Today, I want to analyse a sample band 9 answer to an IELTS writing task 2 question in order to show you what exactly makes an essay successful. Now, there are many things that could make a great essay, but today I just want to show you a few things you might not have thought about before in order to to show you what contributes to an essay getting the highest possible score.
I will start by talking about whether or not sample IELTS essays are actually worthwhile or not, then I’ll group the things I want to talk about into the 4 criteria by which all IELTS essays are judged – that’s Task Achievement, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource, and Grammatical Range and Accuracy. If you have a special interest in one of these areas, you can skip ahead to that, but I think it’s better to read the whole article.
If you prefer to watch this video, which contains many annotated examples, you can watch it instead of reading this whole article.
Are Band 9 Sample Answers Worthwhile?
Before we begin this lesson properly, I feel I should give a sort of disclaimer. Band 9 sample answers are probably not as useful or important as you might think and there are a few things that you must consider before you use them. Firstly, not all essays that are labelled as “band 9 sample answers” are really good enough to get band 9 in a real IELTS test. As I’ve said many times before here and elsewhere, most IELTS materials are made by people who can’t actually speak English very well and do not understand the exam. These people tend to write essays that are crammed full of words they found in the dictionary but which are incorrectly used. These are absolutely not helpful.
But let’s put them aside for the moment. Let’s say you find a sample answer that really is good enough to get band 9. What can you learn from these? Well, if you use them properly, you can learn quite a lot, but many English learners seem to think of these essays as something they need to reproduce. They tend to view them as the correct way of writing an essay, when in fact it is just one possible example of how an essay could be written.
As such, please note that whether you are using my sample answers or anyone else’s, you should not view them as something you need to copy in any way. Use them instead for inspiration. Maybe you can find some words or phrases there that are helpful, or perhaps the structure is different than in your own essay. You might also find that the writer puts forth their ideas in a very clear way, or there may be some interesting ideas you had not thought of before.
All this is to say, of course, that sample band 9 answers CAN be useful, but that you should not be overly reliant upon them. Considering that, let’s look at our question and answer for today.
A Sample Band 9 Answer
Let’s start by look at the question because all great IELTS essays must start from there. Here is the question we will be analysing:
In many countries today, many highly qualified graduates struggle to find employment.
What factors may have caused this situation? What can be done about it?
First of all, let’s think what this question means and what our answer should include. It seems pretty straightforward to me. The fundamental issue is that graduates with good qualifications are finding it difficult to get jobs. We need to talk about why that has happened and what could be done to fix the situation. As you can see, it is a cause and solution question.
To this question, I would give a four-paragraph answer. First of all, my introduction would briefly explain the situation, then I would give an essay outline that said what would come next. My first body paragraph would look at the factors that caused it and the second would pose some suggestions for fixing the problem. Finally, there would be a short conclusion.
Sample Band 9 Answer
Here’s my answer to the above question:
As an increasing number of people go to university, it is now common that graduates cannot find employment. This is a worrying situation, but there are some solutions to it.
The current problem of graduate unemployment is largely caused by there being too many graduates. In the past fifty years, going to university has evolved from being an extremely rare occurrence for the smartest students who wished to learn specialist knowledge into something that millions of young people do. The result is a surplus of over-qualified candidates chasing the same jobs. In many countries, the economy is contracting and these graduates have to fight over very few available positions. The ones who do not get a job are left unemployed because they feel too qualified to take a lower-level position and work their way up, especially after having spent four years gaining advanced qualifications.
Thankfully, there are some possible solutions. The first thing to do is to recognise that higher education has become too common, and so perhaps it is time that alternative routes are sought. Rather than going from high school to university, students can instead be encouraged to find a vocational training program and enter the workforce soon after leaving school. This would allow them to learn some practical skills rather than the theoretical knowledge they would get from university, and then build up real work experience over a long period of time. In addition, universities could set up better facilities for students to get such practical experience, so that when they look for employment after graduation, they will not be at such a disadvantage.
In conclusion, many graduates are unable to find employment nowadays, and there are various reasons for this. The solutions are not easy to apply, but there are some possibilities to reduce the severity of this situation.
What makes this essay successful in terms of Task Achievement? This part of the test may seem subjective and frustrating because we all have different ideas about issues – particularly ones such as employment and education, which are naturally going to vary from culture to culture. Please note that there are no right and wrong answers in an IELTS exam and even a strange answer could be successful if it was presented intelligently.
The important thing to note from the band descriptors is that your essay must “fully address all parts of” the question and that it is “fully developed” with “relevant, fully extended, and well developed ideas.” One of the biggest problems people face here is cramming too many ideas into their essay. It is impossible to develop your essay sufficiently if you make it into a vast list of supporting arguments. Instead, pick one or two ideas and then develop them.
Let’s look at the second paragraph of my essay. I have picked an idea, which is that there are simply too many graduates nowadays. You might agree with me or disagree with me, but that is not important. Maybe there is a better idea… but again it does not matter because the important thing is that my topic sentence is very clear and each of the sentences that follow it directly support it. The first sentence states my idea in simple terms. The second explains the issue from an education standpoint, with the third making the result very clear – there are too many graduates. The final two sentences tie this to employment and show precisely why having so many graduates causes high unemployment rates.
An examiner might read this and think, “Well, I had a better idea…” but they could not fault me for how mine was explained, and that is key to understanding Task Achievement. It is not about the right idea or the wrong idea; it is about explaining and developing your ideas logically.
Coherence and Cohesion
When it comes to Coherence and Cohesion, there is a lot to consider, but fundamentally it is all about presenting your ideas in a way that guides the reader logically from one point to the next. This means you need a good structure that groups your ideas sensibly and also that you need your ideas to be connected from one clause or sentence to the next.
I showed you my structure earlier and that is where all good essays should begin. My essay has four paragraphs, which is really all you need for a cause and solution essay – or pretty much any other IELTS essay, for that matter. I devoted one paragraph to the causes and one to the solutions, so that fulfils the requirements for organisation. But structure is easy. You could learn it in a few hours. What is harder is having progression and linking your sentences.
In terms of progression, I explained in the previous section about how each of the supporting sentences in body paragraph developed the topic sentence. This is a good start, but it does not guarantee good progression. I like to think of paragraph structure in terms of making a big statement, then making it more and more specific until you get into the fine details, using examples or hypothetical statements to link the minute details back to the bigger picture.
Doing this isn’t easy. First, you need to think logically and plan your essay, and then you need to use clear language to guide the reader. In my third paragraph, I started with a transitional statement that joined the ideas from the end of paragraph two to the main idea of paragraph three. The main idea started with “The first thing to do…” which is incredibly clear and easy to understand. The reader could not possibly be confused by what I’m saying. Again, my topic sentence presents a broad idea and is followed by another sentence that defines it more clearly. This is followed by a sentence that uses referencing effectively to convey a hypothetical scenario to make my suggestion clear to the reader. I say “This would allow them…” Many people forget that the use of words like “this” and “them” is essential for a good Coherence and Cohesion score.
Finally, I would ask you to look at my essay and tell me how many cohesive devices I’ve used. How many sentences begin with those classic IELTS phrases “On the one hand… on the other hand… for example…” and so on? I would argue that “Thankfully,” “In addition,” and “In conclusion” are the only ones I’ve used. That’s because an essay that intuitively guides its reader by using subtle and intelligent cues will not need many cohesive devices. In fact, it clearly says in the band descriptors that over-using them would cause your score for this section to be around 6 or at most 7.
If you want to understand Coherence and Cohesion fully, then check out the video I made a few weeks ago. It goes into a lot of detail and will help you to understand what is probably the most difficult part of the band descriptors.
Whilst Coherence and Cohesion is probably the most difficult part of the band descriptors, Lexical Resource is surely the most misunderstood. That’s because IELTS teachers all around the world are busy telling their students to “use advanced vocabulary.” It is, quite frankly, an idiotic approach and these people are responsible for countless disappointing exam results.
What you need to think of when it comes to IELTS writing is using language in an accurate way and using vocabulary that is topic-specific. Sticking a so-called “advanced” word into your essay should not even cross your mind.
I think most of the people reading this article could look at my essay and understand all of the words I have used. That is because there are no words here that I’ve plucked at random from the middle of a dictionary. However, all of my words are used correctly and that is by far the most important thing. There are also some words that are specific to the topics of education and employment, which is also helpful.
If we look at paragraph three again, we can see some examples of this. The phrase “higher education” is used rather than repeating “university” over and over. “Alternative routes” is used to suggest a different way of going into employment. Importantly, this is a natural phrase that a native speaker would know rather than an awkward expression that has been cobbled together from words we would not intuitively use. The phrase “vocational training program” is excellent because this is a really topic-specific phrase. It falls into the category of “uncommon vocabulary” but you will note that it is not some insanely obscure phrase. This is the sort of language that you should aim for: accurate and relevant. Beyond that we have “workforce” and “theoretical knowledge.”
Importantly, my words are collocated correctly. That means they go together in natural ways. When I say “look for employment after graduation,” it might seem easy to you… You might be surprised this is in a band 9 essay… but a lot of IELTS candidates would write “seek for employment” or misuse the noun “job-seeker” by forcing it into a verb form.
I cannot stress enough the importance of accuracy here. If you want to learn more about Lexical Resource (and I think everyone should), then check out my video on it. This is a deep dive into a profoundly misunderstood subject.
Grammatical Range and Accuracy
Whilst the first three marking criteria have mildly confusing names, Grammatical Range and Accuracy is really very obvious. It is about both range and accuracy.
This means that your essay should use grammar in a correct way (that’s accuracy) but also use different structures (that’s range). You don’t have to go completely over the top and use every single verb tense, clause, and sentence type that your English teacher ever taught you, but it’s best not to sound repetitive.
Going back to paragraph two, we saw a breakdown of the sentences that I used to explain the causes of graduate unemployment. What do you notice about these 5 sentences? It is not obvious when they are written properly in an essay, but when formatted like this, we can see that they vary in length. This is something that good writers do without even thinking about it. Whilst it is not the most important part of an essay, it does affect the reader’s appreciation of it and can impact meaning. Note that the shortest sentence here functions to present a simple point after a very long sentence filled with detail. This is almost like a mid-paragraph conclusion that forces the reader to pay attention.
If we look at the first three sentences, we can see a compound sentence (with the dependent clause first), then a complex sentence, and then a simple sentence. There is a compound-complex sentence at the end of paragraph two, meaning that all 4 sentence types have been included. This is not strictly necessary but it does help in terms of range. I have used relative clauses and switched between active and passive voice where necessary. I have used modals intelligently and all my subjects and verbs are in the correct form. Even my punctuation is right.
This might seem like a very difficult thing to achieve and indeed grammar is the hardest part of the writing test in my opinion. However, it is worth noting that the band descriptors explicitly state that you can make “rare minor errors” and still get band 9, so you can take some encouragement from that.
I really hope that this article has been useful for you. As I stated earlier, sample answers are not always particularly helpful and can sometimes even cause further problems for the people who try to use them. On my website, I have many sample answers that I have written and each of them comes with some description that explains why I have written the essay in that way. I think this is really important because otherwise there is not much you can really learn from them.
The important thing to take away from today’s lesson though is that, whilst getting a high score for IELTS is certainly not easy, there really is no secret to it. For Task Achievement, you just have to provide a fully developed answer. For Coherence and Cohesion, you have to organise and link your ideas logically. For Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy, you have to make sure that your words are used correctly and that you don’t repeat yourself too much. That’s pretty much the core of it, and anyone who’s teaching tricks and tips is just misleading you.