Charted: IELTS' rise in popularity (and how female candidates do better)
Female candidates score higher than male candidates on average. Source: Shutterstock

IELTS are five letters that mean a lot to international students. Standing for the International English Language Testing System, it’s a popular entrance exam foreigners must take to show English language competence when applying to higher education institutions or for visa and citizenship purposes.

In 2018, the number of tests grew to a record 3.5 million. The chart below shows how it has more than doubled in the past 10 years. What has caused this exponential surge in popularity?

This record-breaking feat is due to several factors; a large part can be credited to its increased acceptance at universities and colleges across the English-speaking world. Its closest competitor, TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), assess English language competence as well, but is more commonly accepted by American and Canadian schools. IELTS is more commonly accepted in Britain, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa.

The test is divided into four parts: listening, reading, writing and speaking skills, and candidates are scored on a banded system from 1 (non-user) through to 9 (expert user).

“The internationalisation of higher education and an increasingly mobile international workforce migration continues to drive demand for IELTS,” said the British Council, which jointly owns IELTS with IDP, IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English, in a statement.

Wide availability – over 1,200 test centres in more than 140 countries and territories – and a switch to a computer-delivered format rolled out globally also contributed to its rise in popularity.

James Shipton, Head IELTS, British Council, said: “3.5 million tests taken last year is a testament to the ongoing value and trust placed in IELTS by our partners and test takers around the world. IELTS continues to provide a gateway for people to fulfil their aspirations and behind these test numbers are the personal stories of test takers who have gained entrance to their target university, of individuals who have been able to kickstart their career, and of others who have been able to make their dream move to a life in a new country.”

According to IELTS’s Test Taker Performance 2017, the majority of tests taken are for academic (78.10 percent) compared to General Training (21.9 percent) purposes. Among Academic test takers, female candidates tend to do better.

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