When it comes to the IELTS writing test, I can place my students into two categories. Firstly, there are those that need to improve certain English skills before they can reach the IELTS score they need. They simply don’t have the grammar or vocabulary necessary to get a 7.0, for example. These students will need a good teacher to identify the skills that need improving. They’ll need to establish a plan to improve these skills and then put that plan into practice. Above all, they’ll need a certain amount of patience.


Then there are those students that have the necessary English skills but still can’t get the score they need. These students often don’t understand precisely what the writing tasks require, or they haven’t practiced enough in exam conditions (one hour, handwritten on the answer sheet). As a result, they keep making certain mistakes that have nothing to do with grammar or vocabulary, but still prevent them from getting a 7.0 or above. The good news is that by identifying these common errors and practicing writing essays without them, these students can improve their score almost immediately.


So here are the five mistakes that in my experience tend to prevent advanced students from getting a 7.0 or above for Task 1 in the IELTS writing test:


1) Your overview isn’t an overview:


Firstly, you must have an overview. Just having a paragraph that begins with “overall” isn’t the same thing. An overview is a sentence or paragraph that clearly highlights the main trends (in data), differences (in a map) or stages (in a process). In a data or map question, a good way to do this is to put the main trends or changes into groups. Here’s an example of a sentence that does just that:


“Sales of burgers, pizza, and chicken nuggets increased, while all those of hotdogs declined. All other food types saw sales remain roughly the same.”


The first group contains the categories that increased (burgers, pizza, and chicken), the second, those that declined (hotdogs), and the third, those that stayed the same.


If you have a map question, you can do the same thing:


“The town centre remained largely unchanged while the suburbs and residential zones saw significant development.”


Here, the first group contains things that didn’t change much (town centre) and the second group contains things that changed a lot (suburbs and residential zones). When you do this, make sure you talk about the whole period given, not just a specific period.


If you have a process question, a good overview will normally say what you have at the beginning and at the end of the process, and identify the most important stages in between.


For example:


“We can see that wool goes through a number of stages before it can be used as fabric in clothes, the most important of which are sheering, scouring, and carding.”


It doesn’t matter where you write your overview. You could have it after your introduction or at the end of your essay. The important thing is that you have a real one!  


(If you don’t know the difference between a data, map or process question in task 1, visit my website to see some examples and model answers):



2) You don't describe the key features adequately.


Often in task 1 when you get a data question (sometimes with maps and processes too), there is too much information to describe everything in detail. When this happens, before starting to write you must ask yourself: what are the most important features in this graph? The answer to this question will tell you what you need to focus on in your body paragraphs. If you find yourself frequently saying, “I don’t know what the key features are!”, then you need to focus on this skill. Spend time just trying to identify the key features in lots of task 1 questions, and check to see if your teacher or a friend agrees with you.


Sometimes there isn’t too much information to describe. This is often the case with maps and process questions. When this happens, you can describe all the information in equal detail in your body paragraphs.


3) You don't mention every category.


This is most relevant when you have a data question with lots of categories, for example, a graph with population changes in eight countries. If this happens, it’s very important that you say what happened in every country. However, when you have lots of categories, you won’t have time to describe every country in lots of detail. In this case, a simple sentence is enough, for example:


“The populations of Denmark and Sweden also saw a marginal increase.”


In this way, you don’t exclude any categories, and you have more space to describe important information in more detail.


The same is true in processes and map questions. You must mention every change in a map and every step in a process.  


4) You don't use figures (numbers) accurately.


If you get a data question, you must include numbers when describing important information in your body paragraphs, and these numbers must be correct. Certain students consistently make mistakes when writing numbers, which is understandable given the time limit, but it can still prevent you getting a 7.0 or more. Check your numbers after each practice essay to see whether you have this problem or not. This alone will force you to be more careful when writing your answer. And of course, aim to leave at least two minutes to check for these kinds of mistakes when you finish task 1. If you’re a Spanish or Portuguese speaker, make sure you get your decimals correct (ten thousand = 10,000 not 10.000, and a half = 0.5 not 0,5).


5) Spelling mistakes.


Some students with very good grammar and vocabulary continue to make too many spelling mistakes. To get a 7 for vocabulary, your spelling mistakes must be “occasional”. If you make lots of spelling mistakes you need to establish a routine to test yourself on spelling every day. The best way to do this is with the flashcard application Anki. In fact, Anki is also the best way to learn new grammar and vocabulary, and it’s fun too. If you don’t have it yet, read this article to find how it can help you.


Any of these mistakes could prevent you getting a 7.0 or above for Writing Task 1 in your IELTS test. To start writing essays without them, first check some of your old essays. Are you making any of these mistakes? Which ones do you make most? When you write your next task 1 essay, take as much time as you need and use this article as a guide. Then write an essay in exam conditions, and check again to see if you made any of these common errors. If you’re unsure about anything, please post your questions in the comments section below.


Hero image by Dustin Lee on Unsplash