What to expect in the IELTS Exam
In this tutorial you will:
- learn about the test conditions
- see how best to prepare for the exam
- become aware of the need for quality feedback
- realise the importance of timing in each exam section
- discover how vital the ability to paraphrase is
This will help you to:
- make critical decisions on how to study for IELTS Exam
- with effort and guidance, obtain a high IELTS band score
The IELTS Exam
The world’s leading test of English language proficiency, IELTS is not difficult in itself. The IELTS full form is the International English Language Testing System and in less than 3 hours, it assesses your abilities in listening, reading, writing and speaking. The exam conditions, including the length and format of each part of the IELTS syllabus, the types of questions and tasks included, the methodology used to correct the test and so on, are standardized. That simply means that the same conditions apply to everyone who takes the test and the types of questions in each section are predictable. You can trust it. IELTS materials, including practice tests, are abundant.
Is IELTS easy? Well, nothing worth doing is ever easy but we are here to help. The best advice practically writes itself. Here’s a brief checklist:
- become very familiar with the format of each part of the test
- know what types of questions are asked in each part and what skills they are assessing
- know your strengths and weaknesses in the skills being tested and work on those weak points
- prepare a coherent study plan and keep to it
- for reading and listening practice by doing IELTS tests and, especially as the test date gets closer, under exam conditions
- check your progress, ideally by seeking expert feedback and advice. Take a look at our IELTS Writing Evaluation online for more information.
How to get a good IELTS score
Test results indicate that average IELTS band scores are somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5, equivalent to a B2 CEFR level, that is, an independent language user more than capable of understanding and being understood in most contexts with little difficulty. It’s a score that would guarantee a university or college place for many students who require IELTS for entry. But it’s average all the same.
So, what does it take to obtain an overall band 7.0 or, even better, an 8.0? Is it simply a question of preparation and practice, acquiring more vocabulary and being both fluent and accurate in writing and speech and working systematically on improving our listening and reading skills? Well, yes, of course it is. And perhaps the question is not “how difficult is IELTS?” but “why do exam takers make IELTS difficult for themselves?” Let’s look at the main reasons why your IELTS score may not be as good as it should be.
Preparation time is a serious topic. Without this, you can find yourself taking IELTS again and again and again. Not only is this costly because you have to pay the IELTS exam fee every time, but it can be very depressing and frustrating. Whether completing the IELTS exam is easy or hard for you, good preparation is always important. Many problems can be overcome by a schedule and following these guidelines.
Exam Time Management
Every time you do an IELTS sample exam paper, you need to make sure you stick strictly to time. There are four tests in less than three hours when you take IELTS, meaning you need to stay focused. Although the speaking test is invariably on a different day, the other three parts come one after the other on the same day with very short breaks in between, a total of two hours and forty-five minutes! Add to that the number of questions you have to answer, the length of the reading texts, and the strict and possibly severe time limits you face to complete the writing tasks, all of these and more add up to several dangers:
- lack of focus and lapses of concentration. Leading you to miss out on questions in listening and maybe reading too
- lack of time to prepare for the writing tasks
- in the speaking test, and being unable to speak in Part 2 for the full 2 minutes without unnecessary repetitions.
IELTS Listening Section
How tough is IELTS listening? As each part of the test is different, it’s important to know exactly what you need to do. In IELTS Listening, where you have 30 minutes to answer 40 questions on 4 listening tasks, what might be challenging are the facts that:-
- You only hear recordings once
- The sections are progressively more difficult in terms of complexity and the types of questions
- They follow each other in quick succession.
- Concentration becomes an issue, possibly leading to leaving your answers to some questions blank
This means that in the listening test, time is apparently in control. Our only choice is to keep up with it and focus and apply the following strategies:-
- Use the time before each section to read the questions carefully
- Try to answer all the questions but if you miss one, don’t panic
- Make time at the end to check for any avoidable errors such as spelling
IELTS Reading Section
How hard is IELTS reading? Well, in the IELTS Reading test, where again we have 40 questions but 60 minutes to answer them, the time factor is simply that the texts are too long to be “read”. You can’t read everything. You need to apply the right reading strategies from the beginning of your IELTS preparation right through to exam day. These include:
- Make a checklist of the range of question types. Which do you find trickier?
- Practice as much as possible reading for gist (skimming) and reading for details (scanning)
- Always work from the questions (what you have to do, what you are looking for) to the text. This will help you save time.
- Build up your reading speed by taking on longer texts for the same time and/or reducing the time spent on each reading
- Use underlining to help you identify relevant parts of the text
- Do not worry about words you may not understand. Try to see them in context, in the bigger picture.
IELTS Writing Section
For many, IELTS Writing is the hardest part of IELTS. With some differences between the Academic and General Training versions, it has two parts:
- Task 1: either a description and interpretation of some visual data (pie chart or charts, line graph or graphs) or a letter on a given subject
- Task 2: an argumentative essay on a given topic
Two tasks in 60 minutes with one-third of that devoted to Task 1 and the remaining 40 minutes to Task 2. Many find this extremely challenging. But, the key is to be in strict control of the timing in each part and this can be achieved through practice and helpful feedback. For example:
- Task 1: 5 minutes to read the question (the context and tasks if it’s the GT letter; the graphic data and its most important information and interpretation for the Academic version)
- 10-12 minutes writing, using knowledge and skills acquired in IELTS preparation, ensuring that you include an overview and have described and compared all the relevant details.
- 2- 3 minutes to check over, paying particular attention to correcting any avoidable errors such as verb tenses, subject-verb concordance and spelling.
- Task 2: 5-8 minutes to work out an essay plan and structure. If, for example, you are asked to discuss both sides of an argument and give your own opinion, make a list of around 3 or 4 “for” and “against” points. Include an example or two from knowledge or personal experience.
- 25-30 minutes to write.
- 5-8 minutes to check.
IELTS Speaking Section
Finally, IELTS Speaking appears to be like Listening because you don’t have any real control over time. The examiner engages you in conversation and you have very little or no time to “think”, except of course in Part 2 when you talk about a topic for 2 minutes and you have a precious one minute to prepare after receiving your cue card which will look something like this: Describe the person in your family who you most admire. You should say:
- what his/her relationship is to you
- what s/he has done in your life
- what s/he does now
and explain why you admire this person so much. You would be amazed by the number of IELTS candidates that spend the 60 seconds of preparation time writing hardly anything at all on the note paper provided. The important point is to use these precious seconds to plan your answer. Whether you think the question you get on the day is easy or tough, once you start thinking about it, there will be lots of different phrases you can use. We always tell our students, the trick is to write down the less common or more complex phrases you know as part of your preparation. For example – instead of ‘nice helpful person’ write, ‘very sympathetic/empathetic individual, can’t do enough for people’.
The easiest way is to follow the 4 cues you already have and note down useful vocabulary to use in each part. By “useful”, I don’t mean the obvious sequence of, shall we say, “father, helped me, good advice, old now, retired” but something more substantial. Remember that one of the keys to success in IELTS is to show that you have a rich and varied vocabulary. Here is one opportunity to show that. This is only an example but try it out yourself with this and other Speaking topics:-
- Introduction: family is precious to me/society based on family structure/culture
- I most admire: my father: key person in family; maintains it
- Guided me and my siblings; support and advice in career + personal life
- Showed me path to take but never forced me, left final decisions to me
- Helping hand also to many others: neighbours, colleagues
- Now retired; pursues favourite hobbies (gardening and photography)
- But still there for all of us
- For me an inspiration; lucky to have him.
Perhaps these notes are too much to ask in one minute but, believe me, it is worth the effort. Start using that one minute to your advantage. You will see the benefits. The mention of the importance of vocabulary brings us to the second way to make what seems difficult, easy or easier in the IELTS test.
Vocabulary and Paraphrasing
The second aspect to think about applies to the entire exam but let’s look at a specific example from a listening test. It refers to paraphrasing, that is, different ways to express the same idea. The most important tip you will ever get about the IELTS exam is that both in listening and reading, the answer is right there in what was said or what was written. Much of IELTS is in fact based on the notion of paraphrasing, of saying the same thing in different ways. Your ability to recognise this feature in the listening and reading tests and to be able to make use of paraphrasing in writing and speaking is the key to obtaining a high score.
Look at this from Section 3 of a practice Listening Test: Question 21: Why is Jack interested in studying seed germination?
- He may do a module on a related topic later on
- He wants to have a career in plant science
- He is thinking of choosing this topic for his dissertation
Now, look at the script:
Emma: We’ve got to choose a topic for our experiment, haven’t we Jack? Were you thinking of doing something with seeds?
Jack: That’s right – I thought we could look at seed germination – how a seed begins to grow.
Emma: OK. Any particular reason? I know you’re hoping to work in plant science eventually.
Jack: Yeah, but practically everything we do will feed into that. No, there’s an optional module on seed structure and function in the third year that I might do so I thought it might be useful for that. If I do that option, I don’t have to do a dissertation module.
Emma: Good idea.
He may do ….I might do; a topic on a related topic later on…an optional module on seed structure and function in the third year.
So, why is Jack interested in seed germination? …because “it might be useful for that” (that is, the third-year optional module). All a simple question of saying something in more than one way. Added to that of course, we see questions that intend to distract our attention.
Paraphrasing is also there: “wants to have a career in plant science” …”is hoping to work in plant science eventually”, true, but Jack points out that “everything” will “feed into that”, not just this one module. And if he does the other course in the third year, then a dissertation won’t be necessary.
So, how difficult is IELTS?
There’s no easy answer because every student has their own strengths and weaknesses. A better question might be, how difficult is it to find the right materials and support? Remember that a high IELTS score requires a good deal of personal effort and help and advice from experts to help you plan and prepare for the exam.
Just googling ‘what is IELTS exam?’ or ‘is IELTS hard?’ (or, as one of our students once typed, ‘ILETS’!) is missing the point. There are many factors involved and the way we use the time to our advantage and our awareness and knowledge of paraphrasing are just two things that help you to achieve the band score you need.
You can download or listen to the audio version here: