How to Describe an IELTS Map – Academic Writing Task 1

For task 1 of the IELTS academic writing test, you must give words (about 150) to visual information. You will be given 20 minutes to examine the data in the form of a graph, chart, table, or diagram and complete a task using the information. Illustrated maps are one form of visual data that you may be presented with for this task. But, how do you describe an IELTS map? Check out some tips below and find more graph and diagram examples in the Magoosh IELTS prep!

Understanding The Objectives

To tackle the challenge of describing a map for the exam, you must understand the objectives of the task at hand. Importantly, while 75% of your score represents your linguistic performance (coherence and cohesion, vocabulary, and grammar), 25% depends on your achievement of the task.

Earning a high band score for task 1 completion is awarded for a “clear overview of main trends, differences, or stages.” If a clear overview cannot be achieved, you must minimally highlight the key features related to the prompt.

With this in mind, check out the image below.

describe ielts map -magoosh

Image from

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If we want to consider key features or trends in this single image, it wouldn’t be enough to say that there are buildings, waterways, farmland, and forest area. This doesn’t provide any overviews; it simply lists elements. Noting patterns and overall “trends” requires looking at the bigger picture, not isolated elements. An overview might point out instead that houses and other buildings are clustered around lines of transport (i.e. the river or the railroads).

But you probably won’t be given an image and simply told, “describe it.” Instead, you will be given a specific task, and you will use the information in the image to complete it. For example, for the image above, a probably likely task would be to consider the suburban areas that have developed outside the central city and to identify and compare the main characteristics of each. Perhaps you’d note that residential and single-family homes always appear at the margins, away from the town/city centers.

Describe an IELTS Map: Go Beyond Naming

As noted, your task requires more than mere description. While vocabulary is obviously important (for naming various structures and natural elements), task completion involves more than listing items. Describing trends, differences, or stages requires noting the relationship among elements and between images for comparison.

Imagine that your task is to examine before and after illustrations of an island that has been turned into a resort and describe the changes that have occurred.

describe ielts map task 1 -magoosh


For this task, it is clearly not enough to name what is new. Don’t just describe what’s there, describe the relationship between what’s there.

For example, do not simply say “there is a pier there that wasn’t there before.” What relationship does this have to the big picture?  Remember, you must be able to provide an overview.

No: Yes:
There is a pier. A pier gives access to the island and is linked to the reception building by a vehicle track.
There are roads and footpaths. Roads and footpaths connect the various parts of the islands.
There is a reception building. A reception building and a restaurant are at the center of the island and are linked to accommodation by footpaths.
There is a restaurant.
There are buildings for accommodation. Small accommodation buildings are arranged in two circles, one to the east of reception, and one to the west.


But, wait! Your overview shouldn’t just mention elements and their relationship to one another. How are the elements that you’re describing relevant to the prompt? What changes have been made? We must connect these observations to the before and after context, reflecting change:

The western and central parts of the island have been developed into a resort. A pier, roads, and footpaths have been added to give access to the island and the developed areas of the island. A short vehicle track has been laid linking the pier directly to the reception building, which was constructed at the center of the island. Accommodation buildings have been built and organized along a circular footpath. Footpaths have been cleared to connect these areas to each other and to make the reception, a restaurant, and a beach accessible. While the beach on the western side of the island remains as it was, the area surrounding it has been designated as a swimming area. No foot paths connect the west end, the accommodation, reception or the restaurant to the east side of the island. The east is the only portion of the beach that has not yet been altered.

Your description should illustrate the main points well enough to help someone who hasn’t seen the maps imagine them.

Main takeaways for comparing and describing an IELTS map:

  1. Remember that the examiner is looking for an overview with main points, not an exhaustive list of elements.
    (Notice, for example that I didn’t quantify accommodation, trees, or distances.)
  2. Think of the big picture. Rather than focusing on what’s there, think about how they’re related to the overall developments.
  3. Don’t forget your primary task – What changes have been made? What occurred, resulting in the differences you see?

Check out more helpful articles (and this bonus IELTS Video!) on preparing for the IELTS Academic Writing Task 1:

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