If you’ve never written an essay, Task 2 of the IELTS Writing Test may feel daunting: 250 words in only 40 minutes!
The good news is that (just like the Speaking Test) you don't need to write something interesting or truthful. If you don't have an opinion about how to educate children, just invent one. If your honest opinion is uninteresting or conventional, that's OK too.
Your goal should be to write something that is easy to understand, with clear connections between each idea (opinion, reason, example, etc) and show the Reader your ability to use a variety of words and grammar structures.
At the same time, if you have a strong opinion or deep knowledge about a topic, you should avoid writing too much. If you're a professor of Childhood Education and you can write 2,000 words on the topic, but you only finish your Introduction (remember, you only have 40 minutes) – then you won't earn a high score.
Task 2 Topics (for Academic & General Training)
Although the type of question you'll receive for Task 1 depends on whether you take Academic or General Training version of the IELTS, for Task 2 the topics and questions are the same for both versions of the test.
It's important to read the question carefully, because it may ask you to include specific information in your essay. Sometimes the question will ask you to compare two opinions, or offer some solutions to a particular problem. If you fail to include this information (or if you only write about one opinion, instead of both), then you are likely to receive a lower score.
In addition, every question in Task 2 ends the same way: “Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.”
The question you receive will usually fit into one of the four categories below:
This question type appears the most frequently in the IELTS Writing Test: Some people say X, while others say Y... As you can see, the ‘question’ is quite long (and doesn't even have a question mark):
Notice that these questions ask you to ‘discuss both’, not to ‘choose one’. At the end of your essay, in the final paragraph, you should state your personal opinion (which may be simply, In my opinion, I think both sides make good points).
Another common question type offers you only one opinion and then asks whether you agree or disagree with it:
If you don't have a strong opinion about these issues, that's OK. It's fine to begin your essay using the same structure we saw above: "Some people say that large shopping malls have a negative impact on local communities, while others say that these places have many positive benefits."
In this case, however, you can state your personal opinion in the introduction ("In my opinion, I think shopping malls can be good as well as bad for communities").
Sometimes you may need to explain a problem and propose some solutions:
Notice that these types of questions don't ask for your opinion (that's why it is important to read the whole question, carefully).
For these questions, you should begin your essay with a different approach: "Today many workers suffer from terrible health conditions due to lack of exercise. Two common reasons are the long distances that people must commute to work and the lack of exercise spaces in or near their homes."
At the end of your essay, you can give your opinion, but it's important to remember that this is not the focus of your essay.
This type of question appears infrequently on the IELTS Writing Test, but you should prepare for it, just in case. In these questions, the focus is not on opinions or solutions, but on the potential advantages (benefits) and disadvantages (drawbacks) of a particular activity or policy:
Like the Problem/Solution essay, it's fine to begin your essay with a simple statement like: "Today many children have a great quantity of toys to entertain them. This can have both positive and negative consequences for them, however: on the one hand, children can learn a variety of useful skills from certain toys, but on the other hand, they may fail to learn important skills, like mental focus."
Having seen several examples of question topics and introductory statements, let's look at a full-length IELTS essay. The example below (252 words) addresses the following question:
As you read, try to look for the reasons and examples which question asks for, and pay attention to the phrases the writer uses to introduce each of these ideas:
Around the world today, young people have many sources of inspiration for their lives. Television and magazines offer stories about remarkable people in art, politics, and science. Over the past century, athletes have also become prominent, and many of them now earn more money in one year than doctors or human-rights activists earn in their entire lifetime. Although these sport stars are highly skilled and deserve their success, many parents question whether athletes are appropriate role models for youths.
On the one hand, athletes can be ideal role models, since their success comes from many hours of practice and concentration, rather than their connection to rich or powerful people. In team sports, the best athletes also demonstrate important skills like cooperation and leadership, and in competitive sports they show why it is important to keep trying even after failing many times.
However, the competitive nature of sports can also lead many athletes down a darker path. Numerous scandals reveal that some of our most adored athletes put winning above virtue—namely honesty. One example is Lance Armstrong, whose desire to win the Tour de France led him to take drugs for many years and to treat everyone who knew his secret with great cruelty.
In short, it seems to me that parents should be cautious about the mixed message communicated in the world of sports. Although it is inspiring to read stories about poor children becoming world champions, we must avoid teaching children that winning is the only thing of value.
Some important things to notice about this essay:
- It is well-organized. Each paragraph has a clear and specific purpose. The first paragraph introduces the essay and restates the topic; the second paragraph focuses on points of disagreement; the third paragraph focuses on points of agreement; and the final paragraph presents the writer's opinion ("it seems to me").
- The writer uses keywords to introduce each idea (reason, example, comparison), including although, on the one/other hand, since, rather than, also, like, however, namely, example, and in short. Just as important, he uses a variety of these keywords, and they are used correctly.
- The writer shows that he is able to use a wide range of vocabulary (like demonstrate and reveal instead of repeating show, show, show) and avoids using the exact same words from the question (using young people instead of children, prominent instead of famous, sport stars as well as athletes).
- The writer uses a formal style of writing that is appropriate for academic/business situations (it is important to..., we must avoid...). There are no informal or slang expression, no abbreviations, and no bullet points.
- Finally, it is important to notice that each phrase and sentence is relevant to the topic. The writer does not include unimportant information (such as, "My favorite athlete is Messi").
For comparison, watch this video from IDP (one of the makers of the IELTS test) to see another example of a Band 7+ essay:
Other Tips to Remember
- Make sure you have a plan before you start writing. Although you have only 40 minutes to write your essay, it is very important to spend the first 4-5 minutes thinking of ideas (reasons, examples, etc.) and making brief notes. The most common reason why good writers get low scores for this part of the IELTS test is because they begin writing without a plan, and their essay is poorly organized as a result.
- Save a few minutes at the end to review and edit your essay. Even for expert writers, the pressure of time can lead to small mistakes in grammar and spelling. That's why it's a good idea to spend a 3-4 minutes at the end of the hour to look for any errors and make any changes to your essay.
- Read opinion essays and think about whether you agree with the writer, and why. Although the IELTS test makers do their best to choose easy topics (you will never get a question about history or politics), it can still be difficult to think up ideas and opinions if you don't have much experience writing essays. If this is a problem for you, you may find it helpful to read a lot of opinion-style articles and essays. This study habit is also a great way to learn new vocabulary.
A great source of opinion essays in English is The Guardian website, where you can find essays on dozens of topics, by hundreds of writers. For example:
- “We should all be working a four-day week”
- “Cars are killing us. Within 10 years, we must phase them out”
- “Netflix might dominate our viewing, but cinema brings us another sort of pleasure”
A good exercise: Before reading the essays above, read the title and practice thinking of reasons and examples that you would use for these topics. Then read the essays carefully and compare the ideas and details these writers used to support their opinions.
Photo by Jess Bailey