In part two of the IELTS speaking test, you might be asked to describe a mistake that you have made. There are different ways that this could be phrased, but today we are going to look at it quite broadly.

In this article, I will show you how to answer this sort of cue card so that you can do well in your IELTS speaking test. However, please remember that it is impossible to predict questions and that memorising questions or answers will not help you. This advice is simply offered so that you can know:

  1. what sort of questions are asked in IELTS speaking part 2
  2. what sort of answers would receive a high band score

There is no magic to this sort of thing. You do not need to learn any particular words or phrases to excel at it. You just need to give your best response and if the English you use is good enough (meaning accurate rather than “impressive”), then you will receive a high score.

The Cue Card – Describe a Mistake

To begin with, let’s examine the cue card:

Describe a mistake you have made in your life.

You should say:

– what mistake it was

– how you made this mistake

– when it was

and explain how it affected you.

For this sort of cue card, you first need to think of a mistake. There is nothing specific given, such as a timeframe or a location, so you can choose any mistake. You could even make one up – but please be careful that you can keep your story consistent, or else you could make some mistakes.

The bullet points are suggested areas of discussion and so you do not necessarily need to talk about them, but it is a good idea to do so. They can help guide you so that you give a logical answer and do not run out of things to talk about before one minute has passed.

Note that there are many possible versions of this question. You could be asked “Describe a mistake you once made” or “Describe a mistake you made recently.” These may require slightly different answers, so you should read the cue card carefully. If it said “Describe a mistake you made long ago” or “Describe a mistake you made as a child,” these would of course be different from “recently” as well.

Vocabulary and Grammar

When it comes to mistakes, the vocabulary that you use will be specific to the mistake that you made. If you broke something, it would require different language than if you had forgotten something, for example.

However, there are a few things we can look at here. You may have noticed my language above:

mistake you made

The verb “make” is used with “mistake.” We do not “do a mistake” or “have a mistake.” Instead, we always say “make a mistake.” This is important. It is the sort of topic-specific vocabulary that could cause your score to go up or down.

For this sort of cue card, too, we are going to have to deal with feelings. How do you feel after making a mistake? Well, here are some possibilities:

  • embarrassed
  • ashamed
  • guilty
  • sorry
  • regretful
  • frustrated
  • terrible

It depends on you and your mistake, of course. Choose wisely and make sure that the word you use is relevant and appropriate. If your mistake was very minor and you say that you didn’t feel too badly about it, then don’t use a very strong word, like “ashamed.”

As for grammar, this is of course going to entail the past tenses and so there will be some challenges to deal with. For a lot of things, you will use past simple, but remember that past perfect and present perfect may also be necessary. In fact, talking about the past can really be difficult, so make sure to study up on your tenses!

Making Notes

When you are given the cue card, you will have one minute to make notes and plan your answer. I recommend writing down a few words of vocabulary or some pointers to help you speak fluently. Don’t write down any full sentences because you won’t have time to complete them. Instead, just writing single words or short phrases to remind you of what to say.

Here is an example:

  • shooting birds
  • crisp, focused
  • vantage point

This would make no sense to most people… but that’s ok! Only I need to understand it because it is my answer. Your notes will make sense to you as well. No one else will see them.

Here’s my sample answer to the above cue card:

Sample Answer

Listen to my recording of the sample answer below.

A few months ago, I went to an island for a short holiday. Whilst I was there, I took some photographs of the local scenery and wildlife with my DSLR camera. I got a few good ones, but unfortunately I missed the shot of a lifetime.

This happened when I was outside my hotel room. The hotel was built on the side of a hill and overlooked the sea. In front of my balcony, there was a large tree and one day I noticed that there was a big bird in it. The bird is called a hornbill and they are really big and beautiful creatures with a very distinctive look. I immediately ran to grab my camera and set about taking pictures of this rare animal.

Unfortunately for me, although the bird was close enough to shoot, it was partially hidden by some branches and so I just could not get a good shot. I climbed upstairs and tried from a new vantage point, but I still could not quite get it right. Eventually, I realised that I would have to wait for the bird to fly away and try to shoot it as it took off. I knew that if I got this right, it would make an amazing photo, but if I got it wrong, it would be rubbish.

As I waited, I looked around to see where it would most likely fly to because that would help me frame the shot. Alas, as I looked to the next tree, the bird took flight. I did not have time to set up my picture and so I just hit the shutter button. What I ended up with was a picture of the bird’s tail and nothing else.

Sadly, the resulting photo was useless. The worst part was that I had my camera set up perfectly to get a crisp, focused shot and so I was close to getting the best bird photo of my whole life! As they say, so close, yet so far. I was obviously disappointed, but when it comes to photography, I try to keep in mind the idea that there could always be another chance in future.

Notes on the Answer

In terms of structure, I have avoided basing my answer around the cue card and instead aimed at simply telling an interesting story. This would be much more engaging than a formulaic reply to the cue card. I have started by setting the scene, then told the story naturally in a way that would interest the examiner.

As for language, I have used different tenses but done so carefully to show the events as they happened. It is very important to be accurate in this regard. Mostly, though, you can see that it was past simple that I used.

As for vocabulary, my language was specific to the situation and so this would be different from your language. I have talked about cameras and birds, which are interesting to me. It would be a good idea for you to learn language related to your hobbies so that you can use them in the speaking test.

The phrase “the ___ of a lifetime” is a nice, informal way of saying that something was really important. In this context, I said “the shot of a lifetime,” with “shot” meaning a photograph. I am basically saying “It could have been the best photograph that I ever took.”

Here you can see my photo 🤣🤣🤣

Haha. So that was my big mistake… What about you?