How long does it take to improve your band score? This is an important question because knowing the answer can help you decide how to study for IELTS. Here’s the problem: there is no one answer.
To understand how long it will take for you to improve, you need to understand the ways in which you can improve your score and then think about other personal factors that may affect how quickly you progress. The general idea is that:
- practice tests are often not enough
- it helps to focus on your needs if you want to improve most efficiently
Ways in which you can improve your IELTS score
Generally, there are 3 main areas in which you can improve your IELTS score. Most IELTS candidates need to consider all of these ideas. They are not exclusive choices.
- improving your level of English
- improving your test skills
- understanding how the test works and how it is marked
Improving your English - 6 months – the slow but steady route
The surest way to improve your IELTS score is to improve your level of general English -IELTS is a test of English. The problem is that the bands are very wide. It can take up to 6 months to change your band score by half a point/point.
This may seem slow but band scores represent rather more than one “level” of English (intermediate/upper intermediate etc). At most/many language schools, courses for each level often last around 6 months. Some students do progress directly from one level to another, but equally others will need to repeat a level. So it really can take 6 months to improve your English enough for half a band score.
Improve your test skills – a limited fast track approach
Another way to improve your score is to do practice tests and learn some exam tips. This can make a difference: the more familiar you are with the test, the more likely you are to perform well in it.
This way you can sometimes get an almost instant improvement of up to a band score. The problem is that after 3/4 practice tests, any further improvement is likely to be limited and quite slow. IELTS is a fairly simple test with few secrets. Once you have the basic test skills (time management etc), then you may not be be using your time well to continue to do practice test after practice test.
Everyone should think about their test skills, but this approach is particularly relevant for people who have been out of full-time education for a while.
Understanding IELTS scoring – improve your score almost overnight by fixing a basic mistake
This is slightly different. Some candidates can improve their score (especially in one paper) very quickly. Why? They just misunderstood what they had to do and how the papers are marked.
One example here is if you don’t understand the concept of Task Response in writing as you come from a different academic culture. You can write a good essay – just not the sort of essay an IELTS examiner is looking for.
Again, everyone should become familiar with the writing and speaking criteria. This approach though is particularly relevant for people who have one score (normally writing or speaking) that is much lower than the others. It may not be a problem of English in this case.
Just do it again and get a different and better result
IELTS scores are inexact. In my experience, it is rather unusual to get the exactly the same result twice. If you are very close to the score you need, it may be that all you need to do is take the test again (or even apply for a re-mark). When does this work? Typically, when you already have 2/3 scores at the right level and the others are only half a band score out.
Personal factors can affect progress
There are a number of personal factors that can affect how quickly you progress. These are some of the more common:
- your native language
- language learning aptitude (how good you are at languages)
- how often you use English
- your academic background
- your basic command of grammar/vocabulary
- if you have a course to follow
- having a teacher
Four common scenarios
To understand how IELTS can work for different people, take a look at these scenarios - they are all based on students I have taught regularly. I should add that there is nothing “necessary” about any of these examples – the idea is to show how personal factors can affect your progress and that different candidates benefit from different approaches.
The European professional/the native speaker aiming for 8.0 – emigration
In this situation, you have all the language necessary, you use it every day. In many ways, you are already beyond IELTS. What could possibly go wrong? Often nothing. Here is what may make progress quick and easy:
- your native language is similar to English (most European languages have a lot in common with English) and so you recognise unknown words or grammar and it is easy to “pick up” the language and you may well improve your general English much more quickly than 6 months
- perhaps you use English every day and that helps your general communication skills and you’re quite used to discussing the sort of topics you need to read/write/speak about
Things can go wrong though. Here are some possibilities:
- it’s been a long time since you took a language test – some parts of the test may be very unnatural. In this case, you should go “back to school” and work on your test skills.
- perhaps, you are an academic of some sort. If so, you have probably been trained to think around questions, or perhaps to show off all your knowledge about a topic. Both of these are dangerous habits in IELTS – clear, direct answers are what the examiners are really looking for. In this case, you should also make a point of understanding the marking criteria in writing and speaking.
How long? Perhaps not very long at all. You may improve language much more quickly than the “6 months”, or you may just learn to fix a basic mistake in your approach.
The doctor aiming for 7.0 – PLAB etc
I am married into the medical profession! Here are a few reasons why if you have this sort of background IELTS could be a fairly, quick painless operation:
- doctors tend to read a lot in English – long, complex texts.
- they also get a fair amount of training in basic communication skills when they take case histories.
- doctors who come from the subcontinent (and elsewhere of course) very often have grown up with English
- doctors are used to studying very intensively
But things can go wrong:
- English is a global language with many different regional varieties. Perhaps you are from India and you use an English that is regarded as non-standard by IELTS. This can be a serious problem as you may need to “unlearn” the language. Tough.
- you may use English a lot, but in quite a limited way. IELTS is a test of general English and not of academic/medical English. Despite the fact you are “fluent”, it’s quite possible you have some low-level grammar/vocab problems that prevent you getting a 7.0 in writing/speaking. These can take time to fix.
- perhaps most of your training has been in sciences and your aptitudes are more scientific than artistic. Language (and IELTS) belongs more to the arts and humanities. You may need to learn how to learn a language.
The Chinese student aiming for 6.0 – academic studies
Here is where I currently work. The good news (sort of) is that many universities are willing to accept quite low band scores – 6.0 is competent and no more. The bad news is that many candidates of this type start from a very low starting point. Because there is further to go, the process will take longer. The good news first:
- you are probably in an academic programme where you get regular language input
- you have a course in IELTS with teachers
The downside is this:
- English is completely foreign to you – you get almost no help from your own language
- perhaps you have serious problems with basic grammar and vocab – both of these take time to learn
- you don’t get much/any chance to use English outside the classroom
How long? This is where 6 months for an improvement of 0.5 is realistic.
The Kuwaiti pilot aiming for 5.5
I smile. This was one of my favourite ever classes – and most problematic. I include it to show IELTS really does work differently for different people. After over a year, only quite a small proportion of the group made their target score. Why?
- the starting point was very low (around 2.0 to 3.0 in many cases). IELTS was too hard for them – even general training – they shouldn’t have been doing IELTS
- they came from a background where reading and writing was simply much less important
- their motivation was “variable” -you have to be very determined to learn for over a year
The ones who made it were mostly the ones who wanted it most. But some of the most motivated never did – some people are less gifted at languages than others. Sad but true.