This is the first in a series of posts on how to prepare for IELTS. It is a huge topic and how you prepare will depend very much on who you are and what your needs are. This first post is meant for people who are either completely new to IELTS or have failed it a few times. The advice in it (in the info boxes) is very simple, but sometimes the most important advice is the simple advice.
IELTS – I is for international
The test is the same all over the world. This means that the questions you are asked are general questions that educated people are expected to listen to read/write/speak about anywhere. The sensible approach is to focus your study on the sort of topics that you will be required to write and speak about – these are just general English topics – very much the sort of things you find in newspapers and magazines. One of the very best ways to prepare is to work on these general English topics – it isn’t all about IELTS books and websites.
The test is designed for entrance into English speaking countries (mostly the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). It may help to understand how IELTS reflects an academic culture in these countries and that may be different to yours – international standards vary – essays may be marked very differently in China and the UK.
Just to give you a quick example here. In IELTS it is 100% important to answer the question as it is asked – rather than write about a general topic. This is a very “Anglo” attitude. I have worked in university systems in 4 different countries and not all of them took the same approach.
IELTS – TS is for Testing System
Every IELTS exam is set in the same way – there is a system. If you want to succeed in the exam, it obviously helps to understand what that system is. Luckily, it is simple – IELTS is a simple exam with few, if any, secrets. The trick is really just to read the questions and follow the instructions – they are always clear. The trouble is that very often candidates go wrong by ignoring the question.
Here is a quick example. In the writing paper you are told to spend around 40 minutes on task two and 20 minutes on task one. There is a good reason for this, task two has twice as many marks as task one. Often candidates go wrong by spending too much time on one or other part.
The other idea under this heading is that you want to learn how to manage your time and work under pressure – that’s what tests do – see how you perform under pressure. This means that before you get to the exam, you want to be certain that you can complete each part of each test in time – practice has to be a large part of your preparation.
IELTS can be a very straightforward exam – if you have the right language skills. It is perfectly possible to “learn” the testing system in a week. It is also perfectly possible to spend a year failing to “learn” IELTS. I know because I have successfully prepared people in under a week and unsuccessfully prepared people in over a year. I didn’t change as a teacher: it was just that the language skills of those students were entirely different.
IELTS – EL is for English Language
There are two points to make here. The first is that the major reason most people don’t get the score they need in IELTS has nothing to do with their test taking ability, it’s to do with their English language ability. This is particularly true if you have not got the score you needed two or three times in a row. It may be time to take a bit of time off from IELTS and focus only on English.
The second point is that IELTS is a test of language and communication and not a test of intelligence. This is a problem many more academic candidates may face. You may want to try and give your cleverest answer to a question, because that is what your academic training has been. That can often lead to problems in IELTS. IELTS examiners may like “clever” answers, but they give marks for English and not ideas. Think communication.