Tips for Nailing your IELTS Academic Writing Test

After the test on August 29 at Makati Shangri-la, Rizal Ballroom (We’re a big batch, a mix of General Training and Academic. It’s like UPCAT or we could’ve rallied.), I overheard some fellow test-takers ramble about how difficult the Writing test was, how they didn’t finish Task 2, how they ran out of ideas, how they’d just screwed up their hopes and dreams of going abroad. On the other hand, I finished both tasks and I found them okay. Nothing to complain except how my arm hurt from having crash-written two essays.

Thirteen days after, on September 11, our IELTS results were released online. I took the IELTS Academic module and got an overall score of 7.5 and got an average of 7.5 in Writing. It was not as high as I expected of myself (#competitive) but it’s just about what I need. So everything’s fine Alpine.

But you know what, just like what I experienced, the Writing test can be pretty easy and doable in under 60 minutes if you know how to go about each of them. So today, I am going to share with you some things that I probably did right that got me a Band 7.5 in IELTS Academic Writing.

Just to give you a background first, I am an English instructor (with SAT-level knowledge of grammar) at a university and a writer of various sorts. I may be at an advantaged position to have taken IELTS but I still actually reviewed for it. I spent (almost) a week reviewing for the tests — three days for Speaking, rested on Speaking day, then reviewed another three days for Listening, Reading, and Writing.

In hindsight, I realized that IELTS Writing is DEFINITELY NOT something a native speaker of English can easily score high on. No, not even coños and fluent foreigners can easily score high on it. I realized that IELTS Academic Writing requires a certain familiarity with the ~Art~ and ~beauty~ of composition that can only be learned in school (if you’re paying attention!), mastered in college (supposedly), or if you did your review.

Sounds scary? Well, at least now you’re concerned. What’s important is you’ve already done the first big step in nailing your IELTS Writing and that is through REVIEWING! (And perhaps this is how you got on this post. Kudos.) Now, to get you started, let me share with you FOUR MAJOR TIPS that got me a 7.5, that can also help you score high in your IELTS Academic Writing Test.

Here they go:

 

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1. Bring a formula or two

By ‘formula,’ I mean model or structure for writing your essay. It’s like math. You memorize the formula, when you’re handed out the problem, you plug in the variables in the formula and solve for the unknown. If you don’t know the formula, that’s the problem. Pretty formulaic!

I actually came to the test with two formulae for each task which I got from Denley Pike’s Tips & Strategies for Taking IELTS, a freebie from IDP Makati when I applied three weeks early for the test. Between the two, I had one that I was more familiar with and was my go-to for accomplishing the task.

Having had some formulae with me on test day helped me to think of answers quickly and organize my thoughts logically. Because I had formulae, I knew all the parts that I had to put on paper, what had to go first and what had to follow, and what other things I had to consider when writing.

Not bringing any formula to test day is a common mistake by candidates. This shows overconfidence and carelessness. Avoid this. If you don’t have or can’t get a copy of Pike’s Tips, there are many other resources online. Here’s another which I got from a friend and used alternately during my review: Alternative reviewer.

 

2. Practice writing

To get a feel of it. Also, you get to practice thinking with it. Writing is actually easy; it’s the thinking that’s hard, right? So if you train your brain into thinking intelligently, quickly, and coherently, good writing will stick like a habit and become instinctive to you whatever topic comes your way.

During my review, I practiced a lot for Task 1 because I was more unfamiliar with writing reports on charts and graphs. I mean, aren’t they supposed to be self-explanatory? But I later found out that there’s actually a rationale to this and a slew of techniques to describe graphic information in all its various kinds and combinations — even with the trick ones!

This practice proved to be very beneficial on test day. See, I took much more time on writing Task 2, which I tackled first, and I was left with only 15 minutes to write for Task 1. So what I did was write straight on the answer sheet (best-of-my-judgment decision), and guess what? All the words just flowed spontaneously, all in logical order! In just 10 minutes! Of course, I didn’t get to the pull off everything I had practiced (biggest regret ugh) but I finished my Task 1 in half the time allotted (20 minutes) and I think I did a pretty decent essay back there.

IELTS Exam Writing Samples is a very good material that I used when I practiced for the Writing test. I would select a task, not peeking on the sample answer, and actually write an essay attempting to accomplish the task. When done, I’d compare my essay to the sample answer and look for the merits of the sample that I could emulate like vocabulary, phrasing, and organization.

Practicing had also helped me have an idea of how much I had to write for each task. I knew that a 150-word essay is a 3-to-4-short-paragraph essay whereas a 250-word essay should be at least four 4-to-7-lines-per-paragraph essay. So practice is really important.

 

3. Beef up your vocabulary

It’s least likely probable that anyone can practice writing essays for all kinds of topics and graphic — unless he/she has a lot of free time AND a steely determination to actually practice. I was sort of a bum when I was reviewing for IELTS but I was generally distracted (social media, Friends, and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood) and I’d only practice 2-4 hours a day, which is right about the equal amount of time that students, office workers, and “busy” people can carve out in their day for practice.

What I did after (1) having familiarized myself with some essay formulae and (2) having actually practiced writing was (3) loaded my vocabulary bank with words that I could probably use for the Writing test.

Yes, you may be coño and knowledgeable about Internet slang and the latest “coolspeak,” but writing formally about a graph, social issue, or discipline requires knowledge about the jargons used in there. The essay topic can range from health to environment, to government spending, to God knows what (IELTS Essay Topics 2015). Unless you make a living out of these, I highly recommend that you beef up you vocabulary.

Learning the jargons of each field has many benefits. For one, you get to familiarize yourself with the field. Second, it can help you form prior opinion on issues in that field that could come in handy should any of these issues get hurled your way on test day. And third, use of jargons can definitely help you score higher in Writing because vocabulary is one of the grading components of an essay.

Here is a material that I used in improving my vocab: DC IELTS Vocabulary.

 

4. Take Task 2 first

This was an impromptu decision and worked well for me. This might not work well for you. But I thought: if Task 2 had a greater proportion of my Writing score (which the facilitator told us), then I should focus first on Task 2 and channel in more effort and skill on accomplishing it. I thought to myself: “I should definitely finish Task 2.” Now I tell you, dear friend: You should definitely finish Task 2.

I tried to look for the actual percentage of each task in Writing, but either it’s top secret or it’s way deep down in the search results and I had no such energy to dig deep. Anyhow, my best guess was: If 20/60 mins was allocated for Task 1 and 40/60 mins was for Task 2, then Task 1 could be one-third (33.33%) and Task 2 must be two-thirds (66.66%) of one’s Writing score.

Anyhow, taking on Task 2 first worked well for me because I trained myself to write for Task 1 intuitively and efficiently. (Practice!!!) So although I went overtime working on Task 1 (45 minutes) and had less than 20 minutes to accomplish Task 1 (15 minutes), I  still produced a decent essay for Task 1 in a much shorter period of time (10 minutes). Thus, a Writing average of 7.5. Boo-yah.

I know there are a lot of tips out there on what to take on first in every type of question in every type of test, but word of advice: Know what works for you. There’s no one size fits all. Know what works for you.

[If you’re curious  about what I did with the remaining five minutes, well, I used it to go over my essays (and rest my strained arm) and correct some SVA errors (Yikes!) which happened a lot more than I expected of myself (Ugh.).]

 

OTHER TIPS:

  1. Ask around for advice. Friends and family who have already taken the IELTS can tell you things that cannot be found in ‘IELTS tips and strategies’ materials like this post. They can also direct you to valuable and free review materials.
  2. Aim for a 9! A common mistake is to aim for the required 7 or 7.5, which is just the bare minimum. Remember that reality almost always falls short from the ideal that we have in mind. If you aim for a bare minimum, you’d most likely get lower than that. This works for IELTS and life in general. (PROOF: I aimed for a 9 and I got a 7.5.)
  3. Get your grammar game on. Practice on eliminating common grammatical errors that can glare on your essay such as subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent error, verb tense error, tense inconsistencies, run-ons, and commonly confused homophones like ‘there’ / ‘their’ / ‘there.’ If you know for yourself that grammar is your waterloo and you can’t DIY a grammar review, it’s best to seek for professional help.
  4. Eliminate controllable distractions like hunger, thirst, uncomfortable clothes, cold, full bladder, and bangs sticking to your eyes. These may be cutesy details but they can affect your overall performance, especially that you’re working under time pressure. Foresee difficulties and solve them prior the test. (PRO TIP: Best time to pee is during Reading.)

 

BOTTOM LINE:

Whether you’re good in English or challenged with the language: You. Have. To. Review. Everyone can benefit from preparation. This is something that I learnt as a kid (“Half of success is preparation.”) and this has worked well for me most of the time all the time. It’s the same logic as in professional athletes. They have been playing their sport for all of their lives, but they still warm up before their big games. Best luck!

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