Getting the score you need in the IELTS test is all about preparation.
It’s not the most difficult exam in the world by any means, testing your core skills in English reading, writing, listening and speaking.
But it does take some getting used to — even a “native” speaker would find it tricky if they weren’t prepared.
Trust me, I spent a few years teaching IELTS and decided to take the test myself before beginning. Let’s just say I didn’t do as well as I thought I would!
What caught me wasn’t the content of the test itself but the format and the scoring requirements. It’s imperative to get familiar with these elements.
The key ingredients to prepare for IELTS are actually pretty simple:
That’s it in a nutshell!
Part 1: General IELTS preparation tips
Part 2: Best IELTS preparation tips
There are two different IELTS papers.
As the names suggest, the academic one is for prospective international students, while the General Training one is used more for immigration and working purposes.
For IELTS General Training and Academic, the speaking and listening tests are the same. However, the reading and writing tests differ considerably, with more of a focus on academic English in the Academic paper.
Knowing what to expect and what’s expected of you is crucial, no matter how fluent your English may be.
We’ve already established that the IELTS test is divided into four sections (listening, reading, writing and speaking). In total it takes 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Let’s break that up, so you can know the IELTS format better:
40 questions total
40 questions total
i) reporting on data (minimum 150 words about a provided chart, graph or process etc.)
ii) essay on a given topic (minimum 250 words)
10-15 minutes (speaking with an examiner)
And here’s a look at how it’s scored...
Each section is graded according to a nine-band scale, i.e. a score from 0-9 is given, including .5 scores (for example, you can score a 7.5).
It’s worth noting that your overall test score is calculated to the nearest .5, so a 6.1 becomes a 6, a 7.25 becomes a 7.5 etc.
Naturally, your overall test score (or band) amounts to the average band of the four sections.
Generally, an overall band of at least six is required to be accepted into most universities.
But let’s take a look at how each specific section is graded:
IELTS Listening grading process
The IELTS Listening test consists of 40 questions, with one mark for each correct answer. Your score out of 40 is converted to the IELTS 9-band scale. Here’s an estimated guide to how many right questions are needed for each band:
Band 5: approx 16 out of 40
Band 6: approx 23
Band 7: approx 30
Band 8: approx 35
Band 9: 36+
IELTS Reading grading process
The reading test also has 40 questions; each correct answer gets one mark. Just like the listening test, your score out of 40 is converted to the nine-band scale. The estimated guide for a score - the band, is the same as above.
IELTS Writing grading process
Your writing section is scored according to the following four criteria:
For each of these criteria, you’re scored between 0 and 9, with the average becoming your score for this section.
IELTS Speaking grading process
The speaking section is scored according to four slightly different criteria:
Again, you’re scored between 0 and 9 for each of these criteria, with the overall average your total section score.
Get started on your IELTS prep at least eight weeks before your test.
Some people recommend that six weeks is enough time to get ready, but it’s best to stay on the safe side here.
With four sections to prepare for, about 10 to 14 days for each should give you enough time to identify your strengths, address your weaknesses, and work on practice questions (more on that below).
By drawing up a schedule and sticking to it, you’ll save so much time and get a lot more done.
We’d recommend scheduling an hour or two each day for the first week, then ramping up the intensity for the next couple of weeks. In the final week before your exam, you can lighten the schedule again, just spending an hour or less fine-tuning your skills.
It’s essential to have this period of “tapering off” to allow your mind to settle down a little and help you relax ahead of exam day.
At least one reputable study guidebook will be a tremendous help to you in preparing for your test.
The right book will have example questions and answers for you to work on and handy tips and tricks to improve your studying.
Lucky for you, we’ve written an entire article on the Top 12 best IELTS preparation books for international students in 2021.
Working your way through sample questions every day is excellent, but there’s no replacement for actually sitting a “mock exam”, where you can work to the exact format and time limit that’ll be in place on test day.
Every week or two, try to put yourself under the same pressure and constraints that you’ll have on the day of your exam. This will help familiarise you with the test experience, so you can alleviate the stress on the day itself, as well as allowing you to polish your skills.
This is huge. In the listening exam, it would be unwise just to sit back and listen to the audio recordings as you might forget some essential information!
Taking notes so that you can remind yourself of the answers is a great tool.
But note-taking is a skill you have to develop since we can’t write in detail and listen with focus at the same time.
Here’s a little trick for you, which I wrote in an earlier guide for TOEFL preparation: Keyword notes.
Here’s an example. The sentence, “My name is Sean, I’m thirty years old, and I’m from Ireland,” has 12 words, and it took me at least 10 seconds to write, yet just 3 seconds to say!
But what’s the key information? Sean, thirty, Ireland. Make it even shorter in your notes: Sean, 30, Ire.
By only making a note of the vital information, you can piece the rest together logically in your head.
Start by listening to simple audio clips on YouTube or elsewhere. Practice taking down the key info while making sure that you still understand the clip at large. Try to use these notes to piece together the story or clip again when you’re done listening.
You can even take notes in your language if it’s easier for you! As you practise more, increase the difficulty level and see how you do.
Know that you don’t have to understand every word
One of the main tasks in reading comprehension is understanding meaning without understanding every word.
Think of it like this: do you understand every single term you read in your first language?
Probably not — I certainly don’t! But it doesn’t stop you from understanding most articles or stories you read, right?
Your IELTS reading test often contains deliberately tricky words, but don’t let these alarm you.
When you’re studying or doing a sample question, see if you can still figure out the overall meaning of a sentence based on:
a) the other words
b) the overall context
When you’re done, then you can reach for the dictionary to check its meaning!
Talk to yourself (or somebody else if they’re around)
When it comes to speaking any language, there’s no better way than just doing it. We all make minor mistakes when we talk, even native speakers, but the difference is that they tend not to dwell on those little things.
With that in mind, think out loud in English!
This will allow you to become comfortable with the language, which comes across strongly when an examiner considers how fluent you are.
On top of this, whatever you do, DON’T memorise complete answers!
Even though there are often similarities in the types of questions, you’ll be asked, trying to memorise a whole “speech” is a dangerous game.
Firstly, you could forget it! Secondly, the questions could have a different emphasis meaning that everything you might say is, well… pointless.
And finally, when we memorise something to the last word, we often sound robotic!
Remember, the speaking section is about conversation, understanding and communication.
Practice timed writing
I mentioned this above when talking about doing practice exams, but it’s worth remembering here too.
In my teaching days, it always broke my heart to see intelligent students handing in an unfinished essay because they didn’t manage their time effectively!
Try to get used to structuring your time within the limit.
Use a couple of minutes to prepare your answer, most of your time to write it, and a couple of minutes to re-read and make any corrections.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a lot more about how to prepare for your IELTS exam here. Now maybe it’s time to start looking for the perfect university and course to study abroad?
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