How to write a formal IELTS letter

Test format for task 1 IELTS General writing task

In the IELTS writing test, you will be asked to produce two writing tasks, where task 1 is the shorter writing piece. In writing task 1, candidates are recommended to write at least 150 words, and it is very difficult to get a good score in Task Achievement with fewer words. You should also expect to write task 1 in under twenty minutes. In the IELTS General test, the structure of writing task 1 is always a letter. IELTS General writing task prompts explain a situation, usually followed by three bullet points. You are then asked to write either a formal or informal letter, developing each bullet point given fully.  

Before you write

The first step before you begin your IELTS letter is to read the prompt carefully. Make sure you fully understand what the situation given is and what is required of the task. Underline any keywords. The next step is to determine if you need to write a formal, semi-formal or informal letter. There are some keywords to look for in the prompt. For example, if you are asked to write to a friend, a relative, a teammate, a flatmate, or a classmate, then you can assume you need to write an informal letter. However, if you are asked to write to a company, a person you don't know, a newspaper, a school or organization then you it will be a formal letter. Occasionally, you may be asked to write a semi-formal letter. This is the case if you are writing to a colleague or a neighbour. For IELTS general writing task 1, you are commonly asked to write a formal letter. Most IELTS test-takers understand the basics of how to write a letter but may be unfamiliar with the specific requirements of a formal letter. There are a number of differences in style and confusing them will result in losing points on your IELTS exam. We will take a look at the different letter writing styles below.  

Differences between a formal letter and an informal letter

Letter Structure

The structure for a formal or informal IELTS letter is as follows:
  • Salutation
  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Closing


The salutation is how you begin your letter. In a formal letter, you should refer to the person you are writing to by their surname. So, a formal letter will begin "Dear Mr Jones," or "Dear Ms Wallace, or "Dear Sir / Madam" In contrast, in informal writing, we use the person's first name, i.e. Dear John. Some students prefer not to use a name in their IELTS letter, so in this case, you may begin your letter with "Dear Sir/ Madam." It is incorrect to use the word Madame or Ma'am. The test paper usually has instructions telling you to begin your letter "Dear ...." If this is the case, make sure you do not begin your letter with "To whom it may concern:" Also, remember to capitalize Dear Sir/Madam or any other titles or names you use.  

Letter introduction

The first sentence in your formal letter should state the purpose of the letter. The reason for writing will be given in the prompt. For example:
  • I am writing this letter with regard to…
  • I am writing to express my satisfaction/dissatisfaction with…
  • The purpose of my letter today is to inform you of...
  • I'd like to bring to your attention...
The purpose of your letter may be to suggest, to complain, to thank or express your gratitude, to apply for a job, or to request information. For a letter of complaint, you could begin your letter, " I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with service I received from your company recently." Or, you may start by saying, " I am writing with regard to the poor service I recently received from your company." Here is a model letter of complaint, you will see it is at least 150 words and written in formal English. Another common task for the general exam is to write a letter of apology. Here you can see a sample apology letter written to the University of Cambridge. In addition to a sentence stating the purpose of your letter, you can add one more key overall element to the first paragraph, then move on to the rest of the letter where you will explain all the points in the task. It is inappropriate to begin the letter with something more personal like asking, "How are you?" This is something you can certainly include in your informal letters or perhaps even in a semi-formal one. If you are asked to write a letter to a friend, feel free to use informal language, but stick to the letter structure. However, for an IELTS formal letter, begin with some of the examples we suggest here.   Formal letter writing rules can seem a bit picky. For example, when you have to write a formal IELTS letter, you will want to display a formal tone. To do this, these do not use contractions, as they will appear more informal. Therefore, you should not use words like I'm, can't, couldn't, won't, isn't, etc. Instead, you need to write the words fully out, such as cannot, could not, would not, etc.  

Modal verbs

While both formal and informal styles use modal verbs, in formal letters you want to use those associated with formal writing. For this reason, we write could, may, might and would instead of can and will. Again, this induces a more formal tone. For instance, the sentence, "Could you please provide me more information regarding the flat," is more appropriate in formal letter writing than "Can you provide me more information regarding the flat."  

Formal language

The sentence example above, "Could you please provide me more information regarding the flat," isn't formal in style only because of the use of could but also because of other formal phrases and words used. "Could you please provide me more information regarding the flat" is more formal than "Can you tell me more about the flat," although the meaning is the same. Certain vocabulary words are more formal than others and should be used in formal IELTS letters. Using some of these keys words will show the IELTS examiners who are grading your letter that you have the lexical resource to convey your message in a professional-looking way. For instance, in a letter of complaint, "I highly recommend your staff receive the appropriate training to avoid such instances in the future, " sounds more formal than," You should teach your staff better so they don't do this again." Both sentences are grammatically correct but only one is formal.  

Indirect questions

These are questions where the word order is usually sentence order although there is an implied question in the statement. While we can use them in formal or informal style writing, we use these, particularly in formal letter writing because they sound less direct and more polite than direct questions. Compare these two sample sentences: Can you tell me more about the weather in your country? I would like to have additional information regarding the weather I might expect to find while in your country. Would you tell me which insurance company I should call? The second sentence is far more formal and this is accomplished in part by the phrase, "I would like to have additional information." It is essentially asking a question but in a more polite tone. Now compare these two sample sentences: Which insurance company should I call? Would you tell me which insurance company I should call? Again, the second sentence is more formal which we can see by the use of "Would you tell me...". There are numerous ways to ask indirect questions: I would like to know, could you possibly tell me, would you mind telling me, may I ask, or I was wondering if. Remember to use the proper sentence order in the rest of the sentence.  


Closing your formal IELTS letter also requires some specific language. Some possible closings include: I trust you will see to this matter promptly. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience. I thank you in advance for your consideration. I am awaiting your reply. Sometimes it is also appropriate to suggest some form of communication, such as "please feel free to contact me at the email or phone listed above." You don't actually need to include a phone number in the letter but you can write the statement regardless.  

Sign off

Signing off in formal writing also has some specific rules. If you began your letter Dear Sir, without a name, then the rules of formal letter writing state that before you end your letter, you need to write Yours faithfully. If you provided the name of the person you wrote to, for example, Dear Mr Smith, then you may end your letter Yours sincerely. This applies to formal and semi-formal letters. Only the first word must be capitalized. Yours faithfully is never used in informal writing.  

Organising your letter

If you are aiming for a very high band score in the IELTS exam, then you will have to organize your information well. This means having appropriate paragraphs that correspond to the information in the bullet points. A good rule of thumb is to have one paragraph for your introduction, one paragraph for each bullet point and one paragraph for your closing. Sometimes two bullets can be covered in one paragraph. Typically, it is a good idea to write your ideas in the same order as they are given in the prompt. In this sense, the prompt acts like an outline that helps you stay organized and write your ideas in a logical manner.  

Tricks and tips before you write

There are several tips that will help you write a letter for the IELTS general training paper.
  1. Take some notes before you start writing a letter.
  2. You will be expected to develop each of the bullet points well so write down some ideas next to each bullet.
  3. Another tip in IELTS writing is to pay attention to certain details in the bullets. For example, if the bullet says "describe your suitcase and what was inside," you will lose marks if you only describe the suitcase but not what was inside.
  4. Similarly, watch for plurals. If the bullet says, "Give details about where you left the suitcase," but you only write one detail this will also lower your score.

Writing your letter

Let's look at a common prompt for IELTS General Writing task 1. You recently travelled by plane but lost your suitcase. You filed a claim with the airline but have not heard back from them. Write a letter to the airline. - Explain what happened - Describe your suitcase and tell them what was in it - Find out what they are going to do about it. Sample Answer: Dear Sir or Madam, I am writing with regard to my suitcase which was lost on Sunday, March 14 when I traveled on BA flight 5445 from London to Oslo. I would like to receive some information regarding the status of my bag. I checked my bag in London yet when I went to collect it at baggage claim, the suitcase did not appear. A representative at the airport opened a case regarding the suitcase (#4565435) and said someone would be in touch with me within 48 hours. A week has now passed, however, I have not received any updates. The bag is a 20-inch, charcoal gray, hard side Samsonite suitcase. It has four wheels and there is a black leather luggage tag bearing my contact information. Inside the bag, I have two pairs of shoes, several items of clothing including three men's dress shirts and two pairs of trousers. I am extremely disappointed that I have not been contacted by any representatives of your airline and even more so by the failure to return my suitcase. I would like some information regarding the whereabouts of my bag as soon as possible as the personal items in the suitcase are of great importance to me. I was informed by the airline representative that I may be entitled to monetary compensation in the event my suitcase is not found. Please inform me regarding this matter. I thank you in advance and look forward to hearing from you. Yours faithfully, John Smith  

Why would this letter get a band 9?


Task achievement

The letter covers each bullet point fully, providing details as needed. The information is relevant and satisfies the task instructions. The language in the letter is appropriately formal and begins with Dear Sir or Madam. The first paragraph clearly states the purpose of the letter, using keywords like 'with regard to' and states a request using a formal tone 'I would like to receive...'. The following three paragraphs explain each of the three bullet points. Even though the writer is unhappy, he maintains formal language throughout.  

Coherence and Cohesion

The information is sequenced logically and is well organized. Paragraphing is successfully managed. Cohesion does not draw any attention and is handled skillfully.  

Lexical Resources

The vocabulary used in the letter is sophisticated and natural. There is a wide range of lexical items used throughout the whole letter, including less common collocations.  
  • Grammatical Range and Accuracy
A wide range of structures are flexibly and accurately used.  

Word count - what is too long and what is too short?

Some IELTS test takers might be concerned that the above letter, at approximately 240 words is too long. This is due to a common misconception that IELTS task 1 must not be more than 160 words. However, this is not the case. While the University of Cambridge ESOL exams do have a word limit like this, the same is not true for IELTS writing. In order to score in a higher band in IELTS, you will need to write considerable supporting details and develop each bullet point as fully as possible, something difficult to do in 160 words. That said, you must also be aware of the time and spend no more than 20 minutes on your letter, including checking your answer. As mentioned above, there is no longer an official word minimum. It is recommended that test-takers write at least 150 words but their score will not be marked down if it is less. It is believed that anything less than 150 words will likely not be well developed.  

Generating ideas

Some IELTS test takers worry that they will have difficulty coming up with ideas during the exam. Here are a couple of tips that may help put your mind at ease. Firstly, learn and get comfortable with the formulaic English language we use when we write formal letters. If you are familiar with these expressions, you will find that a good portion of your writing will consist of this language and you merely need to supply some additional details. If you are concerned that you will not be able to produce these details, this is where reading sample letters are useful. While not all sample letters online are ideal models, they can help you to see what kinds of ideas might be appropriate for your own letters. Next, nothing helps improve your writing like practice. You will find that many IELTS topics have many similarities and once you start to write regularly, you will be able to recycle ideas from previous letters you have written.  


Many IELTS test takers fear that they will not have the vocabulary needed to score well on the writing exam. If you look at the sample letter above, you will see that there is language that is topic-specific. Instead, most of the higher-level vocabulary used is more general. Therefore, it is important to develop general vocabulary, including less-common words and collocations than having many topic-specific words in your arsenal. Take a look at some of our IELTS Vocabulary to help with your exam preparation. Of course, remember that spelling mistakes could cost you points on the overall score of your IELTS test. Before you start writing, take 30 seconds and brainstorm what vocabulary you might use in the letter you are about to write. Then, once you begin your letter, you can take the vocabulary from the list and decide, as you write, if you've got the correct spelling for those words. Another thing to consider, especially if you're writing in formal style, is to decide if you should be using academic language or something a little less formal. It's not necessary to -- nor should you - litter your entire letter with fancy words, but if you understand how to use some of them, then go ahead and use them. Just remember to stay on topic with each bullet point.  

Tutorials: IELTS Letter Writing

The following tutorials will help the IELTS candidate prepare for their general exam. This part of the IELTS exam differs from the academic section and you will be asked to write a letter instead of interpreting a graph. We also have useful tutorials to help you prepare for the IELTS academic:  


Regardless of how much writing you practice, the best way to improve is to get feedback on what you write. This is where it is wise to invest in some expert advice from someone highly qualified to teach IELTS. An expert IELTS teacher can tell you where your strengths and weaknesses are, give suggestions on how to improve, and what areas you need to practice. The team at includes ex-examiners who are IELTS experts but are also teachers with many years of experience guiding countless students to the score they need. Click here to start improving your IELTS essays by getting them evaluated.