Top Tips for IELTS

The most common mistake in IELTS

This lesson is about how to improve your IELTS score overnight. What I say may seem obvious, but often the obvious is what matters. In a way, all other tips for IELTS exams are just explanations of this point. Please do read this post: take a look at the examples at the end – it could make all the difference. I really do believe that if you understand this, you will learn to avoid the most common mistake in IELTS.

Mistakes in IELTS – two categories

There are different types of mistakes in IELTS. For me, they fall into two basic categories

1. Language problems

The first is mistakes made through lack of language ability: in a way these are unavoidable. Only a highly educated native speaker can expect to get 9.0 – every IELTS candidate will make mistakes because of their language level. The only way to stop these is to learn better English skills.

2. Exam skill problems – how you think

This common mistake is quite different. They are avoidable mistakes. You knew the answer but you got it wrong. Aaaaaagh! It’s not a problem with language here, it is a problem with thinking. A huge amount of these problems are caused by just one thing: not reading and understanding the question

Read, understand and answer the question

The solution is simple in a way: read, understand and answer the question. But simple things can still need a little explanation. All these 3 stages need to be focussed on. To get this right you need to practise your exam skills. Here is what I suggest:

Step one: read (or listen to) the question

 This means spending time, do not hurry onto the writing/reading/listening part. The more time you spend reading, the more efficiently, you will write/read/listen. In the end, you will save time this way not waste it.
Don’t make the mistake of always practising in a limited time. Build your skills. Start writing essays in one hour. Then when you can write a good essay in one hour, write one in 55 minutes. You know you are ready for the test when you can write a good essay in 40 minutes. Exactly the same idea works in reading too. Don’t just practice reading in one hour – if you do, then you’ll never improve.
Do not focus on key words. Read and listen to the whole question. To get the answer you need to understand the whole question and not just words in it.

Step two: understand the question

 I thank Nadjwa – one of my students – for this. I used to tell my students to read the question. Then she explained to me that she needed to understand it too. She was right and I was wrong. It is not sufficient just to read, you also need to understand. Why? If you don’t understand, you won’t answer the task. If you don’t answer the task, you don’t get the marks.
Again, don’t worry if this takes a little time. This is not wasted time. You only waste time if you get questions wrong. This way you’ll get questions right.

Step three: answer the question

This part should be the simple part if you have read/listened and understood – IF your English is at the right level. Still, mistakes do happen here. Here is just one handy hint. Before you write the question in, read the question again. Make sure your answer is an answer to the question. Some things you can check for include:

  1. words like always and never – they can change the meaning of a question
  2. is your answer grammatically right?
  3. have you written the correct number of words?

Listening paper example

In the listening paper you need to know that there are distractors: answers that look right, but are in fact wrong because they do not answer the whole question, but simply mirror some of the words in it.

“You may have problems because you don’t like the local food and this can affect your health and studies. Angela Pease is our dietary representative in the Student Health and Welfare Department and you should contact her.”

Students should contact Angela Pease when:

a) their health is poor

b) they need to diet

c) they can’t eat the local food

See the answer

The correct answer is c). Why? Answers a) and b) do not refer to local food. Answer a) simply word matches the word “health” and b) the word “diet”. Read, understand, answer.

Reading paper example

This example is simple.

Choose NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS from Reading Passage 1 for each answer

Which of these possible answers must be wrong?

a) Blue Moon b) Blue Moon Cheese C) The Blue Moon Cheese Company

See the wrong answer

C is more than 3 words and simply cannot be right. Read, understand and answer.

A footnote – you too can learn from Nadjwa

This is a new version of a very old lesson. I believe it to be a really important lesson too. Some of the most common pieces of advice you hear in IELTS are:

  1. focus on key words in the question
  2. you don’t need to understand the whole text

I know why people say this. I just happen too disagree. Why?

  1. key words can only ever tell you where the answer is, not what the answer is – for that you need to read/listen to the whole question
  2. the better you understand the text, the more likely you are to find the answer – reading and listening are both complex skills, but most of all they are about understanding. Thank you Nadjwa – you taught me an invaluable lesson

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23 Responses to The most common mistake in IELTS

  1. JIDHIN November 20, 2010 at 9:14 am #


    • Dominic Cole November 20, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

      Excellent. I am planning a series of posts in the next month on how to approach the different types of reading tasks. Hope that that helps.

      • zohray February 6, 2011 at 8:03 am #

        Dear Dominic,
        Hi I just wanted to know if all questions in Reading and Listening marked equally, what I mean is are they all 1 point for each questions or different question have different marks.
        I will appreciate your help

        • Dominic Cole June 19, 2011 at 8:45 am #

          There is one point for each question in the reading and listening papers.

      • Anonymous June 19, 2011 at 8:30 am #

        Thank you so much for your tips. They are useful for me.

  2. Elena November 28, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Yeah, for me reading is tough as well..cant get more than 30 out of 40 in academic…i was studying in in australian university for three years and read a lot of academic materials, including articles and books..but still find it hard to get more than 30… especially the most difficult excersises are – true/false/not given and multiple choices…

    • Dominic Cole November 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

      30 out of 40 isn’t bad at all but…. Well, if you’ve been studying in an Australian university for 3 years, something isn’t quite right.

      In your case, it seems unlikely that the problem is in the language, rather something is going wrong in the exam technique. Here are a couple of my standard tips that sometimes make a difference:

      1. Always refer back to the question before you write in your answer – when you do this look for the tricky words like “always” and “some” – they can change meaning radically.
      2. Underline the words in the text that you think relate to the question. This helps you focus on precise meaning as opposed to general meaning. And there will always be something precise in the text that gives you the answer.

      Yes, the true/false/not given type is horrid. Have you seen my tutorial and exercise on this? I am planning on posting 30 or so more reading exercises in the next two weeks. One option here is just to mark the ones that are definitely true and false – and then the rest must be “Not Given”.

  3. Elena December 16, 2010 at 2:04 am #

    Hi, Dominic. Thank you for good advices!! REALLY work

    There is another thing, referring to listening.

    How to approach reading a particular question in the listening test?

    I mean, I dont have enough time for reading multiple choices and to get what that question is actually wants to ask for 30 sec…

    The situation is that i understand every single word when i am listening a test, but If i didnt have enough time to read the question, i would defenetly make a mistake…especially in a multiple choices question and a question where you need to choose, say, two options out of 10 or something..

    Thank you!

    • Dominic Cole December 16, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

      Good question.

      The normal teacher advice is to spend as much time as possible in between listenings reading the questions and trying to predict what you are going to listen to. Increasingly I am slightly doubtful whether this is really practical – as you yourself point out. What you describe is perfectly normal: you hear all the words but you can’t process the answers quickly enough.

      For me this happens because a large part of the difficulty of the IELTS listening is concentration – you listen for up to 25 minutes and that’s much longer than you would ever do in a classroom. One radical solution is to take time out between questions. If you give yourself 15 seconds off, you then have more mental energy to concentrate on the listening part so that you can listen, read and write all at the same time. I want to be a little cautious here as this advice is really quite unusual but it is a technique I have used with some success with IELTS candidates. Give it a go at least.

      My advice on the multiple choice questions is this. Before you listen, only look at the stem of the question and ignore the variations. Two reasons for this.

      1. If you look at the variations you have information overload – you can’t process all that info all at once.
      2. You start to confuse yourself if you look at the variations – most of them are wrong after all.

      What you want to do is just note quickly the topics you will be listening out for. Then relax until you hear them mentioned and then you start to really concentrate and go through the options as you are listening.

  4. Patrick February 3, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Hey Dominic,

    I have been reading your blog for a few days now and just wanted to let you know how helpful your suggestions are. I’m German and have got a conditional offer from Oxford, which wants me to pass the IELTS with a 7.0 in each section. I have to admit that writing had been a problem for me until I managed it to find a certain structure; some kind of an outline.

    But, seriously, the reading part is just too tough an excercise, in my opinion. I’m still trying to figure out a specific system to achieve 31 correct answers (at least) and your blog tramendously helps me with that.

    I’m also greatful for your advice to watch a video by EnglishRyan, whose ebook I actually bought (to score high in the essay part). Both your advice and his way of dealing with that helped me to improve (I hope so^^) my writing skills.

    And to the listening discussion: I agree with you, Elena. I have problems with the block of 7 or so questions in a row, 4 answer possibilities each and much stuff to read as well. Sometimes I’m just lost and realise the narrator to be 2 questions further.:) Unfortunately, my exam date is the 12th of Feb. .. Still a little bit time.. 🙂

  5. BeeMog May 7, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Hi Dominic,

    I am impressed with your blogs. I have been able to score high in Listening, Speaking & Writing, my problem is reading & I have started working on the tips you have given. I have a tesd to May 12, 2012 and I will update you all on how I score!


  6. vivin July 13, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    hi Dominic,
    Thanks for ur blogs as it was really really helpful.

  7. aman August 29, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    i have problem in listening test could help thanks

  8. Anonymous September 29, 2012 at 5:47 am #

    hai Dominic,

    I always confused,should i start my answer with small letter or capital,what iam using write all my answer with capital letter,could you please help me ,Thanks from Eileen

    • Dominic Cole February 22, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

      All sentences must start with a capital letter.

  9. Yogesh December 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    very useful tips, good yaar…

  10. mahabub February 24, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    i attempted twice in ielts exam and in reading part get band score 5 in general training part. Now I am realizing my problem and its as below:-
    1. I was stugged in the last part passage. Time remaining only 12 minutes and starts to read that passage. Time was passing quickly and then I chose the answer as a guess.
    2. First 28 nos question,I was checking because of make them error free and make sure at least 25 sore could come.

    PLease suggest me how can I get Band score 6?

    • Dominic Cole February 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      Your strategy of focusing on the first two passages isn’t working, so the logical thing to do is to try and spread the time more evenly so that you can answer all 40 questions.

  11. Meg November 14, 2013 at 4:59 pm #


    I have attempted IELTS twice with scores as below:

    L/R/W/S : 7.0 / 8.5 / 6.5 / 7.0
    L/R/W/S : 6.5 / 7.5 / 8.0 / 7.7

    I do not exactly get which section should I concentrate. second time I concentrated on Writing and messed up Listening. I dont want this to repeat.
    I need a score of 7.0 in each.


  12. Carmen October 29, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    Hi! i’m taking my IELTS exam in two days and I have a question. Practising, it takes me about 40 minutes to do the reading section, but I’m always short of time for the writing part. Can I take those 20 minutes I have left from the reading and use them for the writing exercise?

    • Dominic Cole October 30, 2014 at 7:26 am #

      Sorry no. The two papers are quite separate.

  13. Garry Smout March 7, 2015 at 9:35 am #

    A fantastic classroom exercise that really hammers home the point and importance of reading/understanding the question can be found in Peter Watcyn Jones’ Grammar Games and Activities for Teachers – 59 ‘Can You Follow Instructions?’ In all the years I have been teaching only one student has done what he was told. I won’t explain it in case one of you gets given it but teachers – check it out! A must for all IELTS and TOEFL classes.

  14. Ali Akbar October 16, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

    Your tips are great.i have been searching for a teacher like you….thank you verymuch…
    God bless you….

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