I recently received a question from an IELTS Test Taker: he asked me “Can you please clear up my confusion regarding advantages / disadvantages essays questions? In the prompt, the words are in the plural. Must I write more than one advantage and more than one disadvantage?”
In Task 2 of the Academic Writing Test, the question usually contains the words: “Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?” while the General Training test usually has the words “What are the advantages and disadvantages?”
So does this mean you MUST write more than one advantage and more than one disadvantage?
First of all, there is NOTHING in the examiners’ IELTS Assessment Criteria that says that test takers MUST write more than one advantage and more than one disadvantage. IELTS assessment doesn’t work like that: it’s not a mechanical, ‘tick-box’ kind of assessment system. (Similarly, there is nothing that says you MUST write more than one reason for your opinion, or more than one problem and more than one solution).
The only rule is that examiners assess you against the assessment criteria. They assess your writing based on how well you have developed your response to the question. Have you presented ideas that are relevant, and have you extended and supported these ideas?
So it’s not ‘did you write the correct number of advantages and disadvantages’ but ‘is your response well-developed’, or are your ‘conclusions…repetitive’?
…a well-developed response is almost certainly going to contain more than one advantage and more than one disadvantage. IELTS questions are worded very carefully, so in a “discuss the advantages and disadvantages” essay, the topic covered will almost certainly have several advantages and disadvantages.
I think one of the problems with this kind of confusion is that the advice teachers often give is very abstract. So let’s look at a question:
“Today more and more tourists are visiting places where conditions are difficult, such as the Sahara desert or the Antarctic? What are the benefits and disadvantages for tourists who visit such places?” (Cambridge 12 GT)
There are many different possible benefits and disadvantages for tourists visiting places where conditions are difficult:
- they have to overcome or withstand these tough conditions, so develop self-confidence and learn survival skills
- they visit places where there are few other tourists
- they will be able to see some spectacular scenery, which few others have seen first-hand
- places where conditions are difficult are often in remote areas, so they are difficult to reach
- visiting such places is often quite expensive; only the wealthy can afford it
- you need to be in good health to deal with the difficult conditions
- these places often have harsh weather conditions, such as heavy snowfall or drought, as well as extreme temperatures
I’m sure you can think of more.
An essay that only contained one advantage and one disadvantage seems limited. It suggests the writer hasn’t given a lot of thought to the issue. This could hold your band score for Task Response down to a Band 5.
In addition, a 250 word essay that discussed only one advantage and one disadvantage is likely to be quite repetitive: if you wrote around 100 words on one disadvantage (e.g. harsh weather conditions), you’re probably going to start repeating yourself. This would lead to a Band 6 for Task Response; repetition can weaken the coherence of your essay, so you might only get a Band 6 for Coherence and Cohesion as well.
In other words, writing only one advantage and one disadvantage will probably limit your band score to a Band 6. But this is NOT because writing only one of each is against the “rules”, but because writing only one of each often results in a repetitive, limited essay (for most IELTS test takers anyway).
For most test takers, I would recommend writing 2 advantages and 2 disadvantages – but remember that these ideas also need to be developed fully to get a score of Band 7 or above. If you present 2 advantages and 2 disadvantages and don’t explain them in enough detail, you’ll get a Band 6 for Task Response at best. For some test takers, 2 advantages and 1 disadvantage (or vice versa) might be enough. Just remember, the crucial thing is whether your essay is well developed or not.
In any case, this question is only really an issue for the General Training Writing Test. Those of you doing the Academic Writing Test will get a question like this: “Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?” So you need to argue that, yes, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages (or vice versa) and give some reasons why you think this.
The reason why “advantages and disadvantages” is plural is to make the language easier. Otherwise, the General Training test question would have to look something like this: “What is the main advantage or advantages, and the main disadvantage or disadvantages?” If IELTS really wanted you to write more than one, the question would state: “discuss SOME advantages and SOME disadvantages”.