Top Tips for IELTS

10 practical tips for writing better exam essays

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The key words in the title are practical and exam. Last week I ran a “competition” to write an essay on aid and poverty. The essays I received were spectacularly good and I do suggest you check them out in the comments section. My one worry though was were they really practical essays in an exam. My essay, which you will find below, is I think much simpler than almost all the essays I received – and perhaps a more practical model for exams.

I should add that these are mostly band score 8.0 writing tips and are written especially for candidates who are aiming high. The moral is:

the road to band score 8.0 often means doing the simple things well

1. Read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read – write – read

What does this mean? It means that you should go back and read the paragraph you have just written before you start the next one. You may think that this is a waste of time. If so, you’d be wrong.

  1. It’s important to link your paragraphs together – what more practical way to do that than just read what you have written?
  2. It helps you with words for the next paragraph – it is good to repeat some words as this improves your coherence. Look at my sample essay to see how I repeat/reflect language. In one paragraph I talk about the short term, this makes it easy to move onto the long term in the next paragraph.
  3. You may also want to check out my series of lessons on the process of writing IELTS essays – where you will find a much more detailed explanation of this,

2. Don’t be smart, be clear – select your best idea

One of my very first posts/articles on this site was headed “IELTS is not a test of intelligence”. While the post itself now looks a little old, the advice is still good. You are being tested on the quality of your English, not on the quality of your ideas.

This advice is particularly important for candidates who come from an academic background where they are used to being graded on quality and quantity of ideas. IELTS is different: it is quite possible to write a band 9.0 essay and not include some key “academic” ideas, let alone all the ideas.

The practical advice here is to select your best idea and write about that. That means not writing everything you know – leave some ideas out. Don’t worry if it is not your best explanation, worry about whether it is your clearest explanation.

3. Write about what you know – relax about ideas

This is a similar idea. IELTS is an international exam (that’s the “I” in IELTS) and the questions are written to be answered by anyone around the world. Some people stress about finding ideas. They shouldn’t. The ideas you need are generally simple (eg”I disagree”, “This is not a good idea”).

The practical solution is to think about what YOU know and what YOUR experience is. If you look at the question, this is what it tells you to do. If you come from Bonn, write about Bonn; if you come from Ulan Bator, write about Ulan Bator!

4. Examples are easier to write than explanations

In an exam you are under pressure. You want to make things as easy for yourself as possible. One practical idea to achieve this is to focus as much on examples as explanations when you write. Why?

It’s simply harder if you only think “because”. Some of the ideas may be very complex and, under pressure, it can be difficult to explain these with reasons. What may happen is that your sentences become too long and the ideas confused.

The practical bit is to concentrate as much on examples. This is a good idea as examples tend to be easier to write as you are simply describing situations. You should also note that the instructions tell you to use examples! All you need to do is make sure that your examples are relevant to the main idea.

5. Don’t write too much – the examiner is paid by the minute

There is no upper word limit I know of, but it really isn’t a good idea to write 350 words or more. Here’s why:

  1. Examiners will only spend so much time looking at any essay. Write too much and they will read what you wrote “less carefully”. It is easier to read/grade a 300 word essay than a 400 word essay!
  2. The more you write, the more likely you are to make language mistakes.
  3. The more you write, the more likely you are to go off topic. The examiner won’t read/grade anything that doesn’t directly relate to the question.
  4.  If you write less, you give yourself more time to choose the best words – and that’s what you are being graded on.
  5. If you write less, you give yourself more time to go back and check what you have written.

6. Writer – know yourself

One of the most famous philosophical thoughts is “know yourself”. How does this apply to exam writing? Did Plato really have IELTS in mind when he wrote his dialogues? Well, no, but…

The idea is that you should check for your mistakes when you write. The practical part here is that you shouldn’t check for mistakes generally – that’s too hard and probably a waste of time in the exam. What isn’t a waste of time though is to look for mistakes you know you can correct – the ones you normally make!

The really practical thing is to have your own checklist in your head before you start writing.

7. See the whole essay in your head before you start writing

It’s very important that your essay is a whole – that all the bits fit together. If you don’t do that, you may lose significant marks for both coherence and task response.

This means planning of course. Planning bothers some people and bores others. There are different ways to do this, but at the very least have a map of your essay in your head.

8. Focus on the backbone of your essay

This is a related point. All the essay matters of course, but perhaps some bits matter more than others. I’d suggest the practical thing to do is concentrate on the backbone of your essay, the bits that help you write better and the examiner to understand better. The backbone is:

  1.  The introduction: this should identify the question and outline your position. Don’t rush it as it is the first thing the examiner will read. First impressions count.
  2. The first/topic sentences of each paragraph: these should be clear and to the point. They should identify exactly what that paragraph is about and show how it relates to the rest of the essay. The practical tip is to keep the detail/clever ideas for the body of the paragraph. Start off general and then build towards the specific.
  3. The conclusion: this is the easiest part of the essay normally. Most often, all you need to do is go back to the introduction and rephrase it

Get these bits right and the rest of the essay tends to take care of itself.

9. Don’t just practice whole essays

The best way to learn to write essays is to write essays? True or false? My answer is a bit of both.

Yes, you do need to practise writing complete essays, but it may be a mistake to do only that. The different part of essays require slightly different skills. To write an introduction, you need to be able to paraphrase the question. To write a body paragraph, you need to be able to explain ideas. To write a conclusion, you need to be able summarise.

The practical suggestion is to practise writing introductions, body paragraphs and conclusions separately. Focus on skills.

 10. Focus on the question and refocus on the question

I have left this one to last as it is for me the most important idea. Essays go wrong for different reasons. Some of these you may not be able to avoid: the quality of your English may not be good enough yet. The one mistake you can always avoid is that you didn’t answer the question. Too many essays go wrong because candidates didn’t read and think about the question properly.

The practical suggestion: before you write each paragraph, refer back to the question to remind yourself about what you are meant to write about.

It is very easy to get carried away in exams. You may start off on topic, then you have a “good idea” as you write. So you write about that. Sadly, that “good idea” may not fully relate to the question. Big problem.

My sample essay on poverty and aid

This essay which you can download below is intended to be an example of the ideas in this post.

  • It is fairly simple in structure.
  • It focuses clearly on the question
  • I left many of my best ideas out. I concentrated on what I could explain clearly.
  • It comes in at only just over 300 words.

Download the essay

Poverty and aid essay (20166)

 More writing advice

This is where I catalogue all my writing materials. If you are looking for more specific advice, this is the place to start.

My other essay writing tips

The ideas here are similar and you will find more general guidance on dos and don’ts in IELTS essays.

How to like it, share it and save it

If I have helped you with these ideas and resources, please share them
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92 Responses to 10 practical tips for writing better exam essays

  1. Natalia March 15, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    Thank you, Dominic. Very useful. And a very nice essay!

    • natalia January 7, 2016 at 2:50 am #

      fanks so much, this is excellent

  2. Goyuten March 15, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    Thankyou

  3. SangNguyen March 16, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Thanks for all your tips. I think it is really useful for me.

  4. Amethyst Dequito April 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    thank you!! This is a big help for me 😉

  5. Ajay Kumar May 17, 2013 at 4:21 am #

    Thanks for good information. Really it is very help full

  6. reigan jose k August 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    now i got why i dropped out the last two exams.

  7. subash khanal August 6, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    hope these tips will help a lot in my test to achieve a good score…thanks for tips..

  8. Zayed August 11, 2013 at 3:30 am #

    Hi,

    Can we use ‘quotation’ in the essay (task 2)? Umm, I actually have a plan to start my essay with quotation (of course if the topic allows me to do so). To illustrate, lets say the topic is ‘Today, the high sales of popular consumer goods reflect the power of advertising and not the real needs of the society in which they are sold’. To what exten do you agree or disagree

    Can I have the following introduction: ‘Brother, please convince dad to buy me Galaxy S4’-said my 12 years old younger brother. I was wondering why a 12 years old would need a Galaxy S4. Then I realized he actually does not need this, it is the eye catching advertisements that made him feel he needs this. Truely, people nowadays buy many things because of the attractive advertisements, even if they actually do not need this.

    Umm how do you rate this introduction? Is there any problem to use ‘quotation’? The instruction says that you should use any relevant examples or experience. So logically there should not be any problem, right? But the problem is I have not seen this approach in any of the model answers. So not sure whether this is a good one

    Thanks in advance

  9. abbas August 19, 2013 at 3:38 am #

    Dear Dominic

    Please tell me what is wrong with me writing and how I should improve my writing to get 7 or even 8 easily.

    Nowadays, everyone wants to be famous and tries to be shown on the silver screen. Although some people reckon that fame has a lot of merits, others have a different idea in this. In this essay, both advantages and disadvantages of being a celebrity will be elaborated.

    Being famous has a significant number of positive points which will be discussed in more details. Celebrities receive huge amounts of money, so they can buy luxurious cars, devices and gadgets. Therefore, they enjoy their lives as well as draw ordinary people’s attention. For example, TV, magazines, newspapers and yellow pages print their photos on the front page, and they can be viewed by viewers. Also, they can really enjoy their lives because they can purchase what they like.

    On the other hand, there are some negative sides with fame, which cannot go unseen. Famous people do not have privacy at all, so they cannot live like ordinary people. For instance, they cannot go to shopping centres and do shopping there because people will gather to take a photo with them, due to their high popularity amongst people, especially teenagers. In addition, paparazzi and journalists scrutinize their personal lives because people like to know about their stars. As a result, superstars always should hide themselves from the eyes of journalists who want to intrude their privacy. Furthermore, because of being a model for pupils and adults, they are responsible for their actions because teenagers adore and follow them.

    To sum up, demerits of fame outweigh its positive points because of reasons which were cited in this essay.

  10. Lilo August 24, 2013 at 12:57 am #

    Thank you so much:D

  11. coka cola October 6, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    thanks helped a lot!!!!

  12. Buy Essays Online November 20, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    I must say that you have worked really well on this piece of writing. It brings some new thoughts in reader’s mind and that will really reflect in the way he usually thinks over a matter. The writing ideas you suggested is looking working and effective in both cases, whether for surpassing the existing skills or to have some new skills.

    Keep writing 🙂

  13. sandeep November 21, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Good job,thank u

  14. The Sun November 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    Thanks for helping self learners all over the world. God bless you abundantly.

  15. steph December 3, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

    Thank you! You are my angel.

  16. kilari vikram December 24, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    i hope that ,it is useful my ilets exam,thanks for giving good message

  17. Steffy Augustine January 6, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    Thank you for ur kind information….. These informations will be surely useful for ma future life….

  18. Gully January 16, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    thank you, good advice is beyond price

  19. Gully January 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    thank you

  20. nugas January 22, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    thanx

  21. Rohit February 10, 2014 at 1:16 am #

    A big thank you Dominic.. I was able to clear IELTS(7) by following your website.

  22. Scariufi March 16, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    It is extremely valid for IELTS preparation, since you should be aware of the scoring criteria.

  23. asif shahid June 21, 2014 at 5:03 am #

    thanx a lot ,,4 nice tips

  24. Vipin Dhiman July 10, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    Thank you sir for your best effort….

  25. Dhiman R. Das July 28, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Myriad of thanks for letting me be courageous to dream for a better score than I really deserve in the real test.

  26. Divyanshu yadhuvanshi August 2, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    thank you very much………………

  27. SirAdiel August 11, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Good,better and even best tips

  28. emre August 12, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

    thank you for all informations

  29. Carlos August 27, 2014 at 9:26 pm #

    Thanks for your advice! it will be very useful to study for the exam. However, I want you to ask for one last advice… I dont know how to start studying for the writing test, what do you think is the order of steps to success?

    thanks in advance

  30. Celina Christi September 10, 2014 at 8:56 am #

    The practical advice here is to select your best idea and write about that. That means not writing everything you know.
    http://helpwritinganessay.com/research-paper/

  31. one-eye pirate September 13, 2014 at 2:19 am #

    these tips are obsolutely marvellous.i will use it to score my ielts writing

  32. Ahana September 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Really nice tips. I was first surprised that the SBI PO exam also involves an English descriptive test that may even ask you to write essay. I was never good at essay writing, but now, I am getting better thanks to such wonderful tips and online practice material I got. Working more on my exam preparation with more practice tests.

  33. Tahir September 16, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Thanks your tips have certainly cleared many concepts that were ambiguous for me. thanks again!

  34. Anonymous September 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    very nice & helpfull

  35. Somaya Ahray September 26, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    I’m just talking from that ‘Lett’s GCSE guide to get an A/A*’ Why are you doing their job in a complete opposite behaviour?!

  36. Alvira Nicholas September 27, 2014 at 5:15 am #

    Writing essays in exam is very hard thing in our school days……. So this article is very helpful for collage and school students. Thank you for this valuable tips 🙂

  37. nazruddin October 12, 2014 at 12:15 am #

    thanks you master

  38. neha S October 17, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    thanx. it was really helpful.. i want to know more about writing introduction for an eassay

  39. aasif November 3, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    Brilliant essay your tips were most helpful… keep on writing looking forward to read more of your essays 😀

  40. shamil November 6, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

    Very useful. THANK YOU

  41. Anonymous November 10, 2014 at 6:10 am #

    Its use full knowledge

  42. Dexter November 20, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Dear Domnic,

    Thank you for this informative and useful website. Superb!

    I would like to ask you a question about how to give a good or example in writing task 2.

    1. What makes a good hypothetical or generalization example ?

    2. Can we make up data for the example as in the report writing? For example, give specific organization name, data, percentage, etc. in order to make the example persuasive

    Thanks in advance

    • Dominic Cole November 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

      1. hard question to answer without an example. But let me try. Let us imaging you’re writing about “happiness”. You could use a conditional such as

      Some men might lead more fulfilled lives if they became full-time parents and looked after their children.

      2. Yes you can. Don’t get silly about it though. Make sure the data is plausible and relates to the point you are trying to make,

  43. miad November 23, 2014 at 12:18 pm #

    thanks for your useful essay

  44. Hameed November 28, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

    Thank you very much your tips will help me a lot in my test…

  45. Ramin December 3, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    Thanks for the remarkable points.

  46. Effective Personal Essay December 7, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    Very well written guide for writing effective personal essays. Brainstorming is the initial stage everyone must do. Following the things you mentioned in the post is really beneficial for making the personal essay effective and up to the mark.

  47. Anonymous December 27, 2014 at 5:05 am #

    guuuud

  48. Rahul K.R January 13, 2015 at 5:30 am #

    Thank You for your Fabulous tips.
    They are of great help to me.

  49. palak February 5, 2015 at 11:22 am #

    Nice thanx a lot for the tips.I was really in need of it

  50. jithendra February 19, 2015 at 6:33 am #

    Thnq u very much

  51. Chasidy February 22, 2015 at 1:22 am #

    Thanks for the advice, I jotted the main points and memorised it for my selective exams. I really think your tips improved my way of ‘thinking’ when it comes to essays.

  52. shayna March 11, 2015 at 6:29 am #

    thanx alot dear……

  53. Raheel INQALAB March 11, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    I found it v.helpful

  54. girlwonder April 9, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    thanx now i can prepare for my exams 😀

    • stenicz July 28, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

      🙂

  55. owais April 26, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    Its a good tip nw i think i will get satisfaction marks in my exam

  56. Anonymous May 1, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    Thank you very much with your tips hoping that i will Pass my Exams

  57. Tadiwa May 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    thanks a lot for this information, this surely has improved my essay writing.

  58. khan May 24, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    Thanks for clear my mind..

  59. James June 8, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    Just about to do an English exam, this is by far the best site

  60. Helen Evans June 11, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

    Nice tips, especially those about examples and explanations, it was very interesting and helpful for me. But you now, it is very difficult to invent a nice example on the spot. Some more tips about writing are here https://abcessays.com/en/essays. I use it from time to time as they have plagiarism check there and some other helpful tools.

  61. tips for writing an essay July 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    Every student/writer should keep all these ten in mind. Keeping focus on all these, I think its a guarantee to a good score. Thanks for sharing.

  62. S.P.Jain July 13, 2015 at 2:53 am #

    Thanks for your valuable tips.It has really given a better concept regarding the tests…..Thanks again…Have a good day.

  63. Writing Essay July 17, 2015 at 8:22 am #

    Good Read Dominic. Something I was looking for essay writing in exam.

  64. ntuthuko July 24, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    Thank you so much. The information is really helpful. I now have a better understanding on how to write good essays.

  65. Anonymous August 6, 2015 at 9:03 pm #

    Thabk u

  66. Raju Ahmed September 8, 2015 at 3:45 am #

    I appreciate all of your advices.

  67. Simmi October 1, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

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  68. Anonymous October 3, 2015 at 4:59 pm #

    thanks alot honey

  69. Truc October 5, 2015 at 10:18 am #

    Thank you very much. Great Website. It is extremely helpful for me.

  70. Geoffrey Natakaya October 14, 2015 at 11:24 pm #

    Thank you so much for the information. It was extremely helpful.

  71. Abdul Hanan November 28, 2015 at 9:25 am #

    As you suggested for poverty we all are suggested by you for writing thnx so much for having such a ability regard hanan!!!

  72. Abdul Hanan November 28, 2015 at 9:30 am #

    we shell fallow this all instruction for essay writing

  73. Atharv.Shukla December 1, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    Thank You???☺

  74. Tyla December 2, 2015 at 3:55 am #

    Thanks! Helped me a lot 🙂

  75. Jamsed December 5, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

    Thanks , for you tips . I think it will help me in my next exam .

  76. LazerG December 26, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    Thanks for your good tips. I found it useful. Keep on working

  77. inderjeet kaur January 18, 2016 at 6:32 am #

    very informative . Thank you Dominic Cole for widening our horizons of knowledge. Keep teaching and i must say you are really a good teacher.

  78. ronelta January 20, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

    thanks really appreciate your tips

  79. bikash February 12, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    “the road to band score 8.0 often means doing the simple things well”, this concept helped me clear my writing exam and score 8.0. thank you so much for this wonderful website. you are a great ielts teacher..

  80. Anonymous February 17, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

    I hope these tips will be helpful for me coz tomorrow’s my exam. …

  81. Amaninder March 18, 2016 at 10:32 am #

    thanks

  82. Rayhan March 21, 2016 at 3:52 am #

    Your brilliant cue and suggest can give me better solution,..or it can be right point for whole IELTS students,,,,,
    I want to know thanks you into love and respect……

  83. Hung April 12, 2016 at 6:38 am #

    Thank you very much for your work, cheer 🙂

  84. Nina April 21, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    Wonderful guidance and tips for essay writing. Thanks for your effort Dominic.

  85. Anonymous May 21, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    Thank you.

  86. kashish kogta July 28, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanx for Ur useful information keep writing like this and give us these types of substantial conformance I think that it can enhance my vocabulary power and essay writing

  87. kashish kogta July 28, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    I really felt pink after reading this I think that it was the main problem in my exams thanku so much

  88. stenicz July 28, 2016 at 3:06 pm #

    nice one..verry impressive i see you…”valuing charity”…keep it up…i hope it can help my essay writing contest for tomorrow:-)

  89. twinkle August 2, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    Can anyone please advise me to what use weather pencil or pen for essay writing.This would be a great help.

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