Top Tips for IELTS

IELTS preparation – what is IELTS?

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.

Practical Idea: read and listen lots newspapers and podcasts. 

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.

Practical idea: before you do anything else learn how IELTS is graded – particularly the speaking and writing.

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.

Practical point: read the questions and follow the instructions

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.

Practical point: make sure that you have a strategy for dealing with test conditions 

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.

Practical point: IELTS is easy. It’s English which is hard – don’t spend lots of time focussing on the exam

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.

Practical point: don’t worry about what you have to say, worry about how well you can say it



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9 Responses to IELTS preparation – what is IELTS?

  1. Salamat March 24, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Dear Domic,

    Thank you for these useful tips, it does seem it had to be done at the very beginning of this

    site(lol). And also you are going to examine IELTS deeply, that is really interesting. If you don’t mind I’d like to add some points here as a candidate who encountered with some trouble in preparations. When I started preparing for IELTS like many candidates who graduate from university with basic English mainly based on academic-based vocabularies and with incomplete knowledge of grammar, tries to sit for exam, thought that this exam likes other academic exams could be passed by doing a couple of sample practice tests without raising your English abilities. What is worse was we thought that there were secrets that if we knew them we would pass the exam successfully and went to those ones who claimed we know many tricks. But unfortunately in most cases candidates got it too late that one has to develop his/her English language ability at the very first stage.

    • Dominic Cole March 25, 2013 at 8:24 am #

      What you say sounds very familiar to me. They’re are people for whom IELTS is a quick and easy process and all tht they need to do is “learn the exam” and go. That requires two things: the right English and an educational background that is similar to the British/Australian system.

      The “mistake” many amke is to practice, practice, practice – just doing tests. These tests are necessary to see what the exam is like can help, but in a limited way. This is what my next preparation post is about – using practice tests intelligently.

  2. Rabay Ilyas March 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Thankyou Dominic for IELTS tips.But sometimes it is very difficult to understand what examiner ask in task two if candidiate understand an appropiate way then he/she is able to write essay in a correst form,regardless wrong way.How we make strategy to understand task two in a correct way.

    • Rabay Ilyas March 25, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

      Thank you for yuour reply i am waiting further for more reply.

    • Dominic Cole March 25, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

      It’s normally much easier than you might expect. For me the key is simply to read the question – all of it. It always asks for reasons and examples – so you always need to explain your ideas with reasons and examples. That is something that is often forgotten.

      I think that some candidates get confused by wondering if this is an “argument” “discussion” essay etc. These forms of essays just don’t exist in IELTS. The examiner doesn’t mark it as an “discussion” essay, but as an essay that answers the question as it is asked. The reason for this is that the conventions for “discussion” essays vary around the world. I know that many teachers/websites like to categorise essays in this way, but for me it just complicates things. If the question asks you “to waht extent do you agree” – that’s exactly what you have to do: say to what extent you agree, no more no less.

  3. sunset March 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    the problem that i faced in Ielts exam was the short time with so long test specially on reading oh my GOD i remmember that i spent very hard time to fiinish it.

    • Dominic Cole March 25, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

      Yes. This is a common experience. Reading is one of those papers where it really pays to work on skills that allow you read to read efficiently. What I mean by this is that it is not enough just to learn to read quickly, you need to learn quickly and well – tough.

  4. sunset March 25, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    thanks alot for your tips

  5. Holiday March 25, 2013 at 5:26 pm #


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