I have a very embarrassing story to tell you about the IELTS writing test. I just received my IELTS Academic results after a 13 day wait and around 32 years of preparation. But before I tell you what my results are, let me tell you a bit about myself.

A little bit about Jay from E2Language (me!)

My name is Jay and I’m a native English speaker; I was born and raised in an English speaking household in Australia.

IELTS Writing Test
This is me!

I have always had a passion for language. I read hungrily as a child. When I graduated from high school I was top of my class in English. I studied English literature in my undergraduate degree where I read the classics. I received a teaching diploma in English and last year I graduated with a masters degree with first class honours in applied linguistics from the University of Melbourne – a top ranked university with a top 10 linguistics program in the world – where I now give annual guest lectures. While studying for my masters degree I also published peer-reviewed academic literature on English language learning.

Importantly, I have taught English for nine years at high schools and universities in Australia and overseas and now I teach online for E2Language – arguably the world’s most sophisticated online English test preparation website. Some of my IELTS and PTE Webinars have reached over 100,000 viewers, received excellent reviews and have helped thousands of people from around the world pass their English exams.

I failed the IELTS writing test

Despite all of my training, education and passion for the English language, I failed the IELTS writing test. (Well… that’s not exactly true because you can’t really ‘fail’ the IELTS, but I feel like I’ve failed.) I scored 6.5. While I was very surprised I was not that worried because luckily for me — and perhaps unlike you — my immediate future does not depend on this result. I took the IELTS because I am an English teacher who wanted to have the experience of doing the test, to gain valuable insights into the test and to ‘put myself in your shoes’, so to speak, so I can help you to pass your test more easily and more quickly.

Hmmm, that’s awkward.

It would be even more awkward had I not taken the PTE Academic three months earlier. In that test I scored a perfect 90, or 100%, in writing, which I consider to be a true reflection of my abilities.

Here’s my PTE-A report card:

My PTE Academic report card where I scored a perfect 90 in all the skills including writing:

IELTS Writing Test
My PTE Academic Scores

How the IELTS writing test affected my confidence

If the IELTS Academic were the only measurement of my English abilities then I think my confidence would now be destroyed. Could I continue to teach English, for example? I can only imagine the damage a disappointing English grade would do to a non-native English speaker’s self-confidence especially if they were planning to move to an English speaking country to start a new job or to enter university or to speak with the locals. To learn a second language is to always be unsure because it’s unnatural. And to be told that you are substandard would hurt a lot, I imagine, because we trust the validity of the results we receive from credible institutions such as Cambridge University or Pearson.

I don’t want you to think that the PTE Academic is the better or easier test though. That’s not my point. Indeed, my colleague, who is a native English speaker with a native Canadian accent scored poorly on the speaking section due to – we believe – a technological fault, which you can read about in her PTE speaking test article. She has since taken it again and scored a perfect PTE 90 but there was certainly an issue there.

By now you’re probably thinking that perhaps Jay didn’t prepare properly for his IELTS or that Jay probably doesn’t understand the IELTS marking criteria. Firstly, I did prepare; as I said, I’ve been preparing for 32 years and I understand full well what the IELTS writing test criteria are.

Hmmm, the criteria are actually a great place to begin to understand what may have gone wrong and I’m sorry to bore you but this is absolutely critical. If you don’t understand the criteria, you should – they are what the examiners look for in your writing.

Here are the criteria and why I struggle to accept that I scored so poorly on each:

Task Achievement: This means “Did you describe the graph accurately (in Task 1)?” and “Did you write about the essay topic (in Task 2)?” The answer to both of these questions is without a doubt. I am utterly convinced that my graph description was very accurate and my essay was completely on the money.

Lexical Resource: This means “word choice”. I believe that I was articulate and meaningful throughout both tasks. My word choices were precise and purposeful.

Grammatical Range and Accuracy: This means “grammar”. I have always thought – at least until now – that my grammar was perfect. How could I possibly have lost a single point here? After all I am acutely aware of subject-verb agreement, prepositional phrases and unclear antecedents. I wrote both short, simple sentences and longer, more complex sentences.

Coherence and Cohesion: This means “Did you structure your graph description and essay well?” While my graph description was perfectly structured (I am supremely confident of that), I must admit something to you…

My IELTS Writing Test Confession

In the essay, I wrote below the word count and I sat there for ten minutes thinking how easy it was to write that essay. 10 minutes before the hour was up, I glanced at the piece of paper which I had filled from top to bottom and thought my job was done. Then I looked more closely and saw the instruction “You must write at least 250 words.” I assumed that my essay was over 250 words but I thought I’d better check. My blood pressure shot up as I did some rough math. My estimate came to 187 words. I needed at least another 63 words! And I only had ten minutes left! I needed to write another paragraph and I needed to do it fast. All of a sudden the fact that I was a native English speaker with extensive experience studying and teaching English became completely irrelevant. I were one of you and the test became very real.

However, I’m good under pressure. Strangely, I’ve always liked exams. Where some people freeze, other people fly and that’s what I did. I whipped up another relevant and logical paragraph that fitted neatly into my essay and I drew a big arrow to it on the other page.

Could this formatting issue have been my downfall? Did the examiner see a big arrow and presume that I was a 6.5 despite the fact that my essay was entirely logical from beginning to end, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, word to word, first capital letter to final full stop? Did the examiner see the arrow and then doubt my Task 1? Did the examiner see the arrow and lose faith in my grammar, vocabulary and topical relevance?

There are some other broader possibilities of why I failed that are worth considering:

Illegible handwriting – the examiner couldn’t read your writing.

While my handwriting is not particularly “neat”, it is legible. In fact, I tested it on my colleagues at E2Language and they could all read my writing easily. (Mind you, I have not written with a grey-lead pencil since I was twelve!)

IELTS Writing Test
It’s possible (but highly unlikely!) that my handwriting was illegible to the IELTS examiner.

Word count – you didn’t write enough words.

After my little mishap, I counted every single word and both tasks were definitely within the word limits.

Formality – you wrote too informally “dude”.

That’s ridic’ ‘coz I know what’s right and wrong talkin’ in particular joints. (Actually, I took a socio-linguistics class on this.)

Too wordy – you wrote such verbose, turgid and academic prose that the poor examiner could not decipher it.

Did I? I thought it was clear and meaningful. And even if it were “verbose”, it should never be indecipherable because one would hope that the examiner were an absolute expert in the English language, right?

Incomprehensible ideas – you wrote such profound and “other-worldly” nonsense that the examiner didn’t know what you were going on about.

But… no. No. No! My ideas were straightforward and relevant.

Your ‘style’ was off – you did not write using short and long sentences or use discourse markers such as ‘however’ or ‘therefore’.

Well, this is an interesting point because what constitutes ‘good writing’ is debatable. I am indeed a lover of short sentences. I am not a fan of long winded sentences that make absolutely no sense but look incredibly amazing. And I am certainly not a fan of the overuse of discourse markers such as ‘however’ and ‘moreover’; I think they should be used sparingly. To wit, my style of writing, which is to use short sharp sentences, is backed by research in cognitive science (or so says Harvard professor Steven Pinker, the premier linguist in the world, in his most recent book).

You can find IELTS writing test lessons like this one on the E2 IELTS Youtube Channel:

My Conclusions

In conclusion… I have no idea why I scored 6.5 in IELTS writing considering that what you are reading now is how I write in real life and how I wrote in my IELTS exam. But I will say this: Let complacency be a lesson to you. Count your words! One thing that may have resulted in my 6.5 could have been that cursed arrow, which, if the case, I believe to be unfair. Subtracting 28% off an overall mark because of formatting seems over the top…

Listen: if you scored poorly on the IELTS writing test, then don’t feel bad about it. ‘It happens to the best of us’ as they say. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again. But before you try again, come and speak to us about what we can do to help you out. The IELTS is an incredibly complex and challenging test. Language is a complex and challenging phenomenon! While we have our cracks, that is where our light gets in. As far as I know, we are the only organisation that requires its teachers to take these tests. We are real where others are not.

Note: I applied for an IELTS rescore and my IELTS writing test score was increased from a 6.5 to a 7.5. I plan on taking IELTS again soon so I can have another shot at an IELTS 9 on the writing test!

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Written by Jay Merlo.

13 thoughts on “The Impossible IELTS: My IELTS Writing Test Disaster

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. Personally I believe IELTS test is very subjective, subjective from the point of view of examiner. Their personal biasness and feelings sometimes reflects on your score card, when you think you have done well but you get unexpected results.

    It really crush the confidence of test takers who work so hard and end up with demotivating results and many times its not even their mistake as well. Luckily we have PTE now, where there is no place for personal biasness, may be a small room for technical error but that can be tackled next time.

    But on the other hand, IELTS sometimes get too diificult to crack due to of its very subjective nature. I know some people who gave IETLS 20-30 times but still couldnt get 7 band each. Not because their english is bad but because some other reasons.

    I am very grateful to E2 Lanuage as I applied all your tips and strategy and got my desired results. God Bless you guys 🙂

    1. Hi Rajesh,

      Thanks so much for sharing your insights! We’re very glad to hear that you got your desired results and that we were able to help along the way! 🙂

  2. Hi,

    Just my 2cents opinion.

    I’ve studied with 2 IELTS ex-examiners and two have different opinions on how to approach an IELTS essay. Since you’re a native speaker, I dont think grammar and lexcal resource are the issue in your essay. I think it’s the task achievement. For the question “… do you agree or disagree?”, the first ex-examiner told me that it’s alright to write “although…, it is argued that…” in the introduction. However, the second ex-examiner said I need to write “In my opinion, I believe or I agree that” and didnt hesitate to give me a low score on that task achievement, the same with conclusion. Therefore, I conclude that even though it’s an academic test, writing an IELTS essay is a bit different to writing a university essay. It should be more direct to the point. I think it’s more as business writing rather than argumentative university writing.

    I’m studying to get an 8 so wish me luck 🙂

  3. Hi Jay,

    You know, reading your blog post kind of gave me some form of comfort. Not that I carry any sense of Schadenfreude (I don’t!) but because I’ve been in similar situations as you have.

    I consider myself a native English speaker, with an excellent grasp of grammar (I’ve taught English and Literature and have done formal language assessment for adult learners!), but I’ve taken both the IELTS general and the Academic, and have found both tough, challenging and complicated. My weakness, like you, lay in the writing. I scored 7.5 for both tests, whereas everything else was near perfect. To this day, I still wonder why. But the Academic scores mattered for me more at that particular point in my life, and 7.5 in academic writing was sufficient to get me through.

    I’ve still never felt more embarrassed about my inability to get these straight.

    My english test hurdles are far from over though. I’ve a test to take tomorrow (!) and find the PTE Academic problematic in different ways. It’s exhausting having to get used to different methods when you’ve been looking the IELTS way for a while.

    No matter how things go for me, I’m glad I found E2 language. While the teaching methods are excellent, I love reading about your (and your colleagues’) experiences as native speakers going through such tests. I empathise. I probably feel as you’ve felt. But above all, I admire your dedication to helping others in English.

    All the best!

    1. Hi Dusty,

      Thanks for taking the time to share this with us. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences with IELTS and I’m glad that you could read about the experiences of someone who can relate to your difficulties! I had my own difficulties with PTE Academic and certainly can sympathise with your frustrations there as well. Please let us know how it went, I hope you passed with flying colours!! We will certainly never stop helping everyone we can reach their English test goals, and I’m happy you found us, too!

      Best of luck to you, I hope you can soon (or already have) put your test hurdles behind you! Take care 🙂

  4. I have the same issue with IELTS. I score 6.0 for writing (which is not the reflection of my true abilities) when I considered myself as an English native speaker myself but the twist for me is I am bilingual plus having dyslexia. I didn’t take the extra time option as I could manage myself.

    But I am trying PTE-A this time, and see if there is a difference if I could really make a different with that. I really need a boost of my ego since it was such a downer on my ability with English.

  5. I’m a medical doctor from Spain and recently took the IELTS for immigration purposes.
    I’ve been familiar with English and other languages ever since I was a toddler so I though that taking this exam was going to be a piece of cake.
    I didn’t prepare the first time and got these results:
    -speaking 8
    -listening 8.5
    -reading 7.5
    -writing 6.5
    -overall 7.5

    I needed a 7,5 on each area and a 7.5 overall.

    After I got the results I was very depressed, I was running out of time and needed to retake the test on the next available date. So I did, I read about the test and focused on the writing part.
    Finally the day arrived and I was ready to it give my all ( and so I thought I did).

    Today I got the results from this second test, which are the following:
    -speaking 8.5
    -Reading 8
    -listening 8.5
    -writing 7
    -overall 8

    I don’t have time to take it for a third time since the deadline to present this document is the 31st of June and I obviously can’t ask for a second correction since it takes around 8 weeks for the results to be released…..

    What are my final thought?
    This test sucks big time…. I’m going to have to reject the offer I’ve been made to start my specialty training because of these ridiculous minimums set by who-knows-who and also because of these teachers that correct these tests in an automatic and unpersonalized way…
    We should be warned to write exactly and only what they want to read, otherwise they won’t consider marking it fairly with the mere excuse that they correct too many exams that they can’t be bothered to actually read what you wrote.
    I’ve paid more tan 400 euros so far to have my exams marked by a computer-like teacher.

  6. I cant believe you’re letting IELTS off the hook. Consider your experience… and you initially scored 6.5 on the writing paper? It’s a joke! I achieved an initial score of 7, re-marked to 7.5, and that’s a joke, too! IDP needs to be held to account, so many people are getting ripped off!

  7. my score on GT, 9-R, 8-L, 7-S, 5.5-W…my friends & colleagues use to laugh at me :(, I was reappearing for the 3rd time today. but yesterday night, while navigating randomly, I reached on Jay’ videos…watched all of them back to back & realized how much I was messing with my writing. I wished I had some time more. now let’s see how the result turns up, I will for sure take proper E2 classes incase i am going to reappear. thanks Jay & E2 training for the best coaching on online.

  8. Jay,

    Thanks for the article; it provides me with some reassurance that it wasn’t just me that had a complete failure to use my words right.

    I’m similarly a native English speaker from birth, masters level educated and lived in England for the first 30 years of life. There must be a skill to answering the question, but after reviewing my answers during the test I was sure they both addressed the question, were well structured and used appropriate depth of language to score highly. This too scored a 6.5 – which left me questioning the validity of the test as I score 9 in all other sections.

    Frustrating as the IELTS purpose was for immigration, so this added 3 weeks to the process and $330 in cost.

    Karl

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