The IELTS, or the International English Language Testing System, is one of the premier English language proficiency exams in the world. According to IELTS, “it is the most popular high stakes English-language test for study, work and migration, with more than 2 million tests taken in the last year.” Developed by leading experts in the field of language assessment, it has an excellent reputation and is accepted by over 9,000 organizations, schools, government agencies, and companies worldwide. IELTS is owned by the British Council, IDP, IELTS Australia, and Cambridge English Language Assessment.
Readily accessible worldwide, students can sit for the IELTS exam in over 140 countries. The IELTS is unique in its format, as it provides assessment in four categories: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The speaking portion is done in a one-on-one setting with an IELTS score taker. The test accepts both American and British writing styles and incorporates native-speaker accents from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, and UK in the listening portion. Before registering, download the IELTS’ Information for Candidate’s Booklet and get more familiar with the test format.
There are two versions of the exam: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Whether you are taking this exam for a school, university, company, or government entity, they should be able to inform you which exam you will need to complete. Generally universities and colleges require the IELTS Academic. Both exams are composed of the four parts, listening, speaking, writing, and reading, and both are assessed using IELTS’ unique 9-band grading scale, with a level 9 being an ‘expert user’ and 1 being a ‘non-user.’
The IELTS Format
The test is designed to reflect real-life situations that non-native English speakers may encounter while studying, working, or while conducting every day life. The exam begins with the listening portion and continues without break to the reading and writing portions. All three sections will be completed in one day at the testing center. The speaking part of the test will take place at the same testing center, but is scheduled within either seven days prior to or seven days after the rest of the exam. You will receive your results and score within 13 calendar days of sitting the IELTS.
It is important to note that during the test, you will take notes and answer questions on the Question Page, but will then have time to transfer your answers to the Answer Sheet at the end of each section. Nothing you write on the Question Sheet will be marked or assessed.
The listening portion of the exam will last thirty minutes. The 40 questions are a mixture of multiple choice, matching, plan/map/diagram, form completion, note completion, tables, flow-charts, summary and sentence completion, and short-answer questions.
There are four parts of the listening section. The first is a conversation between two people in an every-day situation. The second is a monologue, the third is a conversation between a group of four people engaged in an academic or training situation, and the fourth is another monologue, but one on an academic topic, like a university lecture.
The exam is designed to determine your understanding of main ideas and specific facts relayed in the conversations or monologues. It also wants to see that you understand the attitudes, opinions, and purposes of each speaker and that you are able to follow the flow of an argument.
Remember, each recording is played only once, but you will have time to read over the questions before the recordings begin playing. Take notes during the recordings and be aware that when answering the questions, spelling and grammar do matter.
The reading portion of the exam lasts sixty minutes. The 40 questions will be a mixture of multiple choice, true/false, matching information, matching headings, features, sentence endings, diagram and flow-chart completion, sentence and summary completion, and short answers.
There are three sections in the reading portion. Each text that is part of the exam is taken from real-life notices, advertisements, handbooks, official documents, books, magazines, or newspapers. The text topics are general interest, work-related, or academic in nature.
The excerpts may include tables or charts and if technical vocabulary is part of the text, a glossary will be included.
The assessment is based on how well you are able to read for main points and detail, understand inferences, recognize opinions and attitudes, and follow the development of an argument.
The writing portion of the exam lasts sixty minutes and is divided into two tasks, the first requiring a 150 word written response and the second requiring a 250 word written response.
The Academic Exam’s first question presents the candidate with a chart or graph and asks the candidate to summarize the information in his/her own words. The second question asks the candidate to write an essay in response to an argument or problem. The style of writing for the Academic test should be semi-formal, academic, and neutral.
The General Training exam’s first question presents the candidate with a situation and asks him/her to write a letter asking for further information or to offer explanation. The second question asks for an essay in response to a point of view. The writing style for the General Training test can be more personal and informal than the Academic exam.
You may write your answers with pen or pencil but do keep track of your word-count. Responses must be in complete sentences and bullet points will result in lost points. Spelling and grammar do matter and points will be taken off for errors.
There are some very helpful resources on the IELTS website, including sample questions and tests. You can purchase additional resources through the IELTS website or with another provider. Cambridge English Assessment also has some great preparation materials, including helpful tips for each exam section.
Essentially, there are three steps to your preparation:
- Improve your English. The best way to do this is watch BBC or CNN or other programs where you are sure that the grammar and syntax are correct. Read as much as you can, especially newspapers and magazines, and practice writing and speaking whenever you can. Some students may benefit from a formal preparation class, workshop, or book to help enhance their English skills and make them feel prepared.
- Understand the test. Take practice tests, read the specifications carefully, and get tips from students who have taken the test before.
- Relax. This test is not designed to trick you, but it will help you show off your hard work and English skills. When you take the exam, be sure to read each question carefully. Experts agree that the easiest way to loose points is to not follow the instructions.
This is a hugely popular test, one that is highly respected and widely accepted. Preparing and taking this exam will get you one step closer to realizing your dream of working, studying, or relocating to an English-speaking country.