Demonstrating your English proficiency through a formal test such as the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS for short, is key to your successful admission to a US college or university.
The IELTS is a test of reading, listening, speaking and writing skills graded overall on a band scale of 0 to 9. You are graded according to what you can do in the language.
You will need to contact those US colleges and universities you are interested in applying to in order to determine the minimum IELTS score required for admission. However, in general, you will need to obtain a band score of between 6.0 and 7.0.
An Overview of the IELTS Essay
Most people find writing in a second language the most difficult skill to master. Average IELTS scores confirm this. Official data published in 2018 showed that the average score in Academic IELTS Writing was 5.6, compared to band scores of 6.0 or over in the other areas.
All the more reason to be well prepared for this part of the test.
The IELTS Writing Test lasts 60 minutes and there are two questions.
The first question asks you to describe and interpret data presented in charts, graphs, or plans. You must write at least 150 words. It is recommended you spend 20 minutes on this writing task.
The second question is an essay topic. You must write a minimum of 250 words and it is recommended you spend 40 minutes on this writing task. This task is worth double the first task, hence the 40 minutes time recommendation.
When writing the essay, you should write in a formal academic style. The topic for the essay varies, but in every instance you are asked to give your opinion, either arguing in favor or against some particular viewpoint or offering solutions to a specific problem.
You are always encouraged to: “Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own experience and knowledge.”
How the Essay is Graded
There are 4 areas assessed when grading the essay, and each one is scored out of a maximum of 9. Your overall Writing Test score is the average of these 4 scores.
These areas are: Task Response; Cohesion and Coherence; Lexical Resource; Grammatical Range & Accuracy.
It’s an English test, so you know that your grammar and vocabulary are going to be tested. Therefore, it’s the first 2 areas (Task Response and Cohesion and Coherence) that are vital when it comes to planning and structuring your essay.
Task response judges how well you did what you were asked to do. To achieve a band 7.0 in this area, the official band descriptor says the candidate must “address all parts of the task,” “present a clear position,” and “present, support and extend main ideas.”
Cohesion and coherence relates to how well information and ideas are organized and connected in meaningful ways. For a band 7.0, the descriptor states that a candidate must “present a clear central topic in each paragraph.”
Planning Your Essay
Planning before writing is vital. You have a total 40 minutes. Spend at least the first 5 planning your essay.
Understand first exactly what you have to do. Identify what type of question it is and keep that in mind while you plan and when you write.
Consider this example:
Some people say that the only reason for learning a foreign language is in order to travel to or work in a foreign country. Others say these are not the only reasons why someone should learn a foreign language.
Discuss both these views and give your opinion.
Note down your ideas. Not just your opinions. Think of opposing points of view, too.
Remember to add some personal experience or knowledge wherever possible. Make it look and feel genuine. And take a clear position.
Once you have noted your ideas, it’s time to organize them into paragraphs. But how many?
There is a tendency to think of these essays very simply in terms of 4 paragraphs. The outline could be:
- Introduction: briefly state the topic and make your position on it clear.
- Paragraph 1: present and support your main ideas on learning for work or travel.
- Paragraph 2: present and support contrasting ideas on learning for other reasons.
- Conclusion: briefly sum up the topic and your views.
The two main paragraphs can of course be split into more. There is no reason to think that we can only write 4 paragraphs in total.
It is very important to keep each part of the essay to the point. Start each paragraph with your “main” idea and then build the rest of your paragraph around support for that idea through knowledge and perhaps, personal examples.
To present an idea to the contrary, you can either begin a new paragraph or include the contrary idea in the first paragraph by using a clear cohesive marker, such as “however.”
Writing Advice for STEM Students
To some extent, the essay writing task benefits those candidates who have a background in the humanities or the social sciences. Those are the students who tend to have more experience in reading and writing what we sometimes call “argumentative” essays.
Generally speaking, those from a STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) background find this type of essay writing more difficult.
The best advice for those STEM students is to use your logical abilities to plan and clearly structure your essay by using cohesive devices to express contrast, make conclusions, add information or ideas, and provide examples.
The essay is meant for you to show your proficiency in English, not the depth of your knowledge on a particular topic. It is important to take a position, yes, but you don’t need to write a research-length paper. Form your standpoint and defend it clearly and cohesively.
COVID-19 and the IELTS Indicator Test
A final point to make refers to exam options and recent developments.
The year 2020 has been difficult for all of us and some of you may live in places where your nearest IELTS exam center has not yet re-opened.
Do not despair. IELTS has set up an IELTS Indicator Test which you can take safely from your own home. You take the test under exam conditions and receive your band score within 7 days with hints on where you need to improve. You have the option to re-take the test to improve your score.
Many institutions are accepting this test as valid. Learn more about the IELTS Indicator Test here.
Don’t let COVID-19 to stand in the way of your academic goals.