IELTS General Training - Writing Task 1 - How to write a letter of complaint

How do I write a letter that complains about something?

The writing component of the IELTS General Training test includes two assignments for test takers to complete in one hour.  One is a letter, approximately 150 words in length and the other is a 250-word essay. 

This article will look at some of the common letters and give some advice on how to approach each. There are many different types of letters that appear on the test (asking for or giving advice, applying for work, declining an invitation, etc.). One of the most common are letters of complaint.

Examples of people writing complaints are everywhere, especially with the growing popularity of online review sites like Amazon or Yelp.

You may feel that you have a good idea about how to express your dissatisfaction to someone but, can you confidently write a formal complaint letter? The following will hopefully help you prepare you.

First, here’s a sample IELTS General Training Writing task one question.  Although the purpose of each letter may differ, the basic format of the question will look like this:

Typical form of IELTS General Training Task 1 question

Now, let’s take a look at three important things to consider when creating a complaint letter.

1. Format your letter with complaining in mind

Here’s some advice for how to create the letter from a complaining standpoint: 

Begin your letter by getting right to your reason for writing.  Given the example above, you would be asking for a solution to your living situation problems.

Next, address each of the bullets in the assignment.  Pay close attention to singulars and plurals. “Problems” is plural, so give more than just one. For instance, you and your roommate are not getting along because she is messy (doesn’t keep the room clean) and noisy (plays loud music when you are trying to sleep).

Include each of the requirements listed in the task. Keep in mind that paragraphs in letters do not need to be lengthy.  For example, instead of writing one long paragraph about the problems, you could write two or three short paragraphs that explain two or three problems.

You can make it easier to follow your thinking by using signal phrases to guide the reader through your writing. Phrases like, “The problem began when . . . “ and  “to make it worse . . .” or “another issue was . . .” are statements that make it clear that you are griping about something.

When you have finished covering the three bullet points, it’s useful to finish with a sentence that restates what you want the reader to do about these problems.  It might simply be, “Thank you for your attention to this matter and I look forward to hearing from you” OR “I look forward to resolving this issue”.

The closing will continue to be formal so “Yours truly” or “Sincerely” are safe choices – even if you are writing to a friend.

2. Be polite and formal in your tone

Before you write, it’s important to know that the way people talk about their dissatisfaction with something online is very different when compared to how they do it in a formal letter.

Crowd-sourced reviews can be overly emotional, angry and vindictive. This is not what you should bring to your Writing test.

People who complain online sometimes simply want to shame a service provider or vent their frustrations but the IELTS complaint letter has a grander intention. The complaint letter is meant to enroll someone in helping you solve your problem.

This requires a formal tone and that means that you should not use threatening language because it will distract from the purpose of the letter.

The best way to do this is to stick to the facts and not see the issue(s) as a personal offence.

Keep it simple for yourself and choose common problems that have easy solutions. 

For more specific advice on how to create a formal tone, go here.

3. Use complaining (not fighting) words 

It is better to use “soft” words to explain your problems.  Try not to raise the roof or exaggerate the facts because you want to sound believable.

How to politely say you don’t like something:

Disappointment:

It was expecting . . . (insert what you expected) but . . .
I was expecting to get along with my roommate but we are not suited to each other.

I was disappointed to discover that . . .
I was disappointed to discover that she felt it was her right to play music even though I was trying to sleep.

I am disappointed because . . .
I am disappointed because I thought I would be matched with a roommate similar to me.

Unacceptability:

It is unacceptable that . . . (insert problem)
It is unacceptable that our room is in such disorder.

The fact that . . . is unacceptable.
The fact her clothes, garbage and books cover the floor is unacceptable.

It is not acceptable to (insert problem)
It is not acceptable to have to live in these conditions.

Displeasure:

I was displeased to see that . . . (insert problem)
I was displeased to see that she was very messy.

I am not pleased that . . .
I am not pleased that I am unable to sleep or study in the room.

How to kindly request that someone do something to fix a problem:

If you sound overly demanding or rude in this part, you could impact your rating. Especially if you have been polite in the other sections of the letter.

For example, “Get me a new roommate now” will not be received as well as “I would like to request a roommate change” or “Would it be possible to change rooms?”.

Here are some more examples of polite requests:

  • I would like to move.
  • I would like to ask that you help me find different accommodations.
  • As a resolution to this problem, I would appreciate it if you would pair me with a different roommate.
  • I would like to request that you find me another room.
  • I would be grateful if you would move me.
  • I believe the best way to resolve these problems is to move me to another room.

To conclude, here’s a sample response to the above task.  Good luck and have fun with your preparation.

Dear Mrs. Smith,

I am writing to request your assistance in solving some problems I am having with my current living conditions.

I am a first year college student staying in the Tall Pines residence in a double room (upper level room 234) that I share with my roommate.

I am sorry to say that there are issues with my roommate that make living and studying very difficult for me at this time.  I am disappointed because I was expecting that I would be matched with someone similar to me but we are very different.

The first problem between us happened when my sleep was interrupted by loud music.  My roommate likes to go to bed with her radio on but I need quiet.  Although I asked her to use headphones, she said that she can’t sleep with them on so bedtime is stressful and I am not getting enough rest.  This makes it hard to get up in the morning and go to class.

Another issue is the mess in our room.  It is unacceptable that her books, clothes and garbage are everywhere.  I find it very difficult to work in this chaos as I am a very neat person and the clutter, disorder and smell of old food boxes distract me from my studies. I have attempted to clean up but she has asked that I not touch her things.

I believe the best way to solve these problems is to move me to a single room or to set me up with another roommate.  I would be grateful if you could help me sort this out soon as our midterm exams are coming up and I have had to resort to the inconvenience of studying in the common area or a classmate’s room instead of working quietly in my own.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I look forward to finding a solution quickly so that I can live and study in reasonable comfort.

Yours truly,

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