We all know that the IELTS writing test clearly specifies the minimum number of words required for each answer: For task 1, your answer must have a minimum of 150 words. For task 2, it needs at least 250 words.
But is there a maximum word count for the writing tasks, and if so, what is the penalty for exceeding it?
The straight answer is: no, there is absolutely no maximum word limit for task 1 or task 2 and therefore no penalty for writing a longer answer per se.
The IELTS writing test is completely different from a university written assignment, where students typically have several weeks to write their assignment and must use and cite sources on the given topic. In that situation, a maximum word limit serves a purpose; it prevents students from writing assignments so lengthy that the lecturer would need to stay up all night marking them to return them on time.
In contrast, the IELTS writing test gives you a total of one hour to answer both tasks and you have zero access to any sources of information other than what is included in the given question. This limits the number of words you can write or type – about 250 words or so in 20 minutes for task 1 and 400 words or so in 40 minutes for task 2.
It makes no sense to have a maximum limit. Can you imagine having to count over 300 words to check that you didn’t go over a limit? It’s impractical to say the least.
I sometimes read or hear advice that candidates should keep their answers below say 300 words.
One reason: The more you write, the more mistakes you will make.
This may seem logical, but it is bad advice because trying to limit your word count for task 2 to below say 300 words is much more likely to limit your score for several reasons…
To score band 8 or 9 in the Task 2 Task Response criteria, you must extend your ideas with sufficient examples or explanations, which naturally requires you to write more. Otherwise, your score in Task response will be limited to band 7.
And to score 8 or 9 in the two marking criteria Lexical resource and Grammatical range and accuracy, you need to show a very wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures. Again, these both naturally require you to write more.
By the way, writing only one or two difficult (less common) words is not enough to convince the examiner that you have a range of vocabulary wide enough to score band 7 or more. A candidate at band 5 or 6 may be lucky enough to know one or two relevant less common words to use in their essay. So, for an examiner to give you a high score in Lexical resource, they would need to have no doubt that you deserve it by seeing a plethora of less common words used appropriately throughout your answer.
Another reason I heard (from a teacher!) for not writing a longer answer: The examiner will not be pleased to read a very long answer because it gives them more work to do, and so they will give you a lower score.
This is a myth. Even if you write 450+ words for task 2 (some people can!), you will not be penalised, provided that your ideas are coherent, well-supported, clearly on topic, and not repetitive. Of course, this assumes that you finish your answer within the time limit – lest you lose marks in Task response (or Task achievement for Task 1) for not including all the required features in your answer.
Contrary to this myth, an examiner is more likely to enjoy reading a longer well-written answer than a shorter poorly-written answer. Firstly, they are much easier to read. Secondly, they are generally more interesting.
In any case, it doesn’t matter whether the examiner feels unhappy or not. The marking criteria (IELTS Writing Band Descriptors) do not include examiner enjoyment or examiner displeasure.
Even if the examiner completely disagrees with your views, they will still award you the marks you deserve according to the Band Descriptors.
The take-home message here is to just write as many words as you need in order to cover the requirements of the Band Descriptors, and to not worry about a maximum word limit. The only real concern you should have is completing your answers within the time limit.