One of the major stepping stones on the road to emigrating to an English speaking country is providing evidence of your proficiency in the language. There are a few accepted ways for doing so, but depending where you are in the world, IELTS is likely to be the most common. Lets look at how you might go about maximising your chances, so that you too will know how to pass an IELTS test.
First of all you’ll need to understand the test format.
The test is made up of four sections; reading, writing, speaking and listening. Each segment will result in a score graded from 1 to 9, and will result in an overall average for the whole test. 9 is the best score achievable and is “proof” of your superior command of the language. Different countries will require different levels of proficiency, and depending on where you’re heading and what you’re heading there for, you might require a minimum to either qualify for extra points (such as in the Australian immigration system) or to fulfill the requirements of a sponsorship.
Despite the fact that the test is designed so that you can’t actually fail it, many people view a fail as anything below the score they require. When I completed my test I would’ve been content with a 7, but an 8 or 9 (which gave equal benefits) was what I was aiming for. It turns out I managed to get the 9 which is great news for me, but having done the test and spoken to others that have completed it but not scored as highly, there are a few things that it seems I might’ve done differently that could help you to pass.
The listening test starts off easily and slowly. The more difficult questions come later, but the difficulty increases exponentially when you reach the last few questions.
You’ll want to read through the answer sheet before each second. IELTS suggests thinking about synonyms for the words included on the answer sheet, which might work for a non-native speaker though I didn’t try that. Once you know what is on the answer sheet you can listen for those bits of information to be read out. Usually all of the statements will be covered but (if there are 3 statements) 2 out of the 3 will also be accompanied by a negative indicator. Something along the lines of didn’t, wasn’t or isn’t, which will mean that those statements are false.
When you’re listening, eliminate answers 1 by 1. If the first statement is false, put a cross next to it on the answer sheet. That way you’ll have removed that answer from the equation and once you’ve eliminated everything that is false, you’ll be left with the correct answer. If you miss anything this way, but you’ve realised that one point is incorrect, you’ll have a better chance of guessing the correct answer (50% chance rather than 33%).
There are practise listening materials available online. I would certainly suggest taking some time to go through some of them to get a feel for how the test goes.
The reading test is exactly what it sounds like; lots of reading. Once again the process of elimination is a really useful way to figure out the correct answers.
As an example, on the test I completed the first question asked which of A, B, C or D was “peaceful”. One mentioned a city centre location, two of them had no mention of sound or peacefulness or anything along those lines, but one mentioned being quiet. The quiet one would be the peaceful one, and although two others could also be peaceful they didn’t explicitly state that, so they could have been noisy too, and would have been incorrect.
By figuring out which options are incorrect answers, you can only be left with the correct one. There will always be enough information given that you can choose the correct answer without having to guess, though it will often be synonyms that are provided (such as quiet vs peaceful).
If the instructions state to choose “two words” then you choose exactly two words. If they state “no more than three words” you can choose one, two, or three words, but not four. If it allows you to choose three, then the best and most accurate answer would be to select three words wherever possible, provided that it makes sense to do so. If the three words don’t seem to make sense, choose less words so that it does. You can always ask yourself the question and if you would say the words you’re writing it’ll be more likely to be correct.
Make sure you use the exact terminology used in the text. I made the mistake in a practice test of choosing the word reptile instead of lizard, or it might have been the other way around. Although lizards are all reptiles, and it would still make sense, that was not what was written in the passage, and because of that it is an incorrect answer. So make sure you ALWAYS use the EXACT wording that you are provided. The reading test is to score your reading, not your ability to use a range of vocabulary to interchange answers.
The writing test is split into two sections. Mine involved writing a letter to colleagues and the second part which was an essay about the pros and cons of using bicycles and cars to travel around a city. It’s quite easy to think of things to write about, essentially the possibilities are endless and as long as it makes sense, you’ll be fine with it.
There are word limits to consider, the first task will require a minimum of 150 words, and the second a minimum of 250 words. When you get to writing, always consider the pros and cons of whatever you’re writing about as this can help you to flesh out your argument. In the first section, consider the task at hand. If you’re writing a letter to friends or colleagues you can use informal language, throw in a bit of humour and be more playful with your writing, if you’re tasked with writing say, a complaint, be formal and straightforward. For the essay, make sure you ANSWER the question. That means that before you “finish” you write a short conclusion. Throwing in “I believe xyz is correct/better/worse because…” will mean that you have definitely answered the question and completed the task.
Writing is all about your use of the language. Are you using the correct punctuation? Too many commas will make your written work an awful read. When you’re writing, read through what you’ve written but take a breather every time you come across a comma. If it sounds disjointed, take the comma out. Don’t worry too much about putting complex grammar in, such as a clause like this one, because if you’re unfamiliar with them you might end up making a mistake and your work won’t read properly.
Apostrophes are much the same. Make sure you only use them in the correct places. For the most part you won’t be using many of them, but they fit in where there are abbreviations (won’t instead of will not, can’t instead of cannot, I’ll instead of I will), or possession (It was John’s, Dave’s etc) but also when the possession is not done by a person (the school’s classrooms, the car’s gearbox).
Make sure you use capital letters to begin your sentences, and for proper nouns (names, places, dates etc) as well as “I”. Incorrect use might give the impression that you don’t know whether a word is a proper noun or not and might cost you valuable marks.
Paragraphs. These need to be used. Just leave an indentation for each new paragraph, not a separate line. Every time the topic of discussion changes, you should start a new paragraph.
Finally, use as wide a range of vocabulary as you possibly can. Don’t repeat the same words over and over. Where you can, try to not use a word more than once in each paragraph. Synonyms are great for helping you change how your writing comes across. I recently spoke with someone and helped them to take a look at where they might be losing marks. I say might because I’m not an examiner, nor do I set or mark the tests, so I don’t know the exact marking criteria. I found that they used the same words repeatedly, such as the word “children” because that was what their question asked. Instead of ‘children’, they could use ‘kids’, ‘youngsters’, ‘infants’ or ‘teens’. They might even go as far as to use ‘youths’ or refer to them in a different manner such as ‘younger generation’. This will help you to show off your vocabulary.
Remember that unless you use the English abbreviation you could be penalised for shortening things. Don’t write 1s instead of 1sec. I would actually advise writing out one second in full, and not even using 1 second. I would also avoid using words such as less and fewer unless you understand the difference between them. You may not be marked down for the incorrect usage, but you may, and it would be best to avoid taking that risk.
The speaking test is quite straightforward compared to the other three, and as a native English speaker it was the one that I found to be the easiest yet most daunting. The point here is to show off your spoken English. As with the writing, you’ll want to use as wide as range of vocabulary as you can.
Your topic will be presented to you, and you’ll also have to introduce yourself for the tape. If you’ve studied languages at school, this section is extremely similar to the spoken examination that you go through at GCSE level. Once you have your topic you will be given 1 minute preparation time, some paper and a pencil to jot down your ideas. Don’t try to write out a speech, you won’t have enough time, and you’ll only have enough material to speak for a few seconds.
When you begin speaking you will be given 2 minutes to “fill up”. My topic was something along the lines of “what is your opinion on the use of social media in business”, or something like that. Again, it doesn’t matter what your opinion is, just make sure you can talk about it. If you think its good, say that, and explain why. You might also think its bad, and again, state that and give your reasons. If you find yourself running out of things to say, consider explaining that although you have one opinion, others might have another opinion. You can say what that alternative opinion is, and explain it.
That should be plenty to talk about for 2 minutes, on any subject.
When you are done speaking, you’ll be asked a few questions on the same topic. Things you might’ve said, or things that you might have missed out could both come up at this point. You might be asked WHY you have the opinions that you previously gave, for example. There are a whole host of ways the speaking test could pan out, but once you are done, you’ve finished the IELTS test and you just have to wait for your results.
Hopefully some of the tips and tricks that I’ve shared here are useful to you. You shouldn’t take my word on everything, as I said before, I’m just an average guy that took the test, I have no idea how they’re put together or marked, and on what basis. The two following IELTS websites also have a bunch of resources which can help you to prepare for the test. I’d highly recommend giving each section a try before you rock up to give it a go. I found some of these points out, luckily, before the big day, and I think that those small realisations could’ve been what helped me onto the higher bands.
Have you taken the test already? Did you pick up on anything that might make it easier for others? Leave a comment and let us know. It might be the difference between someone getting the grade they need or missing out by a single mark.