The overview is probably the most important paragraph in the whole essay. In fact, as we will see later in this post, it is very difficult to score 7 or over without a good one.
An overview is simply a summary of the main or most important points in a graph, chart, process or map. It is normally 2-3 sentences long and should be the second paragraph you write in your essay. As we will see below, it also influences what you write in the rest of your essay.
Learn how to write a good one and you are much more likely to get a high score.
What does the examiner want?
An overview is one of the first things an examiner looks for because it shows them that you can identify the most important information from the graph or chart and clearly identify overall trends and comparisons.
If we look at the official marking scheme we can see that the word ‘overview’ is mentioned three times:
This means that to get at least a 5 for task achievement we must give some kind of overview. If we do not give any overview we will always get below a 5. If we select the appropriate data to include in our overview we get a score of 6 and if it is ‘clear’ we get a 7 for this part of the exam.
If you know how to select the appropriate data and you practice writing a clear overview, then you are likely to get the score you deserve in this section.
What is an overview?
To understand this we must look at the question. The question for academic task one is always the same:
Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.
We therefore need to provide a short summary of the main features. You do this in the overview paragraph by picking out 3-4 of the most significant things you can see and writing them in general terms. By general, I mean you do not support anything you see with data from the graph or chart, just write about what you can see visually.
Let’s look at an example:
Overall, I notice that there are 7 regions. Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America make up the majority, with North America being the largest. Africa, India, Latin America and China make up a very small proportion.
We can then include these things in an overview paragraph:
The pie chart is comprised of 7 regions in total with Europe, Asia-Pacific and North America making up the vast majority of global wealth. North America has the single biggest share and Africa, India, Latin America and China combined, only make up a small proportion.
As you can see, I have not talked about individual fractions or percentages, in fact I have not supported any of my features with data. Instead, I have just reported what I can see visually, without looking closely at the data. If you have to look at the data, then you probably won’t write a good overview.
How do I select the correct features?
To understand this we have to think about the different types of graphs and charts we might see. There are generally two different kinds of charts and graphs: dynamic and static.
Dynamic charts show data over time and static charts show data at just one point in time. This will affect the type of data we select.
Let’s look at a dynamic chart:
As you can see, the graph is dynamic because it shows data over a period of time. We should therefore look at the general trend over the time period.
First, we should look at what happened from the start (2011) to the end (2014). From the start to the end both lines increased. Then we should look at any other general trends for each of the two lines. We can see the blue line (women) goes up until 2013 and then does down a little. The green line (men) goes up slightly and then has a very large increase between 2012 and 2014.
These are the most striking or most obvious things we can see when first looking at the graph and these are perfect for our overview.
Let’s put this information into a sentence:
Over the entire time period the number of men and women reading books increased. Women saw a steady increase between 2011 and 2013 before declining in 2014, while men increased gradually at first before rocketing up in the last two years.
When we are looking at dynamic graphs we should be looking out for:
- What does the data do from the start to the finish?
- Do they generally go up or down or do they fluctuate?
- Any significant difference from the general trend?
- Overall increase/decrease?
No let’s look at a static chart:
This chart is different from the last one because there are no dates to look at; it is data from just one point in time. We can therefore not talk about general trends over time.
Instead we are more concerned about comparing the data between the different sources. In this case, we will be comparing the data between countries.
The first thing I notice is that all countries are below 400k except two of them. Switzerland and Australia are the biggest and Singapore and the U.K. are the smallest. Switzerland has almost double the average. There isn’t a significant amount of difference between the bottom 6 countries.
Let’s try and turn the things I’ve noticed above into an overview:
The graph compares eight countries with only a small amount of difference between the bottom 6. Australia and Switzerland have the highest average wealth, with Switzerland averaging nearly double the value of the two bottom countries.
When we look at static graphs we should be looking for:
- What are the highest/lowest values?
- What are the most noticeable differences?
- Any similarities?
- Any significant exceptions?
Is there any special grammar?
You should try and make a complex sentence by making a subordinate clause. Complex sentences are sentences with more than one clause and they help increase our marks in the grammatical range part of the marking criteria.
You can easily make a subordinate clause structure in the overview by joining two pieces of information with the words ‘while’. ‘although’, ‘with’, ‘even though’, ‘whereas’ or ‘and’. However, make sure you know the meaning of these words and how they are correctly used in a sentence.
How does an overview fit into the rest of my essay?
The overview should be the second paragraph of a four paragraph structure:
Paragraph 1- Paraphrase Sentence
Paragraph 2- Overview
Paragraph 3- Details
Paragraph 4- Details
I tell my students to write the overview before the details because it makes it clear to the examiner that you have identified the main features and it also helps you write the details paragraph. In the details paragraphs you will simply take the statements you made in the overview and support them with data.
Shouldn’t I write a conclusion?
No. Conclusions are really a summary of what you think or opinions. This is not an opinion essay and you therefore do not need to write a conclusion. Save your conclusions for task 2.
Below is one final example following the structure I used above. I have highlighted the overview in yellow.
Notice how I have picked out the most significant/noticeable/important features and talked about them very generally in the overview. I have not used any data in the overview. However, I have taken the features from the overview and supported them with data in paragraphs 3 and 4.
I hope you found this post useful and if you have any questions please let me know in the comments section below.
For a more detailed post on how to answer IELTS task 1 chart questions, please click the link.
You may also find my grammar guide for IELTS task 1 useful. It has lots of phrases to help you describe data.
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Writing Task 1
Writing Task 2
A clear sense of argument is essential to all forms of academic writing, for writing is thought made visible. Insights and ideas that occur to us when we encounter the raw material of the world—natural phenomena like the behavior of genes, or cultural phenomena, like texts, photographs and artifacts—must be ordered in some way so others can receive them and respond in turn. This give and take is at the heart of the scholarly enterprise, and makes possible that vast conversation known as civilization. Like all human ventures, the conventions of the academic essay are both logical and playful. They may vary in expression from discipline to discipline, but any good essay should show us a mind developing a thesis, supporting that thesis with evidence, deftly anticipating objections or counterarguments, and maintaining the momentum of discovery.
Motive and Idea
An essay has to have a purpose or motive; the mere existence of an assignment or deadline is not sufficient. When you write an essay or research paper, you are never simply transferring information from one place to another, or showing that you have mastered a certain amount of material. That would be incredibly boring—and besides, it would be adding to the glut of pointless utterance. Instead, you should be trying to make the best possible case for an original idea you have arrived at after a period of research. Depending upon the field, your research may involve reading and rereading a text, performing an experiment, or carefully observing an object or behavior.
By immersing yourself in the material, you begin to discover patterns and generate insights, guided by a series of unfolding questions. From a number of possibilities, one idea emerges as the most promising. You try to make sure it is original and of some importance; there is no point arguing for something already known, trivial, or widely accepted.
Thesis and Development
The essay's thesis is the main point you are trying to make, using the best evidence you can marshal. Your thesis will evolve during the course of writing drafts, but everything that happens in your essay is directed toward establishing its validity. A given assignment may not tell you that you need to come up with a thesis and defend it, but these are the unspoken requirements of any scholarly paper.
Deciding upon a thesis can generate considerable anxiety. Students may think, "How can I have a new idea about a subject scholars have spent their whole lives exploring? I just read a few books in the last few days, and now I'm supposed to be an expert?" But you can be original on different scales. We can't possibly know everything that has been, or is being, thought or written by everyone in the world—even given the vastness and speed of the Internet. What is required is a rigorous, good faith effort to establish originality, given the demands of the assignment and the discipline. It is a good exercise throughout the writing process to stop periodically and reformulate your thesis as succinctly as possible so someone in another field could understand its meaning as well as its importance. A thesis can be relatively complex, but you should be able to distill its essence. This does not mean you have to give the game away right from the start. Guided by a clear understanding of the point you wish to argue, you can spark your reader's curiosity by first asking questions—the very questions that may have guided you in your research—and carefully building a case for the validity of your idea. Or you can start with a provocative observation, inviting your audience to follow your own path of discovery.
The Tension of Argument
Argument implies tension but not combative fireworks. This tension comes from the fundamental asymmetry between the one who wishes to persuade and those who must be persuaded. The common ground they share is reason. Your objective is to make a case so that any reasonable person would be convinced of the reasonableness of your thesis. The first task, even before you start to write, is gathering and ordering evidence, classifying it by kind and strength. You might decide to move from the smallest piece of evidence to the most impressive. Or you might start with the most convincing, then mention other supporting details afterward. You could hold back a surprising piece of evidence until the very end.
In any case, it is important to review evidence that could be used against your idea and generate responses to anticipated objections. This is the crucial concept of counterargument. If nothing can be said against an idea, it is probably obvious or vacuous. (And if too much can be said against it, it's time for another thesis.) By not indicating an awareness of possible objections, you might seem to be hiding something, and your argument will be weaker as a consequence. You should also become familiar with the various fallacies that can undermine an argument—the "straw man" fallacy, fallacies of causation and of analogy, etc.—and strive to avoid them.
The Structure of Argument
The heart of the academic essay is persuasion, and the structure of your argument plays a vital role in this. To persuade, you must set the stage, provide a context, and decide how to reveal your evidence. Of course, if you are addressing a community of specialists, some aspects of a shared context can be taken for granted. But clarity is always a virtue. The essay's objective should be described swiftly, by posing a question that will lead to your thesis, or making a thesis statement. There is considerable flexibility about when and where this happens, but within the first page or two, we should know where we are going, even if some welcome suspense is preserved. In the body of the paper, merely listing evidence without any discernible logic of presentation is a common mistake. What might suffice in conversation is too informal for an essay. If the point being made is lost in a welter of specifics, the argument falters.
The most common argumentative structure in English prose is deductive: starting off with a generalization or assertion, and then providing support for it. This pattern can be used to order a paragraph as well as an entire essay. Another possible structure is inductive: facts, instances or observations can be reviewed, and the conclusion to be drawn from them follows. There is no blueprint for a successful essay; the best ones show us a focused mind making sense of some manageable aspect of the world, a mind where insightfulness, reason, and clarity are joined.
Copyright 1998, Kathy Duffin, for the Writing Center at Harvard University