IELTS Writing Task 1 – Tips and common mistakes to avoid

Both IELTS writing tasks present different challenges, and this article focuses on the first task, offering tips to avoid some of the most common pitfalls that prevent candidates from obtaining the highest possible grade.

Consider the following sentence:

‘The graph shows that many more women have senior positions within UK companies these days compared with 20 years ago, which illustrates how society is becoming much more equal…

Although the first part of the previous sentence certainly supports the notion that society is becoming much more equal, such conjecture will be completely ignored by examiners marking the IELTS Writing Task 1. A significant and common mistake made by candidates during the first task is to explain or speculate about the data presented, which is a completely natural thing to do as we are logical beings programmed to search for explanation. However, the writing style for this task needs to be entirely objective and factual, without any personal insights or explanations. Your opinion will have to wait until the Task 2 essay, which will be expanded on in my next blog.

The graphs, charts, diagrams or maps presented to the candidates for the purpose of the Task 1 essay are all likely to contain a lot of detail, and another common error made by candidates is to try and include as many of these details as possible into the short essay during the 20-minute time limit. Nevertheless, regurgitating information will not secure a high grade. Put simply, it just isn’t possible to describe all the information presented in an essay of 150 words, so the examiner will be looking for candidates’ ability to be selective with their choice of the features they choose to include. Therefore, in addition to a brief introduction and a general overview of the information, candidates should only choose two or three significant features about which to describe in detail. If this formula is followed, then a much higher grade is likely.

Additional points can also be obtained by exhibiting a wide range of vocabulary in order to expand on these main features.

‘The number of graduates employed by UK companies increased a lot in the 80s followed by a decrease in the 90s…’

This sentence can be improved upon by utilising intensifying verbs and adverbs to demonstrate this trend at a more advanced level. Consider instead the following sentence:

‘The number of graduates employed by UK companies rocketed in the 80s followed by a significant decrease in the 90s…’

Moreover, the importance of allowing sufficient time towards the end of the essay in order to review the spelling and punctuation cannot be emphasised enough. A couple of minutes spent re-reading and correcting any errors may well make the difference between a pass and a fail!

Lastly, tell your students to try to keep in mind that this task only contributes to one third of the total points available for the writing section, and that the second task attributes to double this amount, so if candidates really have a horrible essay question with which they are struggling – don’t despair! They can still make up for it by focusing their efforts on the second task.


Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at martinwilson@mwlc.co.uk.

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