Study for the IELTS with these 10 tips
Study for the IELTS with these 10 tips
The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is the most popular English language exam in the world right now. From universities to immigration departments, government agencies to multinational companies, over 10,000 organizations worldwide require people learning English as a second language to prove their abilities against the IELTS’ demanding criteria.
It’s not an easy test. As well as being able to communicate effectively in English, you’ll need to master a lot of strategic test-taking techniques. But achieving the IELTS score you need doesn’t have to be a frustrating experience! Here are 10 actionable ways to prepare for success, complete with plenty of links for places to find support.
1. Understand exactly what you’re signing up for
Taking an IELTS is like finding a job — just because a lot of people you know have done it, doesn’t mean it’s not difficult and time-consuming. You need to do some research before you book the test. Our article explaining the difference between the IELTS and TOEFL exams gives a detailed overview of what they include. You could also look at the official overview of the test format. Besides that, you should consider:
- Do I want to do the computer-based or paper-based version of the IELTS? There’s very little difference between the two versions. Both are taken in an examination center. Some people prefer the paper version so they don’t have to contend with an unfamiliar keyboard layout, others feel that selecting answers questions is faster by computer.
- Do I need to do the IELTS Academic or the IELTS General Training? The IELTS Academic is for people applying to study an English-language course, and IELTS General Training is for people who need everyday English skills for work or migration purposes. They are pretty much the same format, but the IELTS Academic uses more scholarly texts, whereas the IELTS General Training focuses on language used in daily life, like newspaper articles and emails. Note: if you’re immigrating to the UK, you’ll need to take a third type of IELTS called the UKVI IELTS.
- How long will I need to study to achieve a good IELTS score? First: determine what IELTS score you need. In general, most organizations require something between a 6 and a 7, which is between a B2 and a C1 on the CEFR scale.If you know your CEFR level, you can estimate the score you’re likely to achieve in the IELTS without too much difficulty. This will help you estimate how long it would take to improve your IELTS score. According to IELTS Advantage, “Most English schools recommend at least 6 months to improve a student’s level of English by the equivalent of 0.5 — 1 band score.” That means, if you’re not conversationally fluent in English yet, you should work on your general English language skills before starting test preparation.
Action item: spend an hour or two getting an overview of the exam: its structure, the test-taking procedure, the skills you’ll need to develop. If you can, call a friend who has recently taken it. Consider how much time you will need to study in order to get the grade you need, and book your test a realistic amount of time in the future.
Want free study tips from exam tutors? Read our English Exam Study Guide
2. Learn the grading criteria inside out
The secret to nailing any test is understanding what a great answer looks like. The IELTS assessment criteria are your best friend, and should be the blueprint for all of your answers! These are the rules used to measure your success. You need to learn them thoroughly to make sure you’re ticking every box to achieve the grade you need. This is especially important with speaking and writing test, where your answers are judged on fairly subjective factors. You can also take a look at some example answers online, but make sure they are from trustworthy sources. The IELTS exam boards’ own websites and official textbooks are a great place to start.
Bear in mind: one of the most unusual things about this test is that you are expected to get quite a lot wrong! People who need to achieve a band 4 score take the same exam as those who need to achieve a band 8. Part of learning about the grading criteria is learning how many questions you can afford to get wrong. For example, if you’re trying to achieve a band 6 in the academic reading test, you only need to gain 23 correct answers out of 40. Pretty reassuring!
Action item: print off a sample answer sheet which has achieved the grade you’re aiming for, and go through it. For maximum effect, do this exercise with an IELTS specialist tutor to check that all of your connections are correct.
3. Make the most of official resources
Preparing students for the IELTS is a huge industry. There are a lot of courses, textbooks, apps and programs available to help learners prepare, and it can be difficult at first to see which ones are worth your energy — and even which ones are trustworthy. As a general rule, don’t rush into spending money on tools you don’t need.
Your first port of call should always be the official IELTS practice materials on the exam boards’ websites, social media channels and textbooks. After all, no one knows the exam as well as the exam board itself. Here’s where to start:
- IELTS official sample papers
- More IELTS official sample papers
- IELTS free preparation courses and materials from the British Council
- IELTS videos and tips
- IELTS official Facebook page
- Official (free) IELTS apps
- A list of official textbooks
- Official IELTS progress check
- IELTS official Facebook page
- IELTS information publication
Action item: Create a bookmarks folder in your web browser with the key official resources. Follow IELTS official on social media for the latest updates.
4. Check out some specialist blogs and YouTube channels
There are plenty of YouTube channels, podcasts, blogs and Facebook pages from experts (and “experts”) discussing IELTS technique. Many of them are a goldmine of insights!
Of course, you should be wary of trusting unofficial sources too much. Remember that the IELTS is adapted and changed pretty much every year. If a blog post or YouTube video is more than a few years old, it’s probably out of date. That said, unofficial online communities will give you insights that the exam board won’t, including the perspective of fellow test-takers!
Unofficial free IELTS resources
- IELTS Liz is a blogger who writes for test-takers aiming for the higher IELTS bands — 7 and above. She even predicts which topics might come up based on what was on last year’s tests… but of course, nothing is guaranteed to come up, so take this with a pinch of salt.
- Fastrack IELTS is a YouTube channel run by Asiya, who successfully achieved an 8.5 in the IELTS herself to relocate to London. She shares detailed tips that helped her achieve it, and insights about the format of the test.
- IELTS Reddit thread is an active forum for test takers.
- IELTS Full Course 2020 a free YouTube course
- All Ears English is a podcast made for IELTS takers.
- IELTS podcast is another one, and also has a blog with tips.
- HowToDoIELTS Facebook group.
Action item: seek out IELTS-based content in online communities you already use. Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Spotify, YouTube — exam preppers hang out everywhere there’s WiFi!
5. Find a personal tutor
There’s a lot to consider when preparing for the IELTS. If you can, taking online lessons with an IELTS specialist tutor will save you a lot of time and energy. Find a friendly expert through Preply, and you won’t be struggling through textbooks alone, trying to piece together reliable tips from various blogs and Reddit threads. You’ll have personalized advice from a professional who has coached dozens of students to IELTS success!
Your tutor will mark your practice exams, and help you decide which sections to focus on. They’ll also root for you to pass, and offer you encouragement and moral support: don’t underestimate how motivating this can be.
On Preply, an IELTS specialist tutor is less expensive than you think. They might even save you money in the long run — a few sessions with a great coach could make the difference between needing to retake and not!
Action item: browse Preply’s tutor list for IELTS experts and check whether there’s a tutor to suit your budget and schedule.
6. Take more practice tests than you think you need to
Every test is a set of skills to master in itself, and the IELTS is an especially tricky set of skills. Test-taking should become a regular part of your study routine, long before you feel completely prepared.
There are some skills you’ll need for the IELTS that only practice tests can improve. According to Asiya of Fasttrack IELTS, “In my opinion, the biggest challenge of the IELTS exam is time pressure.” There’s a lot to cover in those 2½ hours, and you’ll need to learn to work quickly and strategically. For example, in the first writing task, you’ll need to spend about 20 minutes writing about 150 words. Only experience can tell you what writing 150 words in 20 minutes looks and feels like.
It’s not just the writing section of the test where a high score requires practice. According to Kaplan, “Multitasking is key for the listening section of the exam. You need to be able to listen while answering questions and making notes.” Attempting some IELTS listening tests will help you develop this skill.
Try to take at least one of each skill test per week in the run up to the test. Regularly attempting all sections will help you perfect your pacing and strategy. If you can, ask a tutor to mark your exam papers, and talk through any weaknesses you could work on.
Action item: find a large supply of tests for the exam board you want to study, and fit practice tests into your study plan.
7. Create a study schedule (and stick to it!)
Your test will come around fast, no matter how far in advance you book it! A game plan is absolutely essential for meeting your goals. Decide how much time you can commit to studying and block out those times in your calendar. Some tutors recommend studying four or five hours per day for the TOEFL, others a minimum of five hours per week.
Unsure how much time you can or should commit to the textbooks to achieve the results you need? Book a session with a specialist tutor to talk it through before you book a test. They will be able to advise you on a realistic preparation schedule, which will save you money and energy in the long run and help you plan for success.
You should try to divide your time roughly equally for the four segments of the test— after all, they all carry the same amount of marks! The British Council has a one-month study plan which divides every week into a different skill on the test.
Action item: look at the times in your daily routine where you could fit in some studying. For example, you might schedule flashcards in the morning with breakfast and half an hour of listening or writing practice after work. Treat your study slots as meetings you’ve booked with yourself.
Schedule your time with this free language learning study planner!
8. Immerse yourself in English as much as possible
So far, we’ve talked a lot about strategies to deal with the test itself. But it’s a test of English language skills after all, so improving your English fast should be high on your agenda! If you’re aiming for a 6 or a 7 in the IELTS, the chances are your English is already very good, and you’re just looking to gain some more vocabulary and polish your syntax a little.
It’s a good idea to spend as much of your daily life thinking in English as possible. You could try:
- Calling English-speaking friends or family a couple of times per week to practice casual conversation
- Hanging out with more English speakers, online or in person
- Gaming in English (preferably with a headset, talking to English speakers)
- Watching English language movies and TV shows
- Reading in English
- Doing some language exchanges
- Listening to podcasts in English
- Finding great English language YouTubers
- Switching your phone settings to English
- Reading the news in English
- Using some English language apps
Many of the most effective ways to speak English fluently aren’t actually about studying at all, but exposing yourself to the language until things start to feel natural.
Action item: find some creative ways to fit English into your daily routine. Try to combine study methods with passive methods.
9. Expand your vocabulary
As every language learner knows, growing a big juicy vocabulary is often the biggest obstacle to overcome when progressing from intermediate to advanced level. Improving your vocabulary can also help you level up across every skill of the IELTS. Vocabulary makes up 25% of the marks in the speaking and writing sections, and will also play a significant role in your ability to tackle the reading and listening sections. For advice on how to improve your overall vocabulary, check our article on how to learn more English words.
Some students try to guess what kind of vocabulary is likely to come up in the IELTS, and focus their efforts on that. This is a risky strategy, and the exam board implicitly advises against it. After all, the whole point of a test is that you don’t know what questions will be asked! However, some topics do seem to come up more often than others. According to IELTS Advantage, there are around 10 general topics that come up more than others. On blogs like HowToDoIELTS, for instance, test-takers submit recent question topics to help other learners. IELTS Liz makes predictions for question topics she believes are likely to be on the paper. You might spot patterns yourself after doing plenty of practice tests!
The key thing with all topic predictions is to not rely on them. The only certain thing is that the vocabulary will be different whether you’re taking the IELTS Academic or the IELTS General Training. Depending on which version you’re taking, you should roughly focus on either academic English media (ie. journal articles, textbooks) or English for daily use (ie. newspapers, magazines and business websites).
Action item: if you don’t have one already, get a notebook for new English words that you come across while reading, listening to or watching English media. Try to keep it with you all the time you’re studying — every new word helps! Every few days, transfer the best, most useful words into a flashcard app, for you to quickly review on-the-go.
10. Have a plan for test day
The really daunting thing about any test: no matter how much preparation you do beforehand, to a certain extent, it will come down to how you feel on the day. You need to be in the perfect headspace to tackle an exam. All of the general advice for managing the logistics before an exam that you will remember from school still apply:
- How are you getting to the examination center? Do a test run if you can, to make sure that you can be there early!
- What do you need to bring? Definitely bring your ID — it must be the same ID that you provided on your IELTS Application form. You might also want to bring a water bottle, and something to snack on right before the test. Remember that you are not allowed to bring a watch!
- Will you look at notes right before the test? Or take a few moments to breathe?
- What will you eat and drink before the test? A big breakfast to keep you going? Or something light so you don’t feel too heavy?
- Will you drink more caffeine than usual? Or something to calm you down? Consider that you might need to leave the exam hall to go to the toilet if you drink too much coffee.
- What will you wear? You need to be comfortable and not too hot or cold. Remember that your photograph will be taken before the test. If that thought makes you feel insecure, don’t show up in pajamas!
There’s plenty of great advice about test day from official sources, and from people who have sat the IELTS themselves. According to a post on the British Council’s IELTS blog, you should warm up for your speaking test as though you were about to run a race. One professor advises “all of my students to warm up for the IELTS test by speaking nothing but English for at least 24 hours before the test.”
Asiya of Fasttrack IELTS says you should be prepared to spend about four hours in the test centre, since registration takes a long time, and there’s often a bit of transition time between sections of the test. Good to know, right? The more you envisage test day, and read accounts of what to expect, the more prepared you will feel.
Action item: write a timed plan for the day of the test on a post-it note, and stick it somewhere you can see it. Get up at 7 AM, eat porridge and a banana at 7:30 AM, review flashcards at 7:45 AM…
A brief afterword
It’s no exaggeration to say that a great IELTS score can change your life! It will open up a world of work, study and relocation opportunities that are only available to English speakers. 1-on-1 online lessons with an IELTS specialist tutor will give you the support you need to be confident of success. Paying for an expert’s advice who has experienced all the IELTS test has to offer might just be the best decision that you ever make to secure your future.
Summary The IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is the most popular English language exam in the world right now. From universities to immigration departments, government agencies to multinational companies, over 10,000 organizations worldwide require people learning English as a second language to prove their abilities against the IELTS’ demanding criteria. Here are 10 actionable ways to prepare for success, complete with plenty of links for places to find support.