Writing letters – How do I write about a situation that I don’t understand?

Finding a subject or situation in an IELTS letter writing task that you have nothing to say about is very rare.  Even if you do come across something that seems unusual to you, you can still complete the work if you keep your wits about you.

For those who don’t already know, on the General Training version of the IELTS test, in addition to the speaking, reading and listening sections, there are two writing questions to complete within an hour - a 250-word essay and a 150-word letter.

You are provided with a situation, a person to write the letter to and a purpose for the correspondence.  As usual, how you organize your response, the grammar and vocabulary are used to score your level.  In addition, the letter is rated on your ability to convey the scenario (who, what, where, when) and address the reasons (why) for writing.

Even if your English abilities are less than fluent, rest assured that it is near impossible to come across a task that you have nothing to say about.  That is because this is a global test and the professionals who create it work hard to make sure the assignments can be understood and completed by people all over the world. Nonetheless, some are occasionally stumped by some element of the task. Here’s what you can do to avoid that unfortunate experience.

Stay calm and focus on what you know

Don’t let your panic take over because there are elements of the letter that you DO know how to complete.  If you waste time worrying, you rob yourself of this opportunity to demonstrate your English writing abilities. Learn to relax and focus so you can show off your strengths and keep your score up.

An unfortunate case in point was a young woman who had never owned a pet but was presented with this task:

A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday.

Write a letter to your friend. In your letter:

  • Give contact details for when you are away
  • Give instructions about how to care for your pet
  • Describe other household duties

She was baffled by this because she didn’t like animals and had no idea about how to care for one. Her stress took a toll on her energy and ate up a lot of time so that she was forced to work quickly to write up the parts of the letter she was more familiar with.  Worse, because she ran out of time, she completely left out the part about the pet. Keep in mind that you only have about 20 minutes to write the letter, so laser focus is essential.

If something like this happens to you, let go of that doubting voice of anxiety and assure yourself that you can do this.  Work on the other points first and come back.  You don’t have to address the bullets in the same order.

Be prepared

Although you can’t know what will be on your exam, becoming familiar with common letter functions and subject matter as well as completing practice tests can help you alleviate test anxiety. You will increase your vocabulary as well as your confidence. Here are some examples of typical IELTS tasks:

Common Types of Letter Tasks

Popular Subject Matter

Making recommendations

Travelling

Applying to do something (work/volunteer)

Studying

Complaining about a situation, product, service

Special events

Asking for advice/information

Shopping

Inviting someone to something

Work

Requesting something or asking for a favour

Accommodations

Apologizing

Service – poor/good

Thanking someone for something

Volunteering

 

Lost items

 

Living environment

Improvise

The example test-taker above could have made up some details about taking care of the animal. She just had to stop and think of a similar situation. She could have thought about how people often see their pets as children and then transferred her knowledge about childcare writing some details about exercising or playing with an animal and feeding it.

Although what she wrote may not have been as accurate or precise as an experienced pet owner would have written (give the dog half a cup of kibble, clean out the cat’s kitty litter), she still would have improved her score by including some details that showed how to “care for” the creature.

Remember that IELTS is a language proficiency test not a knowledge test.  If you can demonstrate that you understand the intent of the letter and try, to the best of your ability, to communicate all of the requirements, you will do better than leaving out any subjects you feel uncomfortable with.

Note that there was some flexibility in the question with the use of the term “pet” which meant the letter could have been about caring for any domesticated creature (bird, lizard, fish, dog).  In addition, demonstrating an understanding of the terms “care for” and “instructions” could have also positively impacted the score.

So use your imagination if you are faced with a situation like this. Underline the key words and take from an experience as close to the given subject as you can think of so that you can include some response to all three bullets in the question.

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