In many ways hate IELTS because some candidates don’t really understand it and because of that they don’t get their score and because of that their careers go phut. Bad news. Here I am going to try and give some practical advice on how to prepare for IELTS so you get your target score.
I should add that all this advice is personal to me and it is about how to study and is not a list of exam tips. There are of course other lists. Here is another with some very good advice. It may be different from my list, but that’s not the point. The point is to think about how you are going to study. If you do that, you have a chance.
1. IELTS is a test of English – find a teacher of English
The best way to prepare for IELTS is to learn good general English. This should be obvious, but often candidates forget to do this. They prepare for an exam and they learn strategies and tips believing that that is the best way to pass. It is not. Tips and strategies only work if your English is good enough.
I like people who learn for themselves. In many ways that is the best way to learn. At some stage, however, you need someone to help you with the language. That person does not have to be a native speaker. That person does not even have to be a qualified teacher. Although it is clearly much better if it is, so I suggest you check out the teachers on this site.
2. Learn from your mistakes
This is a basic of language learning. You are going to make mistakes, that isn’t the problem though. The problem is if you keep making mistakes. What you need to do is to correct them – frequently this does not happen as people practise quantity not quality. How can you correct your mistakes?
- find a teacher to tell you where you are going wrong with your language. Make a checklist of your mistakes.
- with your skills, if you do an exercise badly, do it again. This works in speaking, writing, reading and listening. Do the test. Correct it. Look at the answers. See what the correct answer is. Do the test again. It doesn’t matter that it is not exam conditions. You will be learning.
3. The only exam tip you need is to answer the question
The longer I teach IELTS (10 years and counting) the simpler it seems to me. You will find websites and books full of tips and tricks. You will find some tips here too. In truth, in the exam the only tip you need is to read/listen to the question and answer it. You would be surprised how many problems that solves. You should note that this is the exam tip. What you do before the exam may be quite different. See below.
4. Realise that everyone is different – beware of big promises
You will know people who improved their score in one month. They were band 6, then by magic they got band 7. I know this is true because it has happened to some of my students. The danger is that you believe that you too only need a few weeks. You may be lucky, but probably not. Let me explain a little
What has not happened is that their English has improved by a band. Their English was always band 7. What has happened is that they have learnt to read and answer IELTS questions. As I say, IELTS is a simple exam. It only takes a few weeks (or sometimes days) to learn what to do in it.
The problem is that for many/most people the problem is with their English, not the exam. English can take months to put right. A difficulty is that you will find websites and teachers who promise success by just following a few simple tips. Sorry, no. It’s a test of English. Here again, this is where you need a teacher. If the first one says 2 weeks, get a second opinion.
4. Learn skills, don’t practise questions – less can be more
Language is a skill. Skills need practice, but they also need to be practised in the right way and that means quality, not quantity. The problem here is that too many people believe that practise, practise, practise is good advice. It isn’t if all you are doing is repeating exam questions. That way your skills and language are going to improve slowly.
It is in fact much quicker to learn slowly. Just as the tortoise beat the hare, so will the candidate who learns to write paragraphs beat the candidate who only ever writes essays. See my Lionel Messi post.
5. Preparing for the exam is not the same as taking the exam
What you do before the exam and in the exam are two different things. In the exam, there should only be one thing in your head: read/listen to the question and answer it. If you are thinking of more than that, then you are not concentrating on your English. All the other skills should be almost automatic: you don’t waste time thinking about them, you just do them.
It takes time, however, before you reach this point. How long depends on you. What you need to do before the exam is practise those skills carefully. As you are doing this, you will find that you work more slowly because the skills maybe new. Don’t worry. All that means is that you are not quite ready yet. You are still learning and learning is a positive process.
6. Learn English, don’t memorise it
You are in a hurry. You need to pass the exam as soon as possible. What do you do? You go and find some sample essays and learn them or you look for sample speaking questions and learn what you are going to say. This tends to be a HUGE error. If you do this, it’s probably too late and you won’t believe me, but let me try and explain.
- Examiners will know you are not using your own language. Trust me on that one. They hate this more than anything else. It can be regarded as a form of cheating. Bad news. You want the examiner to like you.
- Perhaps, you have learned an answer to a similar question, not that exact question. Disaster. You won’t answer the question. There is no bigger crime in IELTS. You could lose several band scores for this.
- You may feel more nervous, not less. In the exam, you are under pressure. Typically, you have to work harder to remember something written by someone else than to say it simply for yourself. You end up making more mistakes, not fewer.
If you still don’t believe me, take a look at my IELTS training video. It’s a joke of course, but there is a serious point behind it.
7. Learn some general English
Yes, there are special IELTS topics. Yes, you can sort of predict the right language to learn. No, in my experience, the best thing is not to concentrate solely on that English. This is very personal, but the IELTS candidates who succeed most quickly are those who take an interest in learning English. Why? They are interested and interested people tend to be people who learn.
In contrast, candidates who only do IELTS work, often get stuck. Either they get bored (IELTS is boring) or they don’t understand why they need to learn English. This is personal, but typically bored people and people who don’t see the need to improve their English, don’t improve their English.
It is for this reason, I include my little but often/daily exercise posts and IELTS word of the day on this IELTS blog. It may not seem like it, but they will help you improve your score just as much as any top tips will.
8. Learn the exam format
Is this too obvious to mention? I nearly didn’t. But IELTS does have a format, learn it.
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