IELTS Writing Tips: Word Count Penalty

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As you may know, there’s an IELTS word count penalty for writing task 1 and writing task 2. To avoid a penalty, for task 1, you will need to write a minimum of 150 words and for task 2, you will need to write a minimum of 250 words.

Let’s talk a little bit more about how to avoid getting an IELTS word count penalty below.

What is the Word Count Penalty for Task 1 and Task 2?

If you don’t write enough words on writing task 1 and 2, you will get a lower score. While IELTS doesn’t say exactly how much you will get penalized, they do clearly state that your score will be lower if you don’t meet the word count requirements.

To avoid the penalty, I recommend writing more than the minimum number of words required. You should target 175 words for Task 1 and 250 words for Task 2. This not only ensures that you won’t lose points for not writing enough, but it will also help you to increase your score. Many essays that achieve the highest band score are above the minimum requirements.

How Words are Counted on the IELTS

How are words counted in IELTS writing? Most of that time whatever seems like one word will be counted as one word. But sometimes, it can be hard to tell if certain words count as more than one word.

Below is a quick overview of different kinds of words and how they’ll be counted on the IELTS test.

Compound Nouns

A compound noun is a noun (person, place, thing, or animal) that is made up of one or more words. Sometimes these words are pushed together into one word, and sometimes they’re separated into two or more words.

Compound nouns that are written as one word count as one word. For example:

  • Toothpaste = tooth + paste pressed into one word
  • toothpaste = one word


  • Sunrise = one word
  • Dishwasher = one word

Compound nouns that are written as two words count as two words, even if the two words are used together to reflect one idea. For example:

  • Full moon = two words
  • Washing machine = two words

Hyphenated Words

All hyphenated words count as one word. For example:

  • Mother-in-law = one word
  • Up-to-date = one word

Numbers, Dates, and Times

Numbers, dates, and times are almost always counted as one word. For example:

  • 500 = one word
  • 7:15am = one word
  • 10/24/1982 = one word

However, if a number is written out like this, it will count as two words or more:

  • ten thousand = two words
  • 3 million = two words

Similarly, dates that are written like this count as two words or more:

  • October 24th = two words
  • August 24th, 2021 = three words


Fractions are counted as one word. For example:

  • 1/3 = one word
  • two-fifths = one word

Words With Symbols

Words with symbols (like the $ or %) attached to them count as one word. For example:

  • $10.00 = one word
  • 25% = one word

However, note that if a dollar or percentage is written out, they count as two words:

  • Ten dollars = two words
  • Twenty-five percent = two words

Websites and URLs

Websites and URLS are counted as one word. For example:


Contractions are always counted as one word, even though they represent the combination of two words. For example:

  • it’s = one word (even though it’s = it is)
  • we’re = one word

Words in Parentheses

Singular words in parentheses are always counted as one word. For example, consider the following sentence:

  • Hybrid cars are (much) more energy efficient.
  • (much) = one word

If there’s more than one word in the parentheses, each word is counted. For example:

  • Hybrid cars are (so much) better for the environment.
  • (so much) = two words

Prepositions and Articles

Many people assume that “small” words like “a” or “the” or “in” are not counted on the IELTS but they all are.

Prepositions like “under” and “in” and “on” and “at” are all counted as one word.

Note that prepositional phrases like “across from” and “adjacent to” are counted as two word (or however many words are in the phrase).

Articles like “a” and “the” are counted every time they show up in a sentence. For example:

The dog ran around the block while the dog walker chased it = 12 words (with “the” showing up 3 times)

But I Thought the IELTS Eliminated the Word Count Penalty…

Unfortunately, no. As of this time, IELTS has not announced that they will eliminate the word count penalty. Some teachers say that you can write slightly under the word count and not get penalized, but we don’t believe it’s worth the risk!

What’s the IELTS Word Count Penalty for Writing Too Many Words?

There is no penalty for writing too many words. That said, we don’t encourage you to overwrite. Again, the IELTS writing task 1 word count you should aim for is 175 and the IELTS writing task 2 word count you should aim for is 275.

Writing more than this can cause you to stray off topic and include information you don’t need. You may also run out of time to edit your work.

Should I Count the Words in My Essay?

No, it’s probably not worth it. Your time is better spent drafting a well-written essay than counting your words. If you practice, you should hit your word count targets without a problem.

Remember, as long as you meet the word count, the goal is quality, not quantity.

IELTS Paper-Based Writing Recommendations

To avoid an IELTS word count penalty, we highly suggest that you practice answering task 1 and task 2 under similar conditions as you will on testing day. If you’re taking the paper test, that means writing on official IELTS answer sheets.

Here are sample answer sheets for task 1 and task 2. Since everyone’s handwriting is different, how many lines you use will differ from other test takers.

Practicing these tests on the official paper will help you see how many lines you use to write 150 and 250 words. When you’re familiar with what these amounts look like on the page, you’re more likely to be successful on testing day!

IELTS Computer-Based Writing Recommendations

If you’re taking the IELTS exam on a computer then the computer will count your words for you. We still recommend practicing these tasks so you can get a feel for each essay length.

In Conclusion: What to Know about the Word Count Penalty

So, just to recap: to avoid an IELTS word count penalty, you will need to write at least 150 words for task 1 and at least 250 words for task 2.

Keep in mind that these are the other factors that will impact your score:

  • Your handwriting—if the examiner can’t read your handwriting, you will be penalized.
  • The quality and content of you responses—if your responses seem in any way memorized, your answers could be disqualified and result in a score of zero. Likewise, if you do not answer the questions fully or you stray far off topic, you will lose points.

Happy practicing and good luck!

By the way, improve your IELTS score with Magoosh!

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