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What exactly am I being asked to do?

Updated: Nov 1

Have you ever been asked a question but are unsure of exactly what you are being asked to do?

In person this is easy to resolve since you can ask for more information there and then, but what if this is in an email from your boss who operates out of a different time zone? Or you are sitting in an exam?

The example I am going to share is taken from the IELTS academic writing exam - part 1, for which I provide coaching.

The exam provides a graph, chart or diagram showing particular data. The task is then to:

"Summarise the information by selecting and reporting on the main features and make comparisons where relevant."

That sounds pretty complicated at first glance, but if you break it down into small chunks and pick out key words the task becomes manageable. Let's look...

Step 1: Summarise the information - what is it that you are looking at? What type of chart or diagram is it and what is it showing?

Step 2: Select - the main features. The question isn't asking you to talk about every feature, just the ones that are most important or interesting to comment on.

Step 3: Report - on the main features. In step 2 the main features were selected, now you need to explain why they are the main features and what they show.

Step 4: Make comparisons - what similarities or differences are there in the main features reported.

It's often easy to become side tracked when answering a question and give information that, although might be interesting, is not relevant to what was being asked. In order to avoid doing this highlight the key words in whatever question is written in front of you and focus on those. This will help give structure to your answer and ultimately answer the question.

This approach is not only useful when answering the IELTS Academic writing part 1 exam question, but can be applied to many situations you find yourself in at work. Do you have to deliver a presentation? Write a formal report? Or summarise complex, technical, information for your boss? This technique can help:

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