Top Tips for IELTS

Personal pronouns in IELTS essays

This is a quick lesson to help you with personal opinions and personal pronouns in IELTS essays. A recent comment on the site asked whether it was correct to use personal pronouns  in IELTS essays or should all opinions be “impersonal” because that is more academic. My quick answer is you certainly can use personal pronouns in IELTS essays and there are times when you really must give personal opinions. But you do want to be careful with your language, so I am attaching a download with some useful vocabulary to help you give personal opinions in IELTS essays better.

If you read on, you should understand that in certain essay questions the opinion language really should be personal, while in others more impersonal vocabulary may be more appropriate. As ever, the golden rule with IELTS is:

read the question

understand the question

answer the question

An IELTS essay is an academic paper

The first step is to realise that an IELTS task 2 essay is not “academic writing” as for university. It can be a mistake to try and write in IELTS exactly as you would at university. Many/most universities have very clear guidelines about how you should write your papers and very often these include guidelines about using personal pronouns. IELTS has no such guidelines. It is an exam for people all around the world who come from different academic backgrounds.

In fact, neither the question nor the grading criteria ask you to write an essay!! So you can forget about university standards. IELTS has its own standards – they are to be found in the grading criteria.

Do understand the grading criteria for IELTS

The next step is to see that the Task Achievement score is 25% of your mark. For Task Achievement you need to address all parts of the task – that means answering the question. The better you do that, the better your mark will be. How does this work here?

  • Different IELTS essay questions ask you to write in different ways
  • If the question asks you to write in one way, write that way. If it asks you to write in another way, write that way.

Understand what the question asks you to do – look at the question words – personal or impersonal?

You may have learnt about different types of essay questions. There are certainly lots of different ways to think about IELTS essay questions – almost as ways as there are teachers! Here is another possibility that may help you. Decide if the question

  1. discuss something generally – this may involve more impersonal language
  2. give your own opinion – this almost certainly requires more personal language

I don’t think you need to worry too much about so-called opinion/discussion/argument essays. That can get confusing. Rather just look at the words in the question. If it asks you to say what you think – make sure that you give personal opinions. How can you do this? Just look for the word “you” in the question.

A personal essay question example

Many IELTS essay questions simply ask you what YOU think and when this is the case, you really do need to say what you think. See this example:

Some people believe that sport should be made compulsory in schools, while others take the view that more time should be spent on academic subjects.

What is your opinion?

In this instance, my best advice is to make your personal opinion clear in your answer – especially the introduction and the conclusion. There is a danger that if you language is too impersonal, then the examiner will decide that you have not answered the question. See these two examples and decide which you think answers the question better:

There is much debate about the position of physical education on the school curriculum nowadays. There is an argument that school time would be much better spent on academic and vocational subjects that will prepare students for life rather than on doing sport which is much less relevant. Equally, it can be argued that children learn vital life skills such as teamwork and dealing with competition by practising sport at school.

There is much debate about the position of physical education on the school curriculum nowadays. There are some people who make a valid argument  that school time would be better spent on academic and vocational subjects that will prepare students for life rather than on doing sport which is much less relevant. Despite this, my view is that children learn vital life skills such as teamwork and dealing with competition by practising sport at school.

I hope you see that the second paragraph works better simply because it makes the personal opinion of the writer clear. The first introduction is very dangerous because it can lead to an essay that doesn’t answer the question as it is asked.

A more impersonal essay question example

Other IELTS essay questions are phrased more impersonally i.e. they don’t ask you to express your personal opinion. When this is the case, you can use much more impersonal opinion language. See this example:

Some people believe that sport should be made compulsory in schools. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this proposal?

Here there is no “you” in the question. You are being to discuss something more generally. Now more impersonal vocabulary does become useful.

 There is much debate about the position of sport on the school curriculum nowadays and it is a well-balanced argument as to whether it should become mandatory.  There are clear advantages in encouraging children to do more sport as this will develop skills to prepare children for later life. At the same time, however, there are possible drawbacks to making sport compulsory as it may restrict time for more academic subjects. I will discuss both these advantages and disadvantages in this essay.

Can you still use personal opinions in a more impersonal essay?

My short answer to this is yes you can. Even more impersonal essay questions are still asking you what you think. Even when a question asks you a more impersonal question such as:

More and more people choose to live and work abroad. This can lead to social problems in countries with large-scale immigration. What are the causes of these problems and how can they be addressed?

You should remember that the rubric/instructions tell you

Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own experience or knowledge

This means that you can still refer to what you know/believe.

Try an exercise

Take a look at this exercise to see if my idea about personal and impersonal essay questions works for you.

Essay questions

Congratulations - you have completed Essay questions. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

Don’t overuse I in your writing – get some good phrases in this download

Ryan – who has several excellent IELTS websites these days – has an excellent post on this. We agree! You can use personal pronouns but it is a mistake to do it too much. That means you don’t want to go “I think” “I think” “I think”.

Opinion language for essays (4450)

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12 Responses to Personal pronouns in IELTS essays

  1. Sevinj March 7, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    Hello Mr.Cole! Thank you for sharing such a helpful article! I would like to ask you whether I understood it properly: Despite this, my view is that children learn vital life skills such as teamwork and dealing with competition by practising sport at school. After despite can we use this, that or nouns? I think, we have to use them after ‘in spite of. Am I right?

    • Dominic Cole March 7, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

      In spite of and despite work in much the same way. We use both of them with nouns or gerunds.

      In spite of losing my watch
      Despite losing my watch

      In spite of the time
      Despite the time

      You should see that the gerund is the noun form of the verb. You should also note this common structure that may help you:

      In spite of the fact that I did not know the answer
      Despite the fact that I did not know the answer

  2. Santosh April 7, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    What do you think about rhetoric questions? Do you think that they are appropriate in an IELTS essay? I use them all the time, but I read somewhere that they must not be used in an IELTS essay. I have sort of stopped using them, but I don’t understand why they should not be used. After all, they create a nice effect.

    I like your lessons. I teach IELTS at a coaching center and sometimes draw inspiration from your articles.

    • Dominic Cole April 7, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

      I’m against rhetorical questions personally and I suspect that Mike of ieltsanswers (who I respect greatly) is too. For me they are inappropriate in academic writing. That said, they do say all sorts of approaches are possible so… But I think what it comes down is to whether IELTS examiners like them – I suspect that a majority don’t so that make sit dangerous practice.

  3. Santosh April 7, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    Thanks for your reply. I guess I too should hate them 🙂

    • Dominic Cole April 7, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

      I don’t hate them – I use them all the time in speaking. It’s my favourite way to summarise a part 2 speaking. “So why do I enjoy this book so much? Well, I suppose….”. I just think they work much better in that context.

  4. raza April 10, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    Dear Cole,
    I need to ask what happened If I write more then 250 words in part tow of writing task two ? is there any danger of cutting Band?
    Desperately waiting your reply.

    • Dominic Cole April 10, 2014 at 10:39 am #

      No. You should aim fro between 265 and 300 words is my bets advice. Write more than 300 words and you may lose out because you don’t give yourself time to check properly. But there is no upper word limit.

  5. sawat April 17, 2014 at 1:03 pm #

    I thank you very much for your good scafice by giving me the English
    Lessons,which i had never praticed before the first IELT exam i sat in march 2013.

    The little knowledge i have acquired in your lesons may later benefit me in the upcoming IELTS exam.

    in conclusion, i would like to request you to offer for me many more lessons and the guidian espacially, in speaking and writing.
    Thank! Sawat Machar.

  6. Harikrushna July 5, 2014 at 1:47 pm #


    I liked your explanation about personal and impersonal answer for essay.

    I am confuse somewhat on below topic, I taken this from your previous lessons, and seems you did not mentioned your person view, while question asking about “you”.

    In many countries people working in sport and entertainment earn much more money than professionals like doctors, nurses and teachers. Why do you think this happens in some societies and do you consider it is good or bad?

    It will be great, you help to understand this kind of topics.


  7. maaarbs March 3, 2015 at 4:18 am #

    thank you for your article! I will definitely stop using rhetoric questions :)) It was one of my worries.

  8. buffer September 4, 2016 at 5:05 pm #

    I was confused about the part that said “include any relevant examples from your own experience” and this article helped me. I thought I had to fish out specific examples from my personal life, and that marks might be cut for not doing so. Now I know it’s supposed to be my personal opinion on the matter. Thanks.

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