Top Tips for IELTS

Understanding the task in IELTS essays

Perhaps the number 1 rule in IELTS writing is to answer the question. This may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many candidates fail to get it right. Even though their English may be high quality, they won’t get the grade they need if their IELTS essay doesn’t address the question.

Topics and questions

The starting point is to recognise that there is in fact a question to be answered and that this is not the same as writing about a general topic. To understand this, read this IELTS essay question:

The first cars appeared on the British roads in 1888. By the year 2000 there may be as many as 29 million vehicles on British roads.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?


Alternative forms of transport should be encouraged and international laws introduced to control car ownership and use.



Now, the topic is clearly transport and more particularly road congestion or perhaps pollution. But, and I cannot emphasise this enough, that topic is not the question and it is not sufficient to write about that topic in general.

Reading the question

Remember to identify what the exact task is. Do not confuse this with the general topic of the essay and background information given in the essay question

To get this right, it is important to read and think about the question very carefully – time spent focussing on the question is never wasted. Helpfully, the essay questions are almost always structured in the same way. Often they come in 3 parts: background information, problem and task

1. Background information

Very often, they are introduced with some background information, here:

The first car appeared on British roads in 1888. By the year 2000 there may be as many as 29 million vehicles on British roads.

This is background information only. Not to be ignored, as it can be a vital source of both ideas and vocabulary.

2. The problem

Next comes an opinion based statement which introduces the question and poses a specific problem. In our example:

Alternative forms of transport should be encouraged and international laws introduced to control car use and ownership.

This is the part to note. The topic may be transport in general; but reading carefully  it is more precisely:

alternative forms of transport

international legislation of transport

the relationship between the state and the individual

the concept of car use and ownership (not necessarily the same thing)

3. The task

The final part of the question is the task itself. It tells you how to write your essay: whether you should be commenting. comparing or arguing. This can help you structure your essay.

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

Reading the question in this way, you should now see how precise they tend to be. The examiner is looking for an equally precise answer: not the repetition of the essay you wrote a few weeks back on a similar looking topic.

Moral: read the question – the whole question

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8 Responses to Understanding the task in IELTS essays

  1. julia0345 April 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks for sharing’s really help me.

  2. raja, qatar November 20, 2010 at 6:24 am #

    very useful tips, which can improvise the writting skill to achieve a top score.

  3. bumble bee November 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    Dear Dominic,

    I’m writing something not really related to this post. I’ve got my IELTS results recently and I was able to score 7.5 avg and more than 7 in each band. It was the 3rd time I did IELTS and here is what happened,

    attempt 1 : I did without much preparation, by using my own judgement and scored L7.5 R7.5 W6.5 S7.5

    attempt 2 : As I had problems only with writing I paid much attention to it this time and used a teacher and used some free material available in the internet. Still the results were the same for writing : 6.5.

    attempt 3 : I came across your site and thought “I’m going to stick just to this site” as it looked to me having some useful resources and guidance in just the way I wanted. The results are there, though not very impressive I was able to score 7 for writing.

    I need to thank you for the brilliant effort you have put in here by maintaining this wonderful resource for students like me. Specially areas like “Identifying essay type” , “Essay vocabulary” , “Planning your essay” , did help me a lot as those were the things I was lacking mostly.

    Again, thank you so much for this and I know you have once said you do not have any financial motives with the site and I do not want to plead to leave it that way for future students.

    Keep up the good work

    /Bumble Bee

    • meme August 31, 2012 at 5:17 am #

      how lucky you are 😀

  4. fairy September 23, 2012 at 3:04 am #

    I have found lots of useful information here on your website and I can do none but thank you. However, there is a question that I have to ask as my knowledge fails me. In the questions that consist of the “to what extent do you agree or disagree” and the like, should we consider both sides of the argument or just one side of the argument

    • Dominic Cole September 12, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

      It’s up to you and what you think. If you are completely sure then you may not necessarily look at the other side of the argument.


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