Top Tips for IELTS

The three different types of IELTS essay question

The first rule of IELTS essays is to answer the question. One problem in doing that is there are different types of IELTS essay questions each of which poses its own problems. In this post, I talk you through the three main types of essay questions and show you how to identify them and what problems they pose.

I strongly suggest that you practise writing essays on each type of question before you get to the exam. You will find  a selection of essay questions organised by question type on my sample essay question page.

1. The discussion

Here you are given a social issue or problem and asked directly to discuss it and very often asked to suggest a solution for it.

Two examples

In this type of question you are given the problem (here in red) and then told how to discuss it/your task (in blue).

In many countries schools have severe problems with student behaviour. What do you think are the causes of this? What solutions can you suggest?

and

Many universities charge higher fees for foreign students. Why do they do this? Do you believe that it is fair?

Typical task words

  • “Why do they think that?”
  • “What solutions can you suggest?”

Typical problems

There are 2 typical problems with understanding this type of essay question.

  1. You are being asked for your personal opinion: it is not enough to talk generally about the topic. You must give your personal view.
  2. Very often you given two tasks: for example, to discuss the causes and the solution. If you discuss only one of these, you will be penalised on Task Achievement.
  3. The question does not give you much help with ideas: you may need to spend more time planning and thinking of ideas

2. The proposal

Here you are given an opinion about some social issue to discuss. Typically, you are asked whether or to what extent you agree with it.

Two examples

In this type of question you are given an opinion (in red) and then told how to discuss it/your task (in blue). Sometimes the question is longer and you are given some background information (in green), then the opinion and then the task.

Fatherhood ought to be emphasized as much as motherhood. The idea that women are solely responsible for deciding whether or not to have babies leads on to the idea that they are also responsible for bringing the children up. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

and

Currently there is a trend towards the use of alternative forms of medicine. However, at best these methods are ineffective, and at worst they may be dangerous. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Typical task words

  • “What is you opinion?”
  • “Do you agree that…”
  • “To what extent do you agree?”
  • Discuss

Typical problems

There are three typical problems with understanding this type of essay question:

  1. The questions are simply longer to read and sometimes harder to understand. Spend plenty of time reading the question and underlining the key words and making sure you understand what words like “this” and “these” refer to.
  2. It can be easy to confuse the background information from the opinion. You must discuss the opinion (the bit in red). If you only discuss the topic (the bit in green), you will be penalised on Task Achievement.
  3. You need to discuss the opinion in the question. You cannot only give your opinion.

3. The argument

Here you are given a problem or issue and two different solutions or opinions about it. Typically, you are then asked to decide which solution/opinion is the better.

Two examples

The argument type essay question has two main types. In the first type, you get two different situations or opinions (red) and then your task (in blue) is to decide between them.

In some countries people pay different rates of tax depending on their salary, in other countries everyone pays the same rate. Which do you believe is the best system?

In the second type, you get a solution (in red) to a situation (in green) and you then your task (in blue) is to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of that solution.

Unemployment is one of the most serious problems facing developed nations today. What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of reducing the working week to thirty five hours?

Typical task words

“What are the advantages and disadvantages of this”

Typical problems

There are two typical problems here:

  1. The essay discusses the problem generally and doesn’t talk about advantages or disadvantages or make a choice between the two options. Again this will be penalised under Task Achievement.
  2. The essay only looks at the advantages or the disadvantages. It needs to look at both sides of the question.

Other question types

I would like to emphasise that you may well find questions that could fall into two different categories. That is not so important. What really  matters is learning to look at each question and deciding what precisely it is asking you to do and what possible problems it poses.

A checklist

This is my very simple checklist to help you decide which type of question you are looking at:

1. Does it ask me what my own opinion is about a topic? → Discussion question → Use my own opinions

2. Does it ask me to discuss a particular proposal? → Proposal question → Discuss that proposal

3. Does it ask me to decide between two different opinions or look at the advantages and disadvantages of a topic → Argument question→ Discuss both sides and come to a decision

An exercise

Look at these reported recent IELTS questions and decide which type of essay you need to write:

  1. Many people have an unhealthy diet and do not take enough exercise. What do you think are the reasons for this and what can be done to encourage people to lead a more healthy lifestyle?
  2. Although countries with long average working hours are economically successful, this often has some negative social consequences. To what extent do you agree or disagree?
  3. Some people think that paying taxes is enough to contribute to society. Others argue that being a citizen involves more responsibilities. Discuss.
  4. Many people argue that children should stay in school until the age of eighteen. What are the advantages and disadvantages of making school compulsory until the age of 18?
  5. Many people nowadays leave their county to work abroad and take their family with them. What are the advantages and disadvantages in terms of family development?

Get more essay advice in your inbox

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

You might also be interested in:


How to like it, share it and share it

If these ideas and resources help you, please share themShare on Google+1Share on Facebook0Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter3Share on StumbleUpon0Print this page

,

39 Responses to The three different types of IELTS essay question

  1. Taka December 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    Hello Dominic,

    I have a question about the checklist above.

    1. Does it ask me to give my own opinion about a topic? → Discussion question → Use my own opinions
    —> It seems to me this is a proposal question.

    2. Does it ask me to discuss a particular opinion about a topic? → Proposal question → Discuss that opinion
    —> Isn’t it Discussion question?

    Best regards

    • Dominic Cole December 12, 2010 at 10:37 am #

      Hi

      Thanks for your highly intelligent comment.

      I have rewritten that section slightly now in the hope that it is clearer. There is perhaps a slight difficulty with terminology here. I’m tying to avoid the word “opinion essay” as much as possible. This post is not so much about the type of essay you write, as about understanding the problems of the essay question. For me, this is a necessary first step. I will in due course be looking at different types of essay.

      My point in distinguishing between proposal and discussion questions is this: in the “Proposal Question”, you are “discussing” someone else’s point of view whereas in the “Discussion Question” you need to find your own solutions to a problem. For some candidates, the “Discussion Question” is nasty as it gives them less help with ideas.

      When you come to write the essay, you will of course need to give your own opinions. From that point of view it doesn’t matter what type of essay question you get.

      • Taka December 18, 2010 at 2:48 am #

        Dear Dominic,
        Thank you for further explanations and rewriting. Now I understood that you are telling about understanding the problems of the essay question and key points when I answer to different type of questions.

  2. Adil January 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Hello, Dominic

    I have a slightly irrelevant question. Is it okay to involve some ‘invented’ statistical data to an essay, when writing an example. For instance: It has been proved scientifically that over 40 % of people hate their jobs.

    thank you in advance

  3. Dominic Cole January 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    No problem whatsoever. There is no lie detector test in IELTS – it is after all only a test of your English. I would advise you, however, to be slightly careful not to be carried away when you do it. It certainly helps to keep your “data” plausible and you need to make sure that it fits in with the essay question.

    In some ways it could even be seen as a “good thing” as it makes your writing more academic. Although in truth the IELTS essay is not a particularly academic piece of writing and I would generally advise you to keep your writing fairly plain and simple, as opposed to trying to show off academically. IELTS examiners are not academics!

    Here are some sample phrases for you to consider:

    It has been demonstrated that
    Research has shown that
    A recent opinion poll showed that

  4. Adil January 4, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    thanks, this clarifies a lot.

  5. Adil January 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    hello again, Mr.Cole. There’s one thing that’s unclear to me about the proposal essay. Here’s the example.

    “Education should be free. To what extent do you agree or disagree? ”

    Should I take a firm position about only one side ( agree or disagree) and then devote the whole essay to proving this particular side, or should I describe both plus and minus of the statement and then say what i think in the conclusion ??

  6. Adil January 29, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    2 Mr. Cole
    My overall band score is 7.5! Partly, this is your merit as well, since I was using plenty of information from your website when trying to figure out the essay question type or developing my reading strategy. Thaks alot! I wish you further sucess.

  7. krish February 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    Hi Mr Cole,
    4 weeks back i suddenly got the idea of attempting ielts, so i booked a slot and had a descent 2 weeks of time to prepare . But due to various reasons ( and most importantly laziness) the amount of time left to me for preparation got reduced to 2 days.. jus 2 days to go for IELTS and i din had any idea about it..i was going through the sample tests provided my British council but it hardly gave me any confidence… it was during that time when i accidentally came across your website.(Serendipity..:)) and i was amazed.. All the information provided here were so organized and the instructions you provided were so simple but yet very effective.. i concentrated the last 2 days before my exam on your website..following all your guidelines.. ( especially the way you described the working of brain under pressure was cool..) and did my best at the exam..

    And today i got my result..an overall band of 7.5.. thanks a lot sir..:):)

  8. Phan Vi April 26, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Thank you very much! I’ve struggled to picture the 3 types, and they are clear to me now
    Thanks again

  9. Ajay July 22, 2011 at 7:34 am #

    Hi Mr Cole,

    This is Ajay from India.
    I have taken IELTS 5 times till now any everytime I am getting 6.5 ..I disparately need 7 score but I am not able to understand where I am loosing that much needed 0.5.
    Can you help me to understand this.

    Also is there anyway you can review my essays.

    Thanks,
    Ajay

    • Dominic Cole July 22, 2011 at 8:25 am #

      Hi Ajay

      I’m simply too busy yo help sorry. It’s partly for this reason I’ve added online tutors to the site. They all look at essays. So I suggest you contact one of them.

      Good luck with the 7.

      Dominic

    • Anonymous October 4, 2013 at 12:22 am #

      how could u got 6.5band in yur ielts

  10. jagjit July 26, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    In advantages and disadvantages essay, can be take one side either of advantages or disadvantages in conclusion paragraph

    please reply soon because my ielts test is coming soon

    • Dominic Cole July 26, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

      This will depend slightly on how the question is worded. Always always read the question very carefully.

      If the question is “Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this proposal”. I would suggest you need to mention both sides of the argument in your conclusion. This is because your conclusion should reflect your whole essay. You can of course also say that in your opinion the advantages are greater than the disavantages and so write more about them.

      Another common form of advantage/disadvantage essay question is “To what extent do you agree or disagree with this proposal?” Here you have 3 basic options:
      1. You can agree
      2. You can disagree
      3. You can agree and disagree
      In this case, you must make your position clear in the conclusion.

  11. Abeer Hasan August 11, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    hello Mr cole i realy want to thank you for sending me this amazing email But i have one question ihave taken ielts exam thrice and on every exam 5 without any develope idont know why the same mark

  12. pari October 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    hello sir
    i have only 1 day for my exam still iam confused about writing can plzzzzzzzzzzz help so dat i can get a band 7 in writing. infact while searching on net i came to know about ur site and i really found it very helpul but still give me tips for d last minute preparation plzzzzzzzz

    • Dominic Cole December 9, 2011 at 9:26 am #

      One day before is too late to do anything serious. the best thing you can do is relax and clear your head. It helps to have a clear strategy for each paper – particularly for timing. If you feel in control, you feel better and should perform better.

  13. Anonymous October 25, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    Hello Dominic,

    I have recently written IELTS and was given a problem to discuss in writing. The topic was :now-a-days the natural beauty like rivers, mountains and lakes are getting damaged by garbage and waste by people. Why do people do that? What do you think should be done to prevent this?

    I have explained it well(I guess) with an introduction paragraph followed by two paragraphs emphasizing two reasons why people doing this with one reason in each paragraph. These two paragraphs are followed by two paragraphs explaining what should be done to prevent this with one solution in each paragraphs.

    I forgot to write a conclusion paragraph. Do we really need to give conclusion for a problem task in the end?

    Thank you and awaiting for your reply

    • Dominic Cole December 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

      Yes, i’m afraid you do. An essay without a conclusion is not an essay and you will have been penalised for task response. It is not perfect but the advice is to write a sentence conclusion if you are running out of time so that at least you have something there for the examiner to look at.

      For me, a good conclusion does make an essay better. It is a skill worth practising. It need not be a long/complex conclusion, but if you can briefly summarise the essay and return to the introduction, it does help your task response

  14. Chakravarthi Narla October 25, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Hello Dominic,

    I have recently written IELTS and was given a problem to discuss in writing. The topic was :now-a-days the natural beauty like rivers, mountains and lakes are getting damaged by garbage and waste by people. Why do people do that? What do you think should be done to prevent this?

    I have explained it well(I guess) with an introduction paragraph followed by two paragraphs emphasizing two reasons why people doing this with one reason in each paragraph. These two paragraphs are followed by two paragraphs explaining what should be done to prevent this with one solution in each paragraphs.

    I forgot to write a conclusion paragraph. Do we really need to give conclusion for a problem task in the end?

    Thank you and awaiting for your reply

    • Dominic Cole December 9, 2011 at 9:34 am #

      Yes, sadly for you the conclusion is needed. It is an essential part of an essay.

  15. Umar Muzaffar December 9, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Dear Mr. Cole,

    I would like to Thank you and all the Blog participants for clearing out many confusions for IELTS candidates. However, I have few questions where I feel myself weak.

    1. How can I use a strong vocabulary in Writing Exam? Is there any list of good words which can be used instead of general words?

    2. Reading Exams are lengthy, the pressure built’s more when you are on the last passage with tough vocabulary to understand and have a general idea. What do you suggest?

    Please, do pray as I am appearing for IELTS tomorrow.

    Thanks.

    • Dominic Cole December 9, 2011 at 11:05 am #

      Good luck tomorrow. Get a good night’s sleep and try to relax is my best advice.

      On writing the best vocab is very often simple vocab. many candidates get this wrong and try and use over-complex words. You may not believe this, but all my essays are at least band score 8.0 and mostly 9.0. Don’t be fooled that they use simple language. They are well written and clearly written. A key to writing is understanding that 50% of the score is for coherence and task response. Take a look at IELTS Simon’s blog – you will find he says the same thing.

      On reading, yes time can be a problem. Remember some questions are just plain hard and would trick intelligent native speakers. Don’t get stuck, move on.

  16. Michelle Yong February 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    Dear Dominic,

    Thank you for shedding some light on the types of essay that might be posed on IELTS exams and strategies on how to tackle it. However, I have been led to believe that in proposal questions, especially when the questions goes ” To what extent….” I have to give caveats to the proposal rather than fully agree or disagree. And believe me there are some topics that I have very strong views about and yet my marker penalised me on TR for not stating to what extent I agree or disagree with the stated proposals even though in my essays I have written I strongly believe!! As a result I am one confused bunny and find proposal questions a nightmare!! Please help!

    Michelle

  17. shehr March 1, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    your blog is wonderful and does wonders in helping for the
    exam. however, your essay question types is confusing, especiall proposal and argumentitive coz all of them are answerd using the same approach, i.e argumentitive type.

  18. shivani April 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    hi,
    I have got IELTS exam after 2 weeks and i need to get 7 each in any case. last time i just got 5.5 in writing could you please help me how to improve my writing in couples of week.
    thank you

  19. Chida May 17, 2012 at 5:29 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    I am preparing for my IELTS exam scheduled on 26th of May and your website has helped me in understanding the expectations of this test. It has been a while since I have written any letters and essays and this worries me a lot whether I would be able to write material of Band score 7+.

  20. Behrooz July 12, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    Hi Dominic,
    Thanks a lot for the detailed information. I am confused about the types of writing. You mentioned the different types but not the ways to answer each of them. Could you illustrate how to answer the different types please?
    I will give the exam about 45 days later. Do you have any recommendation about writing and other things?

    • Dominic Cole July 13, 2012 at 1:28 am #

      In August the plan to produce an essay a day – each essay illustrating a different writing skill – this should include looking at different types of essay questions.

  21. Behrooz July 13, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Hi again,
    I didn’t get it. Have you answered my question?!! Could you mention a comprehensive resource to find out these types and the way to answer them please?

    • Dominic Cole July 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      Hi – the resource I was thinking of appears not to be available on the internet and so I will need to put something together myself to help you out. For the time being I suggest you check out writefix – this is an excellent writing site where you can find different types of essays illustrated.

      I aim to post something on this in the next few days – possibly Monday. In the meantime, can I suggest that there is no one way to answer each question type ie an opinion essay is ABBA , a discursive essay ABCA and so on. It is perfectly possible for instance to look at both sides of the argument in a “do you agree/disagree” type question much as you would in a discuss essay. It all depends on what you as a an individual think about that question. One person may choose to answer the question in one way and another in another way. The examiner does not sit down and say “This is an opinion essay and it must be structured like this”- rather they look at whether you have answered the question as it is asked.

  22. meme August 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    hi sir ,

    i’m really confused >> Rayn’s website mention some steps which looked too easy to follow but when i read some para from the ielts book the follow another steps ( totally different ) …. i’m nt that good in English to join both of them or choose which one is the best ……

    SO PLEASE CAN YOU HELP ME !!!! i’m dying to get only band 5 because my university asked for that

    please reply soon :( i have an exam after 15 days

  23. edz December 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Hello sir,
    Thanks a lot for these very informative lessons you have done. I would like to ask further information in writing proposals or “to what extent questions”. How many paragraphs should one write? Is it a 5 paragraph essay?

    • Dominic Cole February 22, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

      No one answer to this question. It depends in what is in your head! You should be prepared to write both 4 and 5 para essays. If you have more points, it will be 5. If you have only 2 points, then a 4 para essay is fine.

  24. Allan Collins April 13, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    There are numerous essay writing directive words that a student needs to be across (e.g. discuss, describe, explain, compare, contrast, etc). If you don’t clearly understand what is being asked of you, then you have next to no chance of writing an excellent essay.

    • Dominic Cole April 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

      Agreed. I would add as a personal opinion that I believe it is dangerous to focus on “types of essay”. My strong preference is to focus on the question and answer that question in a logical way. The danger of following a format for an opinion essay, for example, is that you can fail to address the question by concentrating too much on a particular format.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Five ways to improve your IELTS writing | IELTS ONLY - December 6, 2011

    [...] Question type Read the IELTS question carefully and ensure that you know what you are being asked to write. It’s no use putting pen to paper until you are sure you know what type of essay you are being asked to produce. Dominic Cole expalins things very well on this page. [...]

  2. Writing Theme 1: Diet and nutrition | LE THANH CUONG - January 19, 2014

    [...] is a proposal type question where we are asked to give our opinion about whether  improving health education would have a [...]

Leave a Reply

This site uses cookies. Find out more about this site’s cookies. [icc_dismiss]