21 formal idioms and collocations for IELTS Task 2 essays

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To receive a high band score in IELTS writing, it is necessary to demonstrate that you are able to use idiomatic language in both Task 1 essays/letters (informal or formal, depending on the test and question) and Task 2 essays (always formal).

Unfortunately, most lists of so-called “IELTS idioms” available online include only informal and/or outdated expressions (clichés and proverbs) that are inappropriate for Task 2 and Academic Training Task 1 essays. The following list, in contrast, contains a variety of idioms and collocations (words frequently paired together) commonly used by contemporary native English speakers in business and academic writing.

While some of the phrases are relevant to specific topics, the focus is on expressions that can be used in responses to a wide range of questions.

You can also download this list as a PDF.


(An) Active/Sedentary lifestyle – lifestyle that involves a lot of/very little exercise

Example: When employees are required to work long hours, it is difficult for them to maintain an active lifestyle/it is easy for them to adopt a sedentary lifestyle.


Beside the point – not relevant to an argument  

Example: Some people might argue that providing free treatment for diseases brought on by unhealthy lifestyle choices will encourage poor behavior, but that is beside the point.


Cost-effective solution – action designed to save money, usually in response to rising prices

Example: Some companies treat outsourcing as the most cost-effective solution to rising expenses.


A daunting task – large and overwhelming job or chore

Example: In a competitive housing market, purchasing a home can be a daunting task for many prospective buyers.


Financial incentive(s) – policy that allows people to get or save money to encourage a particular action or behavior

Example: Some cities may offer financial incentives to business owners in the form of tax breaks* and reduced startup fees.

*reduction in taxes


A/The key factor – something that contributes directly and significantly to a result  

A key factor = one of many important factors

The key factor = the single most important factor

Example: A person’s work ethic is a key factor in the amount of professional success they achieve.


A major transformation – very significant change

Example: Over the last half-century, medical training has undergone a major transformation in many countries.


Natural affinity for – inborn skill or preference for  

Example: It is evident that people are born with different talents: some people learn new languages easily, while others have a natural affinity for math(s) or science.


On the verge of (+ noun or verb + ing) – about to occur

Example: As a result of climate change and persistent drought, some countries are now on the verge of (experiencing) a serious humanitarian crisis.


On the whole – in general

Example: While money is certainly a significant consideration in one’s choice of career, I believe that on the whole, other factors should play an even more important role.


Pose a problem – More sophisticated way of saying “be a problem”

 Example: The question of how to balance a demanding job with personal and family responsibilities poses a problem for many workers.


Primarily concerned with (+ noun or verb + ing) – mainly interested in or about

Example: A person who is primarily concerned with money (noun) may indeed find satisfaction in a finance career.

Example: A person who is primarily concerned with helping (verb + ing) others is well-suited to a career in a “caring” field such as nursing or social work.


Quality time – time spent with others (usually family or friends) devoted to enjoyment and building relationships

Example: When employees are required to work long hours and weekends, they are unable to spend quality time with their friends and family.


(Face) serious consequences – significant (negative) results

Example: Students usually face serious consequences if they are discovered to have plagiarized* or cheated on exams.

*plagiarize (n., plagiarism) – presenting someone else’s work as one’s own


In or A sharp contrast – large contrast

Example: 2015 saw average housing prices hit record highs, which was a* sharp contrast to the situation 2014.

Example: In sharp contrast to 2014, 2015 saw average housing prices hit record highs.

*This version is typically used after a form of of the verb to be.


A significant/substantial impact – a large effect (either positive or negative)

Example: The rising popularity of urban living has had a significant impact on the housing market in many cities.


Strictly necessary – absolutely necessary, essential

Example: Many employees work overtime and accept extra responsibilities, even when such things are not strictly necessary.


Take x for granted – to assume that something is true or accurate without giving any thought to it   

Example: Most people take their health for granted until they fall ill.


Take into* account – consider

Example: Many people argue that providing free or low-cost treatment for diseases that result from poor lifestyle choices will only encourage to pursue bad habits, but they do not take into account such a policy’s effects on society as a whole.

*Note that even though this is a phrasal verb, it is commonly used in formal contexts.


The vast majority of – almost everyone, or almost all of something  

Example: The vast majority of people would presumably agree that industrial manufacturers should not be allowed to determine environmental policy.


A wide/broad range – a large variety

Example: People reject high-paying jobs in favor of positions with lower compensation for a wide/broad range of reasons.


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