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How to prepare for the IELTS exam

Sean Campbell
Last Updated: 8 September 2021 • 10 min read

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: 

  • Understanding the format
  • The score requirements
  • Specific skills building
  • Practice

That’s it in a nutshell!

So let’s go into these things in more detail so that you can know the best way to prepare for your IELTS exam

Part 1: General IELTS preparation tips

  1. Know your test - General Training or Academic?
  2. Get familiar with the IELTS format & grading process.

Part 2: Best IELTS preparation tips

  1. Make an early start
  2. Create a study routine
  3. Invest in a good study guide
  4. Complete practice tests (as well as sample questions)

Part 3: Best IELTS preparation tips for each section

  1. Practice note-taking, IELTS listening
  2. Know that you don’t have to understand every word, IELTS reading
  3. Talk to yourself (or somebody else if they’re around), IELTS speaking
  4. Practice timed writing, IELTS writing

General IELTS preparation tips 

1. Know your test — General Training or Academic?

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. 

2. Get familiar with the IELTS format & know the grading process.

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: 

IELTS Listening

30 minutes

Four sections

40 questions total

IELTS Reading

1 hour

Three sections

40 questions total

IELTS Writing

1 hour

Two tasks: 

i) reporting on data (minimum 150 words about a provided chart, graph or process etc.)

ii) essay on a given topic (minimum 250 words)

IELTS Speaking

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: 

 
  • Task achievement (did you complete the task?)
  • Coherence & cohesion (is your writing understandable?)
  • Lexical resource (how useful, impressive and appropriate is your vocab?)
  • Grammatical range & accuracy (how good [and versatile] is your use of grammar?
 

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:

 
  • Fluency
  • Pronunciation
  • Lexical resource
  • Grammatical range & accuracy
 

Again, you’re scored between 0 and 9 for each of these criteria, with the overall average your total section score. 

OK, now that you know what to expect with your exam, let’s have a look at some of the best IELTS preparation tips!

1. Make an early start

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).

2. Create a study routine

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.  

3. Invest in a good study guide 

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. 

4. Complete practice tests (as well as sample questions)

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. 

Now, let’s get into some of the best ways to prepare for your IELTS test by developing your skills for each section.

1. Our top tip for preparing for IELTS listening

  • Practice note-taking

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. 

2. Our top tip to prepare for IELTS reading

  • 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! 

3. Our top tip to prepare for IELTS speaking

  • 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. 

4. Our top tip to prepare for IELTS writing

  • 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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Sean Campbell
Written By
Sean Campbell

Sean is a writer, copywriter & editor from Ireland.

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