Even if you are a master of the language and think, speak, sleep and eat English words, if you are from a country that does not recognise English as its national language, you will need to prove your abilities through the exam.
And bear in mind that being already fluent in the language will not guarantee you a high score; many native English speakers, taking their fluency for granted, go in for these exams unprepared and then are shocked to see how badly they perform.
The best way to protect against low scores? Understand the test format. Correct preparation will save you time and money as well as a considerable amount of stress and disappointment.
To help you along, Study International has decoded the IELTS, the most popular English language proficiency test, for you.
Before we proceed, however, it is important that you know you could also take the Cambridge English: Advanced, TOEFL examination or a number of other language proficiency tests. Just be sure to look at your prospective university’s regulations to see what they will accept before booking an English language proficiency exam.
If you decide on the IELTS, read on for tips on preparing for the crucial exam.
Understanding the IELTS format
There are two different versions of the IELTS test: the IELTS Academic and IELTS Training, so do make sure that you enter yourself for the correct one.
You should register for the IELTS Academic if you are entering for higher education purposes; although both versions are graded in the same way, the Academic one is designed for students.
There are four parts to the test:
Generally, you will take the sections in the above order on the same day. However, you may be required to take the speaking section one week prior to your exam or one week following it, depending on local arrangements.
Be aware there are no breaks during the test and since it lasts 2 hours and 45 minutes, you want to come prepared to sit and concentrate for a long while. Your timings are divided into: listening (30 minutes), reading (60 minutes), writing (60 minutes) and speaking (11–14 minutes).
Expect to hear a range of accents from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and North America in the listening test.
How else to prepare
It is important to understand the different types of questions you could be asked in each part of the test. To familiarise yourself with the style, have a go at the many IELTS practice test papers and answers you can find online and once you are used to the structure, take them under timed conditions.
You may also want to buy self-study books and materials to help you along the way.
The week before
Check the start time and location on your booking confirmation and remember the address of the test location may be different to the test centre where you booked your test. Ensure you know exactly how to get there and how long it will take you – do a practice run if you can, it will make you feel calmer about the journey.
Ready what you need for the exam. On your booking confirmation, it should say what you will be required to bring which is likely to be a specific form of ID and two recent identical passport-sized photographs.
Read the full details of your exam and what you need to do and bring with you on your booking confirmation email. If in doubt, contact the test centre.
On the day
Before you leave check and check again that you have the correct ID as the wrong ID means no test. It goes without saying as well you should make sure you arrive in good time as you risk being turned away if you are late.
No food will be allowed in the test room so be sure you are well-fed beforehand. You need ‘brain food’ to ensure you are alert and focused on the test and not on what you’re going to have for lunch. You will be allowed one transparent water bottle on your desk.
Upon arrival, your identity will be checked, and it is likely you will either have to hand over the passport photographs or have your photograph taken at the test centre.
Switch off your mobile phone when you arrive and, when asked, place it with the rest of your belongings outside the examination room.
During the exam
Along with your water bottle, on your desk you will be allowed one pen or pencil, one eraser, and your ID.
So as not to disturb other candidates, if you have a query or need to go to the bathroom silently raise your hand to alert an invigilator.
It is extremely important for the listening part of the test you ensure you can hear well and if you cannot, let an invigilator know immediately.
Remember, unlike every other section of the test where you must answer as you go, you will have 10 minutes after the listening part of the test is over to fill out the answer sheet.
After the test
Do not get up to leave until you are instructed to do so by an invigilator. Once you are out of the test room you can begin talking as there is no risk of disturbing other examinees.
If there were problems which may have affected your performance, inform an invigilator immediately and if you have complaints for any reason, ensure you make them within one week via a ‘Test Day Incident Form’ which your invigilator will provide.
Your results will be available 13 days after you complete the test and you will receive these either by post or you can arrange to pick them up in person from the test centre.
You will receive one copy of your results unless you are applying to Citizenship and Immigration Canada in which case you will receive two copies.
Don’t forget you can download our guide in PDF format here.
**All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change so always ensure you check with your university and the Australian embassy if in doubt.