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Academic vs. General: Which IELTS should you take?

Talya Honebeek
Last Updated: 14 September 2021 • 5 min read

With around 379 million speakers worldwide, English is one of the top three most spoken languages in the world.

If you’re hoping to study abroad in an English-speaking country like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK or USA, you’ll first need to demonstrate that you have a good grasp of the language and are able to communicate effectively in English.

But from TOEFL to PTE to Duolingo, there are lots of English language admissions tests you can take to study abroad, all with their own set of costs and requirements.

Of these standardised admissions tests, the IELTS is the most popular, providing a fair and accurate assessment of English language proficiency by using everyday scenarios to test your listening, reading, writing and speaking skills.

But what’s the difference between Academic and General IELTS and which one should you take? Here’s everything you need to know.

Academic vs. General: Which IELTS should you take?

  1. What is IELTS?
  2. IELTS Academic test format
  3. IELTS General test format
  4. Understanding your IELTS score
  5. IELTS Academic vs General: What’s the difference and which should I take?

1. What is IELTS?

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is the world’s most popular language test for those hoping to study, move or work abroad in English speaking countries, recognised by more than 11,000 education providers worldwide.

The task-based test costs around £175-£190 and assesses your ability to listen, read, write and speak in the English language on a scale of 1-9.

Both the Academic and General IELTS assess the following skills in a test that lasts almost two hours and 45 minutes:

  • Listening (30 minutes)
  • Speaking (11-14 minutes)
  • Reading (60 minutes)
  • Writing (60 minutes)

2. IELTS Academic test format

For the listening section, you’ll listen to four recordings before answering a series of questions testing your understanding and ability to dissect the information, opinions and attitudes you’ve just heard.

The four passages take the following format:

  • Recording one - a conversation between two people in an everyday social context.
  • Recording two - a monologue set in an everyday context, for example a speech.
  • Recording three - a conversation between up to four people in an educational or training context.
  • Recording four - a monologue on an academic subject, for example a university lecture.

Next is the reading section, consisting of 40 questions including multiple choice, matching information, sentence completion and short-answer questions based on your ability to read for gist, detail, opinion, fact and argument.

In the Academic test, this section will include three non-specialist long texts taken from books, journals, newspapers and magazines at a level suitable for those entering university.

For the IELTS Academic test’s writing section, students must complete the following two formal writing tasks within an hour:

  • Task one - Describe and explain information from a graph, table, chart or diagram. You may have to explain data or how something works.
  • Task two - Write an essay in response to a certain point of view, argument or problem.

Finally, there is a recorded speaking test made up of three distinct parts in the format of an oral interview between student and examiner.

  • Part one - general questions about yourself and a range of other familiar topics, including home, work, family and interests (four to five minutes).
  • Part two - you’ll have one minute to prepare to speak about a topic given on a card for up to two minutes. You’ll then be asked a further one or two follow-up questions on the same topic.
  • Part three - further questions about the topic from part two, dealing with wider ideas and issues (four to five minutes).

The speaking section may be completed up to a week before or after the other tests but the listening, reading and writing sections must all be completed on the same day, with no breaks

3. IELTS General test format

Although the listening and speaking sections for the IELTS General test are exactly the same as they are for the Academic version, there are some differences between the reading and writing tasks.

The General reading section consists of 40 questions based on various lengths of texts (from sources like books, magazines, notices and advertisements) designed to test a wide range of reading skills. 

There are three sections in total, with the first containing two or three short texts or several shorter ones, the second comprising two texts and the final including one long text.

Then, for the IELTS General writing test, students must complete the following two writing tasks based on topics of general interest within an hour:

  • Task one - Write a personal, formal or semi-formal letter requesting information or explaining a situation that has been presented to you. 
  • Task two - Write an essay (which can be fairly personal in style)  in response to a certain point of view, argument or problem.

4. Understanding your IELTS score

Every university or higher education will have their own IELTS score requirements, but to put it simply, the higher your IELTS score the better.

Here’s a breakdown of what all the scores mean:

0 = Did not attempt the test

1 = Non-user

2 = Intermittent user

3 = Extremely limited user

4 = Limited user

5 = Modest user

6 = Competent user

7 = Good user

8 = Very good user

9 = Expert user

When you receive your IELTS result, you will have five different band scores: one for each test section and one overall score that’s the average of your four individual results.

5. IELTS Academic vs General: What’s the difference and which should I take?

When you receive your IELTS result, you will have five different band scores: one for each test section and one overall score that’s the average of your four individual results.

When it comes to choosing between the Academic and General IELTS, there’s a simple distinction.

The IELTS Academic test is suitable for anyone hoping to study at an English-speaking university or higher education establishment.

On the other hand, the IELTS General Training test is better suited to those looking to migrate to an English-speaking country. It can also be used by those applying to study below degree level, in schools or colleges.

The main difference between Academic and General IELTS is that where the Academic test features more specific, higher-level scenarios, the General option focuses more on the everyday English language skills needed in social and workplace environments.

So while you should always check the specific entry requirements of your chosen university before booking your test, it’s generally safe to assume you’ll need to take the Academic IELTS.

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Talya Honebeek
Written By
Talya Honebeek

Talya is a part-time journalism master's student living in North Yorkshire.

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