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(Article) Interpreting modest variations in IELTS essay questions

Posted on January 26, 2012 by

Recently, IELTS Blog reported that the following essay question was seen on the Academic exam in Taipei:

Employers now tend to prefer employees with good social skills in addition to good qualifications. Social skills are getting more and more important compared to qualifications. Do you agree or disagree?

Wouldn’t it be nice if all IELTS essay questions were so straightforward!  Whenever I see ‘do you agree or disagree’ my mind relaxes.  I know immediately what my writing process is going to look like and how I am going to structure it.

However, the reality is that IELTS essay questions come in an infinite number of styles and there is a very good chance you will NOT receive a ‘do you agree or disagree’ type question on your exam.  In this article, I would like to discuss exactly how to interpret the modest variations in IELTS essay question wording and how they dictate the manner in which you need to respond.  (I am assuming that you have already watched my video series on how to structure argument and discussion essays.)

Firstly, as I’ve outlined in my videos, IELTS essay questions can be broken down into several parts.  For today’s lesson, we are concerned with the instruction words part of your question.  This is the part of the question that TELLS you to do something and is almost always the last sentence in your Task 2 description.  Common instruction words include:

To what extent do you agree?

Take a stance and support your opinion with examples.

Write an essay illustrating your position.

How do you feel about this?

Discuss all sides of this issue.

What should be done about this problem?

Do you think this is a viable solution?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

The problem students typically have with deciphering these types of instruction words is really understanding what is being asked of them.  Resolving this issue is not nearly as complicated as you might think.  The key is to look at your Task description and pose yourself a simple question:

Am I being asked to state a position or am I being asked to analyze something?

Your response to this question will dictate with accuracy the type of essay you need to compose.  If you are being asked to state a position, you will need to respond using argument essay structure.  If you are being asked to analyze something, you will need to respond using discussion essay structure.  It’s really that simple.

All too often, students allow subtle differences in wording confuse them.  For example, what is the difference between:

Do you agree or disagree?

and

To what extent do you agree?

The answer is: nothing!  Both sets of instruction words are asking you for a position.  One just states this request using a more complicated wording.  (If I had a dollar for every time a student asked me what the difference was between the above 2 questions, I would be a very wealthy person!)

So when we see a phrase like:

To what extent do you agree?

…we should realize that we are being asked to state an opinion.  Thus, structuring our essay to discuss different points of view would be awkward.  We would need to choose a structure that allows us to state clearly what our position is and why that position should be supported.  Therefore, an argument style of essay would be employed.

So what should we do if we see something like this:

How do you feel about this?

What should be done about this problem?

Do you think this is a viable solution?

First ask yourself, ‘am I being asked to state a position?’  If your answer is ‘yes’ (as it would be for all three of the above examples) then you know that you are going to need to write an argument essay, stating your opinion in your thesis.

How about these:

Discuss all sides of this issue.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

What are the merits and drawbacks of this problem?

As you can see, all 3 questions are requesting that we analyze issues.  Thus, we are best to respond using a discussion style of essay.  This style of essay allows us to state our position only after analyzing a series of data.

OK, so let’s assume we now understand how to respond to these sorts of questions.  But what do we do when faced with double questions, like these:

Do you agree or disagree?  Write an essay either supporting or refuting this statement.

What is your position?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of this situation?

Do you think this is more positive or negative?  Analyze all sides of this debate.

Although these sorts of questions may look tricky, they are not.  We simply follow our same pattern as before.  For each question, ask yourself:

Am I being asked to state a position or am I being asked to analyze something?

If your answer for both indicates you are being asked to state a position (as in example 1), respond using argument essay structure.

If your answer is that 1 asks you to state a position and the other asks you to analyze something (as in example 2), respond using discussion essay structure (don’t forget that discussion essay structure allows you to share your opinion at the end of the essay, and this is where you’ll state your position).

If your answer for both indicates you are to analyze, write a discussion essay.

Interpreting essay questions is not nearly as hard as it at first seems!  If you have an essay question in mind that is still stumping you after reading this article, please post it to the comments section and we can discuss it together.

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Just 60 minutes to better IELTS Speaking!

Click here to download an MP3 copy of the conversation.

Buy Ryan’s Task 2 ebook (2017 version!) Click the Table of Contents to see what’s inside:
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Did you know I have ebooks for both modules of IELTS Writing? Have a look: http://ieltsielts.com/study-with-ryan/

Band 9 writing under an X-ray!

Thanks to ‘Examiner C’ for this model. Here is the essay as it appears in the video:

Many people think that public celebrations (like national holidays, festivals, etc.) are a waste of money and that the government should spend these funds in a better way.

Do you agree or disagree?

Give reasons for your answer and examples from personal experience where appropriate.

National holidays cost countries and their governments a lot of money. Wages need to be paid to employees despite their absence from work, and a national loss in productivity is experienced. For these reasons, some people suggest governments do away with holidays and instead spend the money on worthy projects. While this might seem at first to be a practical suggestion, I disagree strongly for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it is axiomatic that a country’s production of goods declines when workers are not working; however, this is a tiny part of a much larger economic picture. Productivity is a function not only of hours worked but also of energy, drive, and morale. Thus, national holidays, which give workers a chance to relax and to celebrate aspects of their country and their lives, make for a happier and more productive workforce. In Australia, for example, the long weekend is a tradition that helps to unify society by making all feel rewarded and valued in a common enterprise and identity. It is for these reasons that labelling public celebrations ‘a waste of money’ cannot be supported.

Further, having the financial means to start new national projects is a good thing, but the question of apportioning funds in a manner that an entire society agrees is ‘a better way’ is simply unrealistic. A further consideration is the ramifications of pressure put on workers to work 52 straight weeks a year, a policy that could lead to stress-related illnesses and serious social problems. As this shows, the cancelling of public holidays and redirection of funds is an implausible suggestion.

In conclusion, I must affirm that while it is tempting to realise the short-term increase in productivity and savings that would result from abolishing public holidays, the overall cost greatly outweighs the gains.

Buy Ryan’s Task 2 ebook (2017 version!) Click the Table of Contents to see what’s inside:
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A former examiner wrote this band 9 essay…

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Watch a second video like the above here: https://www.patreon.com/ieltsryan

Here is the essay as it appears in the video:

Many people believe that a large proportion of a country’s health budget should be diverted from treatment to spending on health education and preventative measures. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement? Give examples from personal experience where appropriate.

Modern medicine has evolved along two lines: prevention and cure. Many believe that too much emphasis is placed on the latter and that the balance of national health spending should shift to prevention. I am inclined to agree; however, my support is with the stipulation that an imbalance in the other direction should be avoided.

Many modern diseases that require pharmaceutical or surgical intervention, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, are induced by poor lifestyle choices. There is an abundance of evidence that these conditions are brought on by such factors as smoking, excessive dietary fat and sugar, and a lack of physical exercise. I have myself lost several family members to cancers and heart disease caused by smoking. Because the cost of treating these diseases is very high, and the prognosis uncertain, the need for preventative intervention is clear.

Fulfilling this need could be exercised in a number of ways. For one, the government could provide more health and fitness centres, and mount a public awareness campaign to encourage people to use them. In addition to this, taxes could be placed on excessive salt or sugar in processed foods, and special taxes could be added to tobacco products to discourage their use. I believe that measures such as these will in the long term dramatically reduce the incidence of certain deadly diseases.

However, it should be remembered that not all examples of modern disease are preventable or predictable, and it is critical to maintain research into cures for all diseases. Thus, in diverting health spending from treatment to preventative measures, countries should encourage a balanced approach to help extend lifespans and maximise quality of life. Prevention may be better than cure, but it can never wholly replace it.

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IELTS Academic and General Task 2 - How to write at a band 9 level

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Want to know more about my IELTS Writing course? Download the entire course file here: http://ieltsielts.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/IELTS-Writing-with-Ryan-Official-Course-File.pdf

Here is the task and response as they appear in the video:

Consumers are exposed to an extreme amount of advertising in the modern era. To what extent do you think people are influenced by ads? What measures would you suggest to protect them?

Modern approaches to marketing have become increasingly intrusive, and this has exposed people to more advertising than ever before in history. Because many of these advertisements successfully manipulate the viewer’s lifestyle and opinions, I feel their influence is profound. This essay will analyse examples that demonstrate this influence. It will also offer suggestions regarding how society can guard itself against the powers of advertising.

The influence of advertising can change lifestyles and societal values in dangerous ways. For example, fast food, such as that served by McDonald’s and KFC, is often presented as the diet of athletic people. To the public, these images normalise and validate what many scientific studies have confirmed is a very unhealthy dietary choice. In addition to altering lifestyles, marketing campaigns can also confuse the public about important societal events. For instance, a recently released video depicts a group of marching protestors defusing a confrontation with the police by giving them a Pepsi. Many people correctly pointed out that such imagery trivialises the purpose of protest and the professional role of the police, images that could dangerously alter the opinions of impressionable young people. Thus, as the above examples show, advertising in the modern era is extremely influential.

To protect people from these negative effects, one approach is to regulate the number of times a marketing campaign can target a specific person’s social media account. This has been effective in Canada, where marketers are only allowed to present their promotional Facebook imagery to people old enough to know they are being advertised to. A second strategy could be to create awareness programs in high schools that educate young people about advertisements and their influence. These two policies would help preserve the public’s ability to remain critical of what they see.

Although advertising is an economic necessity, its influence should be recognised and kept under control. As the above has shown, societies should work to guard their freedom to make decisions unaltered by the interests of large companies.

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After your payment clears, send your work to ryan@ieltsielts.com. I will return a full cleanup and comment to you within 36 hours.


Please remember to send me your success story after your IELTS. Here is one I received this week:

Dear Ryan,

I must give all my gratitude to you and if I had not used your correction service, I would definitely have not achieved writing band 7 so smoothly!

Recent success story

If you need any testimonial, just feel free to ask me to do that. 

I have recommended your website, YouTube video lessons and correction service to many of my clients, who also have the same IELTS requirement for the migration purpose. 

One thousand thanks are not enough for you, indeed!!!


 Here’s another one from a few weeks earlier:

Dear Ryan,

I am writing this email to genuinely thank you for helping me crack IELTS writing. I wouldn’t have been able to do that, if it wasn’t for your ebooks.

I scored 8 in writing only because I followed your blogs, watched writing videos and read your ebooks for task 1 and task 2. It took me six months to raise my score in writing from 7.5 to 8 but it was all worth it. I was in desperate need for this perfect score so I could become eligible for my permanent residency application process and now I can gladly say that I am.

So thank you for the amazing work that you are doing to help out thousands of people who are struggling to achieve their target score.


Big congratulations on the success and thanks for sharing, guys!  😎

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