If you’re thinking about studying abroad in an English speaking country, chances are you’ve already come across the term ‘IELTS’. So, what exactly do these five little letters mean, and how do they affect your chance of studying overseas?

The International English Language Testing System is a universal way to determine your grasp of the English language if it’s not your native tongue. Universities in Australia, the USA, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Hong Kong and New Zealand require proof of a certain level of English proficiency before they can accept you to study as an international student.

An Overview of IELTS

IELTS is primarily used for education purposes, but it may also be required for professional or immigration reasons. The exam is offered in more than 130 countries and in over 1,000 testing locations across the world, making it fairly accessible for anyone who wishes to study abroad. In most cases, it is absolutely necessary to show proof of your IELTS score when applying to university programmes in English speaking countries.

There are two types of IELTS: the Academic and the General Training test. The format of each test varies slightly, so you’ll want to check with the univeristy to see which test they require.

The Academic IELTS is geared towards people who wish to study at an institution of higher education. If you’re planning on studying abroad, this is most likely to be the test you’ll need to take. It’s valid for both graduate and undergraduate programmes.

The General Training test is sometimes used when the person in question wishes to do a work-based training programme. If you’re looking to study in Australia, New Zealand or Canada, this is the test you’ll need to take.

The IELTS is scored on a scale of 1-9, 9 being the highest mark. Scores are rounded to the nearest half point, and are an equal average of the test’s four sections: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Most universities require that you score a minimum of 6 on the IELTS to be considered for admittance. Results of the test are valid for up to two years.

How to Register for the IELTS

Unfortunately, the IELTS can’t be taken on a drop-in basis; you’ll need to register prior to sitting the exam. This can be done in two ways; online, or in person. You’ll need to check the dates offered for the particular test you need (either Academic or General Training), and then fill out the application. You’ll need to bring the application and the test-taking fee to your nearest IELTS test centre – in some cases, you might be able to send them in by post. Once you’re fully registered, you can sit the test on the assigned day.

On testing day, when you go to sit the IELTS, be sure to carry your ID so you can prove it was you who registered. Keep in mind that nothing is allowed in the room with you except for a transparent water bottle. You’ll also want to be well fed and rested, because the test is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, without any breaks.

IELTS Breakdown

The IELTS is divided into four sections, corresponding to the four aspects of language learning: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.

The test begins with the listening section, which lasts 30 minutes. You’ll hear four varied recordings, encompassing a variety of accents and types of conversation. You’ll then need to fill out a series of questions in response to what you’ve just heard. Each conversation will only be played once.

The next section on the IELTS is reading, which lasts 60 minutes. This section is composed of authentic texts and exerpts from a variety of mediums: books, newspapers, magazines and journals. You’ll be asked to fill out 40 questions based on these readings.

The third section is writing, which is split into two modules. First, you’ll be asked to explain something you see in front of you- a chart or a diagram, for example. In the General Training test you’ll write a letter for this module instead. For the second module, you’ll need to respond to a given prompt, showcasing your ability to provide opinions and develop sound arguments in English.

The final section is speaking, which can be completed any time from a week before to a week after the test. You also have the option to complete it on the same day as the other three sections; these details will be worked out when you register. For the speaking section, you’ll need to do a series of recordings that will total between 11 and 14 minutes. You’ll be asked to speak about four different topics, sometimes answering questions, and other times elaborating on your own opinions.

After the Test

Your IELTS results should be posted within 13 days of completing the test. You’ll then need to send your results to the university where you wish to study, and they will consider your completed application. Good luck!

Image via Shutterstock.

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