These are some tips for what to do on the day of the exam itself and immediately before it. While IELTS is a test to measure your English, it does of course feel like an exam and the people who do best in exams tend to be those who have exam day strategies. This is my selection of what to do and what not to do. I have tried to keep it short as I believe it is important to keep thing simple on the day itself. Some of this advice may surprise you.
Don’t worry if you disagree with it. Different people are different and different things work for different people. My personal belief is that the only good advice is advice that actually works and if something else works for you – great! I’d add that the most important piece of advice is the first one – have a strategy.
1. Have a strategy – any strategy
This one sounds strange, no? What I mean by this is that if you have a strategy, you will feel more confident and if you feel more confident, you will perform better. What that strategy is will depend on who you are. I’d suggest that you try different strategies before the exam and see what works personally for you.
2. Forget all the advice you have been given and just focus on the question
Again, this will sound strange. What I mean here is that in the exam you are under pressure and people tend to perform strangely under pressure. If you are trying to remember all the different advice you have been given, you are putting yourself and your brain under more pressure. In my experience, most avoidable mistakes are caused by not focussing on the question and it is the avoidable mistakes you need to focus on: you can’t do anything about the unavoidable mistakes.
3. Don’t practise before the exam
What? IELTS is a test of skill (language is a skill), it is not a knowledge based exam where you can revise at the last minute. You are not going to improve your skills by doing four tests in four days. You will probably just make yourself more nervous.
4. Practise before the exam
Of course you do need to practise just before the exam. Though you need to think about how to practise and why you are practising:
- Most people who take IELTS for the first time are surprised at how tiring it is: by the end of the day they are exhausted and lose concentration. It helps to do a complete exam in a day just so that you are prepared for what it will feel like.
- Timing is an issue in reading and writing: you need to practise under exam conditions to know that you can finish in time. However, be warned that in the exam you will be on adrenaline. It is a marvellous drug in many ways as it makes you go quicker. That is good, but be warned again that you don’t need to go quicker, but go quickly and accurately.
- It is good to practise getting things right, it is bad to practise getting things wrong. The danger of doing a test immediately before the exam is that you do it badly and you lose confidence. Bad news. Here’s a suggestion: practise doing a test you have done before or do a test while looking at the answers. It can work as you are improving your skills and seeing how to get the answer right and that is what you need to do in the exam.
5. Don’t book one exam, book two
The first time you take the exam it will be a strange experience, no matter how much preparation you have done and you may well underperform. If you have booked a second exam, the pressure is off as you have another chance. I have never met a candidate who was upset because they passed first time after booking two exams. Would you be?
Bad advice – always give a long answer
Keep on speaking until the examiner stops you and say as much as you can. This is wrong as the examiner may never stop you and you may start talking rubbish. More than that, the longer you speak, the less coherent you are likely to be and coherence is a key factor.
Bad advice – learn what to say and practise saying it
Look at lots of exam questions before the exam and learn what you are going to say. This is wrong because you will become more nervous, not less nervous this way and the chances are you will not answer the question you were asked, but another similar question. (Most “exam” questions on websites are not accurate but are badly remembered.)
Good advice – listen to the question
Listen to the question and answer it. If you have more to say, say it; if you don’t have too much to say, give a reasonably extended answer and wait for the next question.
Good advice – speak English before the exam
It’s important to relax before the speaking, but the one thing you should not do is relax by chatting to your friends in your language. Rather speak English before the exam so that you go into it thinking in English. Every little helps.
Bad advice – no more than one and half minutes per question
There are 60 minutes and 40 questions, so you should spend one and half minutes on each question. No. There are different strategies that you should also consider. In each text, the first questions will take longer because you do not yet know how the text is organised or what it is about. Therefore it can make sense to give more time to the first group of questions in each text and less time to the last questions when you will already know how the text is organised and what sort of language it uses.
In general IELTS the first text is much easier than the last text. In academic IELTS the difference is less obvious, but the last text is more complex. You have to decide how to divide your time. The paper says 20 minutes/20 minute/20 minutes. That’s possible. You could though decide to spend more time on the last text as it is harder to give yourself more chance. Another possible strategy is to spend more time on the first text in order to get 14 out of 14. If you need 23 correct answers for academic band 6, you are more than half way there. You only need another 10 questions right.
In summary: 20/20/20 minutes, 25/20/15 minutes, 15/20/25 minutes are all possible strategies. You need to try them all to see what works for you.
Bad advice – always read the question first
You should always focus on the questions first. No. It works for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone. Often it helps to read the text quickly to get an idea of how it is organised. You save time later by knowing which part of the text to read for each question. In truth, the only good strategy here is the strategy that works. Try both approaches and see which one works better for you.
Good advice – focus on the whole question
What this means is that most avoidable mistakes are made not because the text is difficult, but because the candidate didn’t focus on the meaning of the whole question. Mistakes happen because candidates look at key words and forget about meaning.
Bad advice – give yourself as much time as possible to write
No. Timing can be a problem in the writing paper, but the way to finish your writing is not to start writing quickly. This will be different for different people, but the best advice is to leave as much time as possible for the planning bit. The idea is that if you know what you want to say and if you know what words to use, you will write more quickly and more accurately than if you start writing after 2 minutes. Time yourself. How long does it physically take you to write 250 words? If you know what you want to say, the answer is very unlikely to be more than 20 minutes. Now consider whether it is better to think about what to say before you start writing or as you are writing. Your choice.
Good advice – check your writing for repetition
Checking your writing is not an optional extra for if you finish 5 minutes early. It is a must. It can be hard to see your own mistakes, but one thing anyone can see are repeated words. This is very practical advice. You will lose marks if you repeat the same language. So check repetition.
Bad advice – Listen for key words
I have written about this before, but it is worth repeating here. The cause of most avoidable mistakes is that candidates focus on key words in the question. In fact, until you have listened there is no way to know what the key words really are. What you need to do is focus on the whole question, not just a part of it. At most, the “key words” tell you when the answer is coming, not what the answer is.
Bad advice – write as much as possible as you are listening
Put simply, if you are writing, you are not listening. It is a listening test.
Good advice – focus on the meaning of the whole question
Just as in the reading paper, look at the whole question and listen as closely as possible. Yes, you do need to read, write and think at the same time, but you need to spend as much time as possible doing the listening bit.