HOW TO NAIL THE IELTS ACADEMIC WRITING EXAM
(AND NOT DIE OF BOREDOM IN THE PROCESS)
By Charlotte Barrett
Learning a language is fun, it’s a window into another culture, another world. It’s the possibility to extend your horizons, to communicate with new people, to avoid waiting the delayed release of your favourite series… the list goes on and on. Yes, yes, yes. It’s fun. Until you have to prepare for an exam, as silly and mean as it can be, to go study abroad or to get this new job you really want.
Then, learning English is not as fun anymore. Then, learning English becomes tedious. Simply because you ain’t really learning English, you are learning “exam English”, a language of its own. This being said, there are several ways to make the experience interesting and to pass with flying colours the dreaded exam. After all, like any milestone in life, it is all about preparation. And knowing the rules.
I always think about the 6 years old me, trying to play Monopoly with my older brother. He had omitted to mention that the aim of the game was to build houses and make people pay as they pass your properties. I thought it was all about avoiding jail. I did not know the rules, suffice to say it is awfully difficult to win a game without knowing how to play. Same goes for IELTS. If you want to nail the game, you need to understand it and know inside out what is expected of you. Here https://www.ielts.org/for-test-takers/test-format is a good place to start. The IELTS official website does explain clearly how the exam work and the format of each of the tasks.
As the title mentions, here we’ll talk about the writing task. There are actually two writing tasks in the IELTS exam, an essay and the presentation of a graph, diagram, table or chart. Are you snoozing yet? Understandable. I too tend to avoid reading sentences that include the words graph, chart and essay. Alas, it is indeed what is expected of you. To analyse and present a chart. It is easier done than what it sounds like. It is all about the rules and knowing what is expected of you. Here are simple steps to get you there and (hopefully) remain a happy entertained learner.
FIGURE OUT WHAT THE EXAMINER WANTS FROM YOU
Have you ever had a conversation with someone, a friend perhaps or a sibling, in which said person obviously wants something from you but is not making it clear, beating around the bush aimlessly? Yes? Me too and I hate that. Just ask to borrow my car already Karen! Well, IELTS is the same. You will never produce an effective, high mark writing if you fail to give the marker what he wants. Unfortunately, said marker will be as annoyed as waiting for Karen to formulate her request (just ask already Karen!!) when he reads yet another paper that fails to get to the point. What better way to understand what an examiner is expecting than to infiltrate his brain? I don’t have the power to get you there, but I have the power to share with you the grid that markers use to grade your papers:
https://www.ielts.org/-/media/pdfs/writing-band-descriptors-task-1.ashx and https://www.ielts.org/-/media/pdfs/writing-band-descriptors-task-2.ashx
As you can see, when it comes to the writing, examiners look at four criteria: task achievement, coherence and cohesion, lexical resource and grammar range and accuracy.
The good news is, two out of four are not so much about how great of a command you have over the English language but more about how good of an academic writer you are. Might be bad news for some but do not despair, nothing that cannot be resolved.
UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION AND ANSWER IT
“Duh” I hear you say, “easy as one, two, three” you’re thinking. Well, well, well, one might be surprised at the number of students who write a decent piece of writing with a fair use of English but fail to answer the question that was asked. Can be the stress of the exam, can be your brain choosing to read what he’d prefer to work on rather than the, let’s face it, pretty plain question that is in front of you. Doesn’t matter but there is only one way to avoid this pitfall: dedicate time to understanding the question and ask yourself “what is it that they want me to say?” You have probably guessed it, the marker is not actually interested in knowing whether or not you think phones are destroying young people’s brains. He is, however, interested in assessing whether you can give a clear opinion, justify your answer and get your point across. As sad as it sounds, the veracity or your argument and complex reasoning behind why phones are indeed responsible for degrading the human race matters less to the examiner than your ability to write fully formed sentences, well organised and clear ideas. Is making up that phones do in fact have an impact on teenagers because you saw in a study that playing Candy crush killed 10 neurones an hour (LIES!) as good as giving actual factual information? Well, in the strange IELTS world, yes. As long as you are not off topic, simplicity is your friend.
Markers want you to use language related to whatever boring topic they have given you and make sure you can answer their silly question.
Maybe, like me, you have been traumatised by years of schooling and teachers barking in your ears that you should plan. Maybe you grew up in a place where it was advised to write a draft, the “ugly” version and then write the “clean” version on the exam sheet. Well, for the IELTS, it is really not recommended, simply because you do not have time for it. It is somewhat strange in 2022 to picture yourself writing with a pen and paper but the IELTS exam is old school and will be on paper. For your writing to be structured, clear and generally net, you want to plan ahead. You will be provided with plenty of spare sheets for you to gribble away your thoughts, organise them and come up with a solid plan. Make use of it. Topics vary from an exam to another, but they are generally very similar questions which means you can prepare a plan ahead of the exam that you will simply need to adapt on the exam day. Typically, for the essay writing for example, it is advised to have an introduction, 3 body paragraphs that focus on three different arguments with examples and a conclusion in which you give your opinion. You can even learn expressions or sentences that you will for sure be able to use on the D-day. Here is a link to websites with plans and model answers: https://ted-ielts.com/planning-ielts-writing-task-2-structure/ and https://ielts-up.com/writing/ielts-writing-practice.html
It would truly be a crucial mistake to start writing as soon as you read the question. Just take 5 to 10 minutes to craft a plan, come up with linking words (examiners ADORE those) and make sure your plan does indeed answer the question. Then you can start writing.
VOC-A-BULA-RY? Yes please!
I would also advise that you use your planning time to brainstorm phrasal verbs, structures, expressions that you know and incorporate them in your plan to ensure that the vocabulary you will use is rich and varied. I always say that out of 190 words, if three of those are “thing”, two are “do” and 5 are “something”, you are not using your words very wisely. The point is to showcase, show off, impress, bedazzle, blow the examiner away. You have 190 words to show us that you master the language. I know you know how to say “things”, I want more. Plus, “thing” really means nothing. It’s a filler. An empty shell. I hate thing. I know you have better words stored somewhere, just let them come out and play!
Now, improving one’s vocabulary is a hard and lengthy task. Rome wasn’t built in a day they say? Well, neither was an impressive lexical field. The percentage of words we use daily compared to number of available words is ridiculously low. How can you learn vocabulary you ask? By doing exactly what you are doing now, reading. It is the most efficient way to enrich your vocabulary, read articles every day from your favourite newspapers or magazine, try to read a book in English, maybe one you read in your own language or one for teenagers. And write. Coming across a word in your reading is a first great step but it is using that word that will make it permanently enter your vocabulary bank. Steal words and expressions and use them in your own preparation writings. And use a thesaurus as regularly as you can when you run out of ideas or ways to say a particular word. Maybe make up a list of “stolen” words that you like and force yourself to use them, no matter what, in your next writing. Of course, if you choose “Eskimo” or “dinosaur”, you are making it strangely hard on yourself. Just choose nice, useful collocations and you will see that you are improving your abilities.
PROOF-READ, CORRECT, REPEAT
I, just like any sane person, love to finish a task, give it away, seal it away, throw it against a wall and never, ever, look at it, ever again. What is done is done, the damaged is already there, why would I put myself through the horror of reading what I wrote? Almost as mortifying as watching a video of yourself dancing. Brrr, chills just thinking about it. Yes. But. No one, absolutely no one, not even Michelle Obama gets it right the first-time round. It is IMPERATIVE that you set at least 5 minutes aside to proofread yourself. As an examiner, we immediately see the students who have done it and those who haven’t. Yes, we know you meant “of” instead of “or” but it makes it all the worse because it means you are a sloppy student who couldn’t even be bothered to double check, so why should we?
I believe it is an excellent idea to read your writing once, only thinking about the spelling and the grammar. You must know which are the mistakes you tend to make; maybe you forget the ‘s’ for third person singular, maybe you mix up prepositions, tend to add “the” everywhere or to never use “the”. Whatever they are, they are yours. Your favourite mistakes that by now, you know how to avoid but I can guarantee you, you will make those mistakes the day of the exam. So, look for it, catch it and improve your writing.
If you have planned carefully, the meaning of your piece of writing should not be an issue but it is worth checking that it all makes sense and is tied up together well. Check the number of words you have, don’t be below but don’t be above either, it is a silly mistake to make that can cost you precious marks.
Be aware, however, of the “over proof-reader symptom” that some of us are subjected to. You know, the one when in the process of proofreading yourself you actually add mistakes to the writing. You start doubting everything: Wait, does “better” have one or two “t”s? Should I use the present perfect? There is only one remedy against such affliction: confidence. You know the rules, you know how to do it. Trust yourself and if in big doubt, maybe tweak the sentence to avoid the mistake? In any case, manage your time wisely so you have those precious minutes to proof-read.
It is an exam. Dumb and evil, remember that. You must play the game and follow the rules and you might win the game altogether. As sad and pathetic as it may be, it is not about ideas, arguments or even creativity, it is about giving the examiner what he wants. It is about checking that you can understand and follow commands in English, that you can write intelligible, structured, clear and precise English, that you have enough knowledge of the grammar to use several tenses correctly, that you are intimate enough with the language to sound natural. So, breath, know the rules of the game and smash it. It is normal and actually very healthy to feel stressed before an exam, it is your body preparing to rise to the challenge. A very old trick for when our ancestors were suddenly faced with a bear and needed the adrenaline to survive. The sweaty palms, the fast-beating heart, the stomach cramps… They are not your enemies but your friends, helping you to be ready, to be focused, to be alert in order to succeed. Turn it into strength, remember that you’ve got this and write away.
Also, apparently a study proved that if you stand in a superhero pose for 5 minutes before tackling a big challenge, you will perform better (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superheroes/201107/why-you-may-want-stand-superhero). Might be silly but worth a try. Strike your pose, remember your favourite mistakes and breath deeply. You’ve got this.