Start Smart: How to Make Sure You Understand Your Essay Task Before You Write

April 12, 2018 by Angela Rutherford Angela Rutherford

You skipped out of the IELTS exam confident that you had aced the essay. You loved the topic and had a lot to say about it, but then you received the results and saw a rating of 5 for the writing module. What happened? You were expecting at least 7.

The good news is that it may have had less to do with your writing skills and more to do with your ability to interpret the prompt.

We can fix that! All it takes is a few minutes to make sure you understand what the task is asking you to do before you dive into your writing.

Here are three simple steps to help you focus your efforts in the right direction.

1. IDENTIFY THE TOPIC

One simple way to do this is to underline the main subject. For example, take a look at how the topics have been identified in these writing tasks:

A. Some think that the best way to stop people from smoking is to increase the cost of cigarettes. Do you agree or disagree?

B. Computers are being used more and more in education. Do the advantages of this trend outweigh the disadvantages?

C. Some people believe testing drugs and cosmetics on animals is cruel. Others think that this testing is important and necessary for improving and saving people’s lives. Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.

D. In modern society, more and more older adults are living in homes for the elderly instead of being cared for by younger family members in their homes. Why do you think this is happening? Do you believe that this is the best way for modern families to care for their older relatives?


Once you've taken the time to highlight the topic, you're more likely to stay with it throughout your answer.

2. NOTE THE QUESTIONS AROUND THE TOPIC

Not only is it important to know what the topic is, but it's also important to understand what you're expected to address regarding the topic.

Looking for direct questions or converting statements into question form will clarify what you need to discuss. This behaviour helps ensure that you cover all the requirements in your response.

➢ Sometimes the questions are obvious, such as in this one:

In modern society, more and more older adults are living in homes for the elderly instead of being cared for by younger family members in their homes. Why do you think this is happening? What do you think is the best way for modern families to care for their older relatives?


Here the questions would be:

1. Why are more older adults living in homes for the elderly?

2. Is this the best way for modern families to care for older adults or is there a better way?


➢ “Agree and disagree” prompts are easy to turn around:

Some think that the best way to stop people from smoking is to increase the cost of cigarettes. Do you agree or disagree?

Question:

1. Is increasing the cost of cigarettes the best way to stop people from smoking or is there a better way?


➢ “Discuss both views” are simple once you see how to change them to questions:

Some people believe testing drugs and cosmetics on animals is cruel. Others think that this testing is important and necessary for improving and saving people’s lives. Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.

1. Why might some people believe that testing drugs and cosmetics on animals is cruel?

2. Why might some people believe that testing drugs and cosmetics on animals is important and necessary for improving and saving people’s lives?

3. What is my opinion on this matter?


➢ “Do advantages outweigh disadvantages” tasks are opinion questions with a twist. Let's look at this example:

Computers are being used more and more in education. Do the advantages of this trend outweigh the disadvantages?

To give a comprehensive answer, you would need to address all three of these questions:

What are some advantages of computers being used in education?
What are some disadvantages?
Do I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages or not?

If you believe that the advantages are stronger than the disadvantages, you could show your opinion while you discuss those advantage points in greater detail. However, in your essay, you should still explore the concerns or disadvantages of the subject if you want a rating of 7 or above.


3. RESPOND TO ALL PARTS OF THE TASK

Once you see the questions within the task, you will have identified the “parts” that need to be addressed.

If you answer each of those questions in your essay in some depth, you can expect a higher rating. NOTE that if you fail to address EVEN ONE part, you could impact your score significantly.

I hope you can see that it’s easy and essential to use those first few minutes to understand what your IELTS essay topic is and what you're expected to write about it.

If you follow this advice, I believe you can leave your exam more confident that you're going to get the score you need. Good luck!
hand writing on paper with a pencil



Angela Rutherford

Angela is a professional IELTS tutor who has been teaching English for a fairly long time. Well, let’s just admit to half of her life-time! With a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Bachelor of Education, and a certificate to teach English as a Second Language, Angela has found herself in a variety of classrooms. To name a few, she’s taught in adult language schools in Ottawa, at an International high school in Hamilton and on a retreat with Spaniards in the Andalusian mountains. She currently lives and works near Toronto and is excited to share information that will help IELTS candidates prepare to do their best on the IELTS exam.

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