Common mistakes in IELTS essays, misinterpreting the question….

What I want to talk about today are some very common mistakes that people make whilst writing their essays, I am not referring to grammar or syntax, although these of course are important. What I want to discuss is a follow on from some of my previous posts concerning the Task Achievement criteria. As you may or not recall, I have written before about how you need to show the examiner a clearly structured, well organised essay with good paragraphing, use of cohesive devices (joining words), one clear idea per paragraph, etc. To help in this, my last post described a couple of structures that you might use to shape your essay and get a high Task Achievement and Coherence and Cohesion score.

The point of having a structure has two functions, to impress the examiner as mentioned above, and also to make things easier for you when writing. That is to say, if you practice writing your essays using this structure, or a similar one, then you know exactly what you have to do when sitting the exam. No more worrying what to write, you just need then to concentrate on the content, as you have a well rehearsed structure to follow.

However, and there usually is a however, some people have other problems when writing, which I am going to mention now. The most common error is, misunderstanding the question, and writing about the “topic” but not specifically addressing the question. I have mentioned this in another post, but as this is a very common mistake and I see it time and again every week (literally), I thought I should address it again and give some specific examples of how to avoid this error.

The question was :

Women and men are commonly seen as having different strengths and weaknesses. Is it right to exclude males or females from certain professions because of their gender?

Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge and experience.

As always, a careful analysis of the question is in order. You should be spending 5-8 minutes or so before writing, in analysing the question, thinking of your ideas and supporting ideas, making a plan, thinking of structure, key words to include, etc. If you do not, then it is quite possible for you to go off writing something about the difference between the genders at work and how some jobs are better or worse than others, which is not what the question is about. And then not giving examples and supporting their ideas, instead, making a list of ideas related to difference between genders, without explaining them, and how those ideas related to the question. As lots of people do….

So, let’s analyse this question and see what we can do by considering the key words and the instructions.

General keywords first, men, women, weaknesses, strengths

Specific key words, right to exclude, certain professions, gender

Instructions, give reasons, relevant examples, own knowledge and experience

The first thing to remember is that the first sentence of the question is not the actual question, its function is to provide some context, to set the scene as it were. The general keywords are not the question itself, so if you were to write about those (as I say, usually to be found in the first sentence) you would not be addressing the question and would lose marks accordingly.

The second thing to bear in mind is that as it says, you need to give reasons for your ideas, examples from your own knowledge and experience, not necessarily something that you personally have experienced at work, but from what you know or have read or heard about this issue. If you really can’t think of anything, then, as I have said before, you can make something up. The IELTS is not a truth test.

The third thing, and now we are coming to the actual question, is to consider the specific keywords, (right, exclude and certain). These are what the question is really asking you to write about.

Now you generate some ideas, do you agree or not, reasons why you do/don’t, evidence/examples to support what you say, etc. Whatever you choose need not be your real view of course, only a view that you can think of some ideas to write about for 250 words.  For illustration purposes, I shall argue that women should be excluded from certain professions and we can now look at the structure to use for this, and to make an example so you can see how it works.

As this is an agree or disagree essay, the structure we shall use is the one I wrote about previously.

Paragraph 1 – Introduction

  • Sentence 1- Paraphrase of topic
  • Sentence 2- Detailed background statement
  • Sentence 3- Thesis (your opinion)
  • Sentence 4- Outline sentence (what you will say in the body paragraphs)

Paragraph 2 – First supporting paragraph

  • Sentence 1- Topic sentence
  • Sentence 2- Example
  • Sentence 3- Discussion
  • Sentence 4- Conclusion

And repeat for paragraph 3, or for an alternative

Alternative supporting paragraph 2 and 3

  • Sentence 1- Topic sentence
  • Sentence 2- Explanation
  • Sentence 3- Example
  • Sentence 4- Concession sentence

Paragraph 4- Conclusion

  • Summary sentence

An example essay then, might look like this one.

Men and women are generally considered to possess different skills and abilities. I would agree that in some specific circumstances it is indeed correct to exclude people from particular jobs based on their gender. I will first mention how the physical differences between males and females prevent women from carrying out certain tasks, then discuss how societal roles restrict men from taking on particular careers, followed by a conclusion.

For much of recent history in the Western nations, the general rule has been not to allow women to serve in the armed forces in a combat role. The reason being that physical strength and aggression are necessary attributes required for a soldier and that therefore women cannot serve as fighting troops. For example, the US army has experimented with allowing women to perform in combat roles in its recent Middle Eastern conflicts but the experiment was generally deemed a failure, not to be repeated. However, regardless of this particular failure, women have fought in other armies and have been considered most effective, in the Israeli army during the independence struggle, and in the Russian army during world War 2. Possibly the fact that  in these conflicts women were fighting for their homeland may have had something to do with their success, their physical limitations notwithstanding.

To consider the case for men, it is certainly the case in many societies that men are not accepted to work in traditional female roles, such as that of nanny or beautician. Employers feel, rightly or wrongly, that their customers would be unhappy with men occupying these occupations. Even though recent legislation in many countries, such as the UK for example, makes it illegal to discriminate based on gender, men are routinely not hired due to “other” reasons.

In conclusion, the case for gender based discrimination has some precedents, but only in very limited conditions, such as combat roles for women, and child centred jobs in the case of men.

There you go, it’s a bit long at 325 words, but in the spirit of authenticity I made this up on the spot just now, as you will have to do in the test. As you notice, I specifically address the exclusion from some jobs part and I didn’t write about the whole sexual equality in the workplace, which some people would have done.

So, I hope this will give you some ideas about what to do, and what not to, and as always, if you have any suggestions or ideas for future posts then send me a mail at, and I will do what I can.