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Everything You Need to Know About the IELTS Exam

The IELTS and other language tests are required for international students to attend university in English-speaking countries. Here's what you should know.

You may have just received your acceptance letter to your dream school and you’re over the moon! But wait, what’s this? You need to pass the IELTS exam as part of the admission requirements? What is the IELTS? The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is required by many universities as proof of English proficiency. Many tertiary institutions, governmental bodies, and private corporations also require people to take the test if they’re planning to study or work in countries like New Zealand, the US, Canada, or Australia. To help you prepare, here’s a rundown of what the exam entails and tips for taking it.

Understanding the IELTS exam

The best place to start with your exam preparation is to fully understand the test. There are two types of IELTS exams, so you’ll want to be sure that you’re preparing for the right exam.

The two types of IELTS exams

  • General Training IELTS: This test is needed to confirm language proficiency if you’re planning to immigrate to an English-speaking country.
  • Academic IELTS: This version is needed for admission to colleges or universities if you want to study at the undergraduate or postgraduate level or if you’ll work in a professional organization in the US, Canada, Australia, or the UK.

The format of the test

Before you start studying, it’s important to understand the format of the test. Both IELTS General Training and Academic exams have four sections: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The IELTS is as much about timing as it is about your English knowledge.

The test lasts for two hours and 45 minutes, and this is how your time will be split:

  • Listening portion (30 minutes + 10 minutes to transfer your answers): You’ll listen to four audio recordings, and each part has 10 questions for you to answer. You’ll only hear the audio once, so make sure you practice reading, writing, and listening all at the same time.
  • Reading portion (60 minutes): Both the Academic and General tests have 40 questions to answer in this section. The General Reading test has texts such as advertisements, job announcements, and staff descriptions that test your ability to cope with written communication in a professional environment or daily life. The Academic texts are taken from journals, scientific magazines, or books so they’re descriptive or factual and academic related.
  • Writing portion (60 minutes): This section requires you to accomplish two tasks. The General test’s task one requires you to write a letter in which you’ll be asked to write a complaint, request information, or explain a situation. However, the Academic test’s task one assessment will give you a diagram, such as a bar graph or table, that requires you to report on key features in 150 words. Task two for both tests requires you to write a 250-word essay. You’re advised to spend 40 of the 60 minutes on this task, as it counts for 66% of your final mark.
  • Speaking portion (11–14 minutes): This section consists of questions, speaking at length, and structured discussion. The speaking exam is divided into three parts. In part one, the examiner will ask you general, everyday questions about yourself, your family, and your interests. This lasts for four to five minutes. In part two, you’ll receive a prompt and will have one minute to prepare before you’re expected to speak about the topic for one to two minutes. Part three will give you an opportunity to further develop your answers from part two to show off your speaking skills. The examiner will ask open-ended questions relating to the topic you were given in part two of the exam. 

Related: 3 Essential Tips for IELTS Success

Tips to start your IELTS preparation

Now that you know all about the exam and how it’s formatted, here are some tips to help you get ready and do your best on test day.

Stick to the testing timeline

When preparing for your IELTS test, make sure you strictly keep to the test timings. If you’re working on Writing, do both tasks within the 60-minute time limit. If you’re practicing for the Speaking portion, time your answers to potential questions. If you’re improving on your Reading skills, practice skim reading for speed and detail. These skills will prepare you for the timings on the day of the test. If you don’t practice with the timings, the exam will be much more stressful.

Keep yourself on track with studying

Preparing for the exam is going to take work. There are many ways about it, so organize your study time daily. Create a schedule for your study periods and stick to it! Also give yourself plenty of time to do practice papers. Going into the exam without doing practice exams will lead to only one result, and it’s not a good one…

Be realistic and know your limits

Writing eight practice essays in a day is not realistic, and neither is learning all the vocabulary the night before the exam. Set yourself small goals to learn and prepare in manageable chunks. Portion your time between the different sections. Vary between Writing, Speaking, Listening, and Reading to keep your attention. Make sure your studying is focused on quality rather than quantity.

Know your learning style, then get creative

Are you a visual learner? Make flashcards, draw pictures, or use highlighters and bright colors. Are you a kinaesthetic (movement) learner? Learn vocab at the gym, go for a run with an IELTS Podcast, or stick Post-it Notes around your living space with key words to learn as you go about your daily life. Are you an auditory learner? Listen to IELTS Podcasts on your commute, try recording yourself speaking English and listen back, or learn vocabulary to music and rhymes.

Expose yourself to English

Read, write, listen, speak—repeat! IELTS preparation isn’t just studying from textbooks. Watch the English news, read newspapers and magazines, speak to a language partner, email, and message or text in English. The best thing to do (if you can) is to visit an English-speaking country! The more English you’re exposed to, the easier it will be to think in English and avoid the “my mind is drawing a blank” moments in the exam.

Look for the right help

There are endless resources on the IELTS exam, but not all are useful. Look for help that’s informed by IELTS examiners, teachers, and past exams and has thorough experience of the exam format. Basically, look for help that has proven results. If you’re looking at a website for IELTS prep, check for testimonials and credentials. Ask yourself what type of help you want. Can class-based support fit into your routine, or would online help meet your needs better? 

Related: 2 Easy Study Tips for Both Admission and Language Tests

The IELTS exam can be a daunting task for a lot of students, but it’s not impossible to tackle. Once you’re motivated to do it for the right reasons with the right support, you can ace the exam and go back to your full excitement of getting into your dream school. 

For more advice on English language tests and general test-taking tips, check out our Test Prep section.

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About Ben Worthington

Ben Worthington is originally from northern England, but for the past 15 years he’s been living abroad in a few different countries. As the founder of IELTS Podcast, Ben started his journey as an English educator in 2006, and his competitive nature and passion for results led him to focus specifically on IELTS students. This resulted in the creation of IELTS Podcast, a platform to help students improve their English to achieve their goals of studying abroad or immigrating for a better life. Ben and his team of teachers provide students with two tutorials a week, covering the Writing, Reading, Listening, and Speaking sections of the IELTS exam.



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