As a requirement for migration purposes in many countries worldwide, thousands of people take the IELTS exam every year to validate their English language skills.  While some may find it easy, many others have difficulty, particularly in the Writing module.

The IELTS Writing test requires the test taker to finish two tasks within an hour’s time.  The first is a letter while the second task is an essay. Both essays are graded according to Task Achievement/Response, Clarity and Cohesion, Vocabulary, and Grammar.  While the Task 2 essay can be quite scary, due to the required length of the response (250 words), many GT test takers fail because they may have messed up in Task 1.

Now let’s look at Task 1 in detail, and explore how to succeed:

IELTS GT Writing Task 1

Starting to write is the hardest part.

The IELTS GT Writing Task 1 simulates letter writing, either an informal letter to a loved one or a formal one to a respected person (e.g. your boss or the manager of an establishment).  The recommended time to finish is 20 minutes, and there is a minimum word count of 150 words.

Informal Letters

In the informal tasks, the candidate may be required to write to a friend or a relative about something.  Sometimes the situation may be serious, while other times it may be quite light.  Since the letter is to someone personally known, the tone should generally be friendly.

The following are some sample questions:

You heard that a relative was recently hospitalized.  Write a letter to the family.  In your letter:

  • Inform them how you heard about the news.
  • Inquire about the status of your relative.
  • Ask them how you may be of help.

Your friend who lives in another country has an upcoming birthday.  Write a letter to your friend. In the letter:

  • Wish him/her a happy birthday.
  • Inquire about the birthday plans.
  • Give your birthday wishes.

Formal Letters

In the formal tasks, the candidate may be asked to write to a superior or a respected stranger to complain, inform, or request something.  Formal and respectful language is required, even if the purpose is to complain. Make sure not to use the same type of language (informal, slang) that you would use for an informal letter, as this would be considered a mistake.

The following are some sample questions:

A family member has recently come to town and is asking you to spend a few days with him/her.  Write a letter to your manager.  In your letter:

  • Inform him/her about your relative’s request.
  • Ask for a leave of absence.
  • Tell him/her what plans you have for your missed work.

You just came home from a vacation.  Though you enjoyed your trip, you were unhappy with the bus ride home.  Write a letter to the bus company. In the letter:

  • Give them details about your trip.
  • Inform them of the problem(s).
  • Tell them what should be done.

7 Things to Consider for GT Writing Task 1

  1. Brainstorm before you write

Time is a major issue for many GT test takers.  This is because they spend much time in the middle of their letter, thinking about what to write.  In the end, the letter may be confusing or even incomplete.

To prevent this, it is best to brainstorm and write your ideas down first before you start writing.  Writing the letter then becomes easier as you can just follow your notes rather than trying to recall what needs to be written down.

An incomplete letter is particularly dangerous as all conditions must be answered.  If even just one of the conditions is unanswered, then the chances of getting a good score drop significantly. Making notes before you start writing ensures that you do not forget to address any of the required points.

  1. Make it realistic

    A thank you letter.

Another mistake is not making the letter realistic.  Due to the time pressure, fear of Task 2, or a lack of imagination, many GT Task 1 letters are not realistic enough to get a good score.

For example, if the task asked for an item of clothing to be purchased, one would expect to see a letter giving clear details as to what it is; what design and size to buy; where to get it; and the cost.  But many candidate’s letters give very vague information like the following:

… By the way, I forgot to purchase a souvenir t-shirt for my dad.  Please get one at the local store.  I guess something dark would be nice. I’ll pay you via bank deposit …

If it were a real letter then much more would obviously be expected, especially as it is a souvenir for one’s parent.  Hence, the test taker should not expect a high score for their Task Achievement.  Additionally, such vague and simple details means the Vocabulary and Grammar score will not be that high either. Use this opportunity to be descriptive with your writing, employing some appropriate adjectives.

  1. Take note of the letter’s tone

Connected to how realistic the details are is the letter’s tone.  If the letter is an informal one, then it should sound like you are writing to a friend.  It should not sound overly formal, even when closing the letter.  Sadly, many GT letters sound off with a “Sincerely yours” when it should be something like “Your friend” or “With much love.” You should not refer to a friend as “Sir” or use the same sort of language you would use in a letter to a business associate.

And of course, formal letters mean you are writing to somebody of importance.  The letter should be clear yet respectful.  Phrases like “How are you doing?” have no place in a formal letter.  If it is a letter of complaint, then it should not be overly respectful or submissive as you are trying to show how displeased you are.

  1. Follow the letter format

Sadly, letter writing has gotten out of style, so many end up creating a letter that looks more like a quick email or a report.  Instead of proper paragraphs, there may be a list of phrases or even bullet points to show what is requested.  These, of course, hurt the score.

If proper letter writing has been forgotten, then check online for sample formal and informal letters so that the format will not hurt you.

You can also check Google for letter-writing conventions. You don’t have to follow the strictest rules, but you should produce something that is recognizably a letter, and different from an e-mail or note.

  1. Recheck your letter

    Practice writing often.

In every part of the IELTS exam, it is essential to double check your work.  But this is extremely important in the Writing exam.  As most people do NOT write very often, chances are the GT letter has a host of problems: incorrect tone or format, missing words, repetitive vocabulary, spelling errors, and poor grammar.

It is only when the letter has been checked again that all of these can be spotted, fixed, or enhanced.  Without a recheck, expect the Vocabulary and Grammar scores to go down.

You can practice this by making a mental checklist. Start off by writing an actual checklist and keeping it by your desk. Over time, you will remember the various things you should check, and once you do the real exam you should be used to taking the time to check these points.

  1. Stick to the time

Just like any test, one should always take note of and stick to the time.  Twenty (20) minutes is the recommended time for Task 1, including the brainstorming and the rechecking.  When the brainstorming is done well, the 20 minutes will be more than enough as there is a general plan in mind before the actual writing commences.

However, if necessary, one may extend up to 25 minutes tops (!) before Task 2 must begin. If 25 minutes is exceeded, chances are Task 2 and the overall Writing score will NOT be okay.

Ultimately, timing is something you need to practice, like a runner getting ready for a big race. Some IELTS tutors recommend just 15 minutes for Task 1 and 45 minutes for Task 2. It is a personal choice. The only important rule is not to waste any time. If you prepare well, you will have no trouble. So….

  1. Practice

Many people do not write letters anymore so it pays to practice as much as possible before taking the test.  Try as many formal and informal letters that you can, sticking to the 20 to 25 minutes time range.  You will find that the more practice you put in, the easier the actual test becomes. This is true of all the parts of the IELTS exam.

However, keep in mind that practice will only get you so far without feedback. You need a good writing teacher to review your work and let you know of common mistakes.

Summing it up

As in any major exam, it pays to be prepared for the test. As many people do not regularly write, it helps to practice the GT Task 1 as much as possible, using the above mentioned tips, before filing for the actual IELTS exam. Make sure you know what the examiners want to see, and spend time researching the right way to produce a letter or essay. Finally, get yourself a good writing teacher to check your work.

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