(Article) Interpreting modest variations in IELTS essay questions

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?


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.

About Ryan

I have been developing online IELTS training resources for over 10 years. For more information about me and how I can help your preparation for the IELTS, please email me: ryan@ieltsielts.com
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39 Responses to (Article) Interpreting modest variations in IELTS essay questions

  1. Candy says:

    Thank you very much, Ryan. You have always been our helpful online instructor. Anyway, I still desire to pose a question: when you said this: “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.”, were you meaning that when faced any essay question containing “To what extent do you agree”, we should only give reasons and supporting details to back our opinion without analyzing both sides of the issue? Sometimes I see essays questions such as “Keeping animals in zoos is immoral. There is no justification for zoos to exist”, then the following model essay gives the author’s opinion in the conclusion paragraph after discussing advantages and disadvantages of keeping animals in zoos! Could you please help me dissolve this wonder?

  2. Adel says:

    There is something special in your writing; the way of connecting ideas.
    Very helpful topic.
    The best thing in your topic is that you have explained all specific kind of questions.
    I’m very grateful from you.

  3. Radmila says:

    Hello Ryan, thank you very much indeed! The explanations were very clear. But I still have a question whether we can write our opinion in the introduction of the discussion essay? Is this a matter of principle? Or are the both options right? Can you please clarify this?

    • Ryan says:

      Hi Radmila,

      Essay writing is not as finite as most people make it sound. I’m sure you could share your opinion in the introduction paragraph of a discussion essay and still produce an effective piece of writing. However, when asked to discuss ideas, it is often common practice to discuss them first and then come to a conclusion based on that discussion.

      Hope that helps,

  4. Candy says:

    I am sorry, here is the entire essay question: “Keeping animals in zoos is immoral. There is no justification for zoos to exist in the 21st century.” To what extent do you agree or disagree?

    • Ryan says:

      Sorry, maybe I didn’t quite understand what you were asking the first time. Looking at that essay question, it seems pretty obvious that you would respond in argument essay style.

  5. Riza Apiag says:

    I am glad you simplify and modify the construction of argumentative essay.. I love it.. How about the discussion essay??? Can I request you to provide me the formula of how to start and end the essay.. I am kind of disturbed about this.

    Thank you and hoping for your prompt reply.


  6. Radmila says:

    Thank you for clarification, Ryan)

  7. Livia says:

    Just to inform that I had the same essay question in accademic session in Sydney in Jan 2012. I didn’t obtain a good score for immigration!!:(( I will follow your online course!!

  8. krushna patel says:

    Dear sir/madam

    hi i am very confuse my ielts results, i was already attempt 12 times but i got always W 5.5 R 5 L 5.5 S 6 but i need each 6 all 4 module. i need your help so i will achieve my gold. please please help me.

    yours faithfully,

    krushna patel

    • Ryan says:

      Hi Krushna,

      I can tell from your short message that your writing needs major grammatical improvement. I would suggest you get a private tutor in your area to help you improve.

      Good luck,

  9. ayodeji says:


    Like what i was meant to understand about opinion essay is that, you can argue for both side and also give your opinion in the conclusion.

    Pls,correct me if am wrong.

  10. Chigozie Onuzulike says:

    Ryan, please help me. I find reading and listening the most difficult aspect of the IELTS, how do I make up for lapses in my last exams? I made 6 in either of the section while I needed 7, please help.

    • jack says:

      Hi, I am the opposite as I find writing n speaking difficult. i achieved 7.5 for listening and 9 for reading but only 6.5 for the other 2. Maybe we can help each other.

  11. reenu says:

    Ryan i have a doubt regarding your explanation of interpreting essay question .suppose the question is like this.shopping has become a favorite past time among youngsters,why do you think it is like that,and do you think they must be encouraged to do other things rather than shopping?is this discussion essay or argumentative.please do reply thanku

    • Ryan says:

      Hi Reenu,

      I believe I answered an email from you about this topic, right? I still maintain that your example question would best be responded to using an argument essay.

      Good luck,

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  13. chandra says:

    I had an exam question : “Tv programmes and film that show crime and criminals are popular. Why this is very popular among people? What are the effects of such programmes on society?
    Give reasons and examples from your own experience ?

    My question is,
    What i have to answer to this question? (scope)
    Which question i have to answer (impact or reason for its being popular)?
    it should be discussion or argument?

    I got 5.5 in writing which is horrible, last time i got 6.5?

  14. Claudia Lane says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I have been watching your youtube videos and it’s been very helpful! On your videos you always talk about ‘Argument essay’ and ‘Discussion essay’ why do you never talk about ‘Problem and solution essay’ ? I would love to watch a video with the following title “How to structure a Problem and solution essay”. Why don’t you talk about this kind of essay? Is it because this ‘Problem and Solution’ type would be included in ‘Disccussion Essay’? I appriciate if you could clarify that for me.

    Kind Regards,


  15. Anonymous says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for quick response. This is much appiciated.

    ‘Problem and Solution essay’ examples:
    “Drugs are becoming more and more commun in many countries. What are some of the problems associated with drug abuse, and what are some of the possible solutions?”
    “We are living our lives faster and faster these days. Why is this, and what can be done about it?”

    Kind Regards,


    • Ryan says:

      Hi Claudia,

      I encourage students to respond to those kinds of questions using an argument essay structure. They allot one ‘problem’ for each supporting paragraph and in the discussion section of that paragraph they propose a solution.

      Let’s take your first example (concerning drug use), for instance. I would the following as my thesis:

      It is felt that _______ and _______ are the most major problems associated with drug use today.

      And I would write the following as my outline sentence:

      This essay will determine the viability of _______ and _______ as potential solutions.

      And then just talk about these (using examples, of course) in your supporting paragraphs.

      Hope that helps,

  16. Claudia Lane says:

    Sorry I meant appreciated.


  17. Claudia says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I was just wondering if you recieved my comment giving a Problem and Solution essay example.



  18. Claudia Lane says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Thanks a lot for your response. It helped me a lot as I was never sure how to structure this kind of essay.

    The way I was doing was writing about the “problems” on the first supporting paragraph and the “solutions” on the second one. However, your structure looks much easier and I will use it from now on.

    Can I be a pain and just ask you one more question? On the conclusion should I follow the structure: summary, restatment of the thesis and prediction/recommendation?

    Would it be summary (After analyzing the issues and possible solutions….) restatment of thesis (problems) and prediction/recommendation (solutions)?

    Thank you so much for your time you are definitely a very committed teacher!

    I have been saving up to buy your online corrections hand opefully I will have the money by the end of this month 🙂

    Kind Regards,


    • Ryan says:

      Hi Claudia,

      Yes, but I wouldn’t say the thesis is a ‘problem’. The thesis is supposed to be the answer to your essay question. When you restate it, you are simply reinforcing your initial argument. The prediction or recommendation is not the ‘solution’, it is just a final word that you share with your reader. You should have already provided any ‘solutions’ to a given problem in the body of your essay. Writing a prediction or recommendation is simply a nice way to close an essay.

      Good luck,

  19. Flora says:

    Dear Ryan

    When writing an essay, should I take a position and avoid contradicting myself if I am 100% agree? My tutor says that if I am using expression like “I strongly agree…” then I shouldn’t give negative viewpoints. What do you think? Which style do you think is better for the test? I need a 7 band.

    Thank you!

  20. Ellen says:

    Dear Ryan,

    I agree with Claudia, it seems to me that you use always the same type of essay questions on you examples.
    I came across problem and solution question on the exams I have done.
    Could you please give us a complete example.


  21. Ellen says:

    If you could help us, here I have an example:

    One of the most pressing problems facing the world today is overpopulation. What policies do you believe governments should adopt to address the causes and effects of this problem?

    Read more: Sample IELTS essay – overpopulation | Dominic Cole’s IELTS Blog

  22. shehhrzad says:

    How you would write introduction for this type of essay. ” there are many different types of music in the world today. why do we need music? Is the tradional music of a country more important than the international that is heard everywhere nowadays.” Your responce would be much appreciated. Thanking in anticipation.

  23. Saquib says:

    Sometimes the writing task asks 2 questions like

    “As most people spend a major part of their adult life at work, job satisfaction is an important element of individual wellbeing.

    What factors contribute to job satisfaction?

    How realistic is the expectation of job satisfaction for all workers?”

    My analysis suggests that this essay is a Discussion essay. However, I am unable to comprehend the main question. For example, if I select ‘how realistic is … for all workers?’ as the main question then I write one sentence about the factors contributing to job satisfaction in introduction paragraph and after it write one paragraph against the expectancy of job satisfaction and then one in favour. In my concluding paragraph I say my opinion and predict/recommend accordingly.

    Is this correct or there any other approach to it too?


  24. abcd@efg.com says:


    When you write ‘ it is felt that ‘ for your opinion, it is not considered as the appropriate response, is it? ‘ It is felt’ that is an absolute expression which has no subjective or personal response. The question ‘ Do you agree or not’ requires ‘personal view’ than a ‘ general statement’. I would not imagine and advise anyone to write that way. It is not wrong (grammatically) but it is not responding to the question. Ielts is not a university exam so academia is not the right option.

  25. Samina Roohi says:

    Hello Respected sir .
    I am samina from Pakistan .I have been used to read your instruction about essay writting .Really its all very very helpful.This article also very informative .I improved my score from 5 to 6.5 after study your given style of essay .Ineed score 7 .
    Samina Roohi

  26. saba says:

    Hi Ryan..!
    This is my first ever attempt for the IELTS test, and i am really facing problems in isolating the differences between argument and discussion essays..here is a question i really need help with..
    “Fatherhood need to be emphasized as much as motherhood.the idea are solely responsible for deciding whether or not to have babies leads on to the idea that they are also responsible for bringing the children up”

    Thank you and regards..

  27. vin says:

    Hi, I will like to ask is it approriate to use essay style to answer questions that are for you opinions?

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