5. vivian February 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Hi Dominic,
    Thanks for your adivces, I really appreciate your opinions and suggestions as you guide us through the steps of how to write a essay coherently and give examples and suggestions how to practice. Your blog is the most useful I find so far from the web. I will try my best to practice by using your tips

    Thanks

  6. rajneesh kapur October 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    sir, i want to emphasize again that according to the latest rubrics , an ielts essay has to be based either on knowledge or experience NOT BOTH.

  7. Amr November 1, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    I wonder how I can write a short and up to the point introduction and essay on the following topic:

    ( News editors decide what to broadcast on television and what to print in a newspaper. What factors do you think influence their decisions? Do we become used to bad news? Would it be better if more good news was reported?)

    As you see this topic poses three questions I have to address ; therefore, every time I try I come out with more than 400 words essay while the required number is between 250 and 300

    Please, help me.

  8. nogai November 2, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    Hi, Dominic

    I would like to say thank you very much for your site and your precious advices. They are unvaluable. I did improve my English and achieved a great result.

    Best wishes,
    Nogai

  9. Preeti July 21, 2013 at 3:11 am #

    Hi Dominic
    i gave my ielts yesterday.. in the writing section, for task 2, i wrote 4 paragraphs each seperated by an empty line. then i did the word count(215). so to make it to 250 i had to fill in the empty lines which spoilt my paragraph demarcation. How much do you think will it affect my score ?

  10. Adam August 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    Hello,
    What about 6 paragraphs?
    For instance, I have in advantages/disadvantages essay 2 body paragraphs for advantages and 2 for disadvantages.

    • Dominic Cole November 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

      I believe that your essay will be too long or that you won’t fully develop your ideas in the paragraphs.

  11. adam November 4, 2014 at 6:12 am #

    hye.. what happen if my essay out of topic.. they ask for a friend.. but i wrote many friends.. ist i will get 0 marks?

    • Dominic Cole November 4, 2014 at 7:22 am #

      It’s never a good idea to go off topic but without having seen the question and your essay I can’t say what will happen to you. What was the question? It may be that talking about “friends” and not “a friend” will harm you to much

      • Anonymous November 4, 2014 at 9:43 am #

        isit possible for me to get 0 marks?

  12. Anonymous November 1, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

    hi Dominic
    I read through the comments which is really helpful.I just wanted to know how many lines make this 250-300 words in an essay?

  13. Lucia September 4, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    Hi Dominic,
    is it possible to take a band 6 in academic writing without divide in paraghraps?
    Thank you

    • Dominic Cole September 4, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

      Hmmmm.

      It could be depending on the overall quality of your writing. Paragraphs are just one part of the scoring system. You have a much better chance if your writing is well-organised and you just forgot to put in the line breaks. One real difficulty is that the moment an examiner sees a a piece of writing without paragraphs they think bad thoughts.

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