If you’re preparing to take the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam, kudos to you! This means you’re moving on to an exciting chapter of your life.
Whether starting a new job, enrolling in an academic program, or relocating to a new country, your reason for taking the IELTS exam can serve as great motivation. And while the IELTS exam is intensive, there are plenty of ways you can boost your IELTS scores to pass the test with flying colors. This post will show you how.
A Quick Overview of the IELTS
Before I break down some tips for improving your IELTS score, let’s quickly review the general breakdown of the exam. In short, the IELTS exam is administered to non-native English speakers in order to determine English proficiency.
It consists of four sections:
- and speaking.
While there is a complex scoring process for the IELTS exam — and some fluidity on what constitutes good IELTS scores depending on your reason for taking the test — you should understand that the whole test is scored on a scale from 1-9, with 1 denoting “non English user” and 9 denoting “expert English user.”
Keep in mind that your reason for test-taking also informs the exact format of your IELTS exam. There are two types of IELTS exams: the IELTS Academic test and the IELTS General Training test. You can read an explanation of the different types of IELTS exams, but note that while there are slight variations in the content, the four components are the same on each type of exam.
Regardless of which type of IELTS test you are taking, the best way to improve your IELTS score is to get plenty of IELTS practice (and check out these great sample IELTS questions for each section!).
Now that you know a little more about what the IELTS is, let’s look at some tips designed to help you boost your score for each individual section of the test.
IELTS Listening Test
The 40-minute IELTS Listening test assesses your ability to understand the speech of native English speakers.
You will listen to four recordings of different kinds of conversations such as:
- an informal/conversational dialogue,
- an informational monologue,
- an educational discussion,
- or an academic-style lecture
Then you’ll answer questions about each recording. Questions may be presented as multiple choice, short answer, sentence completion, matching, diagram labelling, etc.
IELTS practice for the listening component is always helpful, but also keep the following tips in mind for boosting your score on this section:
Read the questions first
You will only hear each recording one time, so try to familiarize yourself with the questions before you listen. This will help give you a sense of the overall context and theme of the recording, and help you remember what you are listening for specifically. Also listen for keywords from the questions; this will help your chances of answering correctly, even if you do not understand 100% of what you hear.
Write as you listen
Jot down answers in your booklet as you listen and then transfer them to your answer sheet at the end. You will have ten minutes to transcribe your answers at the end of the test, so make sure you write clearly and succinctly. Note that an incomplete answer will be marked incorrect.
Don’t get discouraged if you miss a question—just keep going! If you get hung up on one question that you are uncertain of, you may miss the next question.
Be mindful of details
Even though the goal of this section is to test your listening skills, your answers will not just be scored on content. Spelling and grammar also affect your score. Be particularly careful with common constructs such as subject/verb agreement, plural/singular nouns, verb tenses, etc.
Likewise, be mindful of your handwriting. Anything illegible will be scored as incorrect.
IELTS Reading Test
The 60-minute IELTS Reading test assesses your ability to comprehend passages written in English.
You will read several passages and then answer a total of 40 questions of various types (multiple choice, matching, short answer, etc.)
If you take the IELTS Academic test, you will read three academic-style passages.
If you take the IELTS General Training test, you will read a handful of passages (the number varies) in three sections: one with multiple short texts, another with two longer texts, and a third with one considerably longer text.
Reviewing sample IELTS reading passages is helpful, but so is reading in general.
Reading newspaper articles is one of the best ways to become acquainted with the English language. News articles tend to be relatively short and to the point, and they use both academic and conversational language, depending on the type of piece.
Pick up a novel, read all of your emails, get a subscription to a magazine you like—just be sure to make reading part of your daily life; you’ll be a better reader come exam time.
Moreover, become an active, close reader. Get in the habit of underlining main ideas, circling important words, etc.
Develop a robust vocabulary
Developing an extensive vocabulary is one of the best results of reading frequently, and it is sure to help your reading score.
You can use context clues to determine the meaning of a word you don’t know. The quicker you can identify a word’s meaning, the better you will be able to stay on pace.
When taking practice tests, circle all vocabulary words that you don’t know. Then look them up and write down their definitions. Study these lists frequently and know their definitions and usages.
Skim for main ideas
You will not understand everything you read. This is okay! The passages presented on the test are supposed to be very difficult. You should get accustomed to reading not for total comprehension, but for key ideas.
Main ideas or arguments are often found in the first, second, or last sentence of a paragraph, and tend to be direct and declarative. They are often followed by examples (lists, anecdotes, images, etc.). Your understanding of the most central ideas in a passage will help boost your IELTS reading score.
Know your strengths and weaknesses
There are only so many hours in the day, so when doing IELTS practice, make sure to focus on the questions that tend to give you the most trouble.
Do you typically narrow a multiple-choice question down to two answers and then get stuck?
Do you lose your train of thought when filling in short answer questions?
It is gratifying to practice the types of questions that come naturally to you, but practicing the ones that challenge you the most will be more effective.
IELTS Writing Test
The 60-minute IELTS Writing test requires you to complete two writing tasks. Your writing prompts will vary depending on whether you are taking the IELTS Academic Writing test or the IELTS General Training test.
On the IELTS Academic Writing test, IELTS Writing Task 1 (150+ words in 20 minutes) will require you to describe a visual piece of information (like a chart or graph). The IELTS Writing Task 2 (250+ words in 40 minutes) will require you to write a thorough, five-paragraph essay on a specific topic.
On the IELTS General Training Writing test, you will complete IELTS General Training Writing Task 1 (roughly 150 words in 20 minutes), which will ask you to compose a common piece of writing (like a letter to a friend) in response to a specific scenario. On IELTS General Training Writing Task 2 (250+ words in 40 minutes), you will write an essay on a given topic that requires you to provide personal experience as support.
There are intricacies to each four of these writing tasks, but here is some general writing advice that can help on both tests:
Be clear about the task
Read the task prompt thoroughly, at least twice. Make sure you understand both the topic, and the manner in which you are supposed to respond. For example, are you supposed to address a friend directly? Make an argument about a subject? Describe a personal experience?
Be confident in the instructions before you start writing.
First, do not copy any sentences from the prompt itself directly. Instead, use your own words.
Second, do not simply repeat the same thought or argument throughout using slightly different words. Every sentence in your response should have a purpose and be necessary to complete the task.
Stay on Topic
Focus is key to answering any task on either test. Do not stray from the exact topic at hand, even if it is one that you are not particularly familiar with.
Do not write about a personal experience that isn’t relevant to the prompt, and do not re-direct an argument to a subject you are more comfortable with. Stay on topic.
Use paragraph breaks effectively
No one enjoys reading an endless block of text, and failing to separate out your ideas and present them clearly can hurt your overall score.
Start a new paragraph every time you shift ideas or present a new one. It is better to err on the side of too many paragraphs than not enough.
Write in complete thoughts
Regardless of the prompt or task, you must use complete sentences that reflect complete thoughts. A complete sentence consists of a subject and a verb and expresses an entire idea—even if that idea is simple.
For example: Mary ran three miles.
Mary is the subject, and ran is the verb. While the sentence is short, it expresses a complete thought.
It is tempting to memorize and present responses from practice tests, but do not do so under any circumstance. Text examiners can spot this trick. Instead, write directly and sincerely, drawing from your own experiences and understanding of the content.
Manage your time wisely
Do not get hung up on on making your work perfect at the risk of not finishing the test. Answer the task prompts as thoroughly as possible, but keep moving.
Note that Writing Task 2 is worth twice as many points as Writing Task 1, so make sure you get to and complete Task 2 no matter what. Ideally, you should also leave yourself a few minutes at the end to read over and edit your work.
Be mindful of mechanics
As with the other components of the IELTS exam, spelling, grammar, and punctuation count towards your overall score. Make sure your writing is as polished as possible.
IELTS Speaking Test
The 11-15 minute IELTS Speaking test assesses your ability to converse in English in various contexts.
Part 1 involves questions that you answer with information about your life.
Part 2 involves speaking on a topic in a style referred to as “the long turn,” meaning with structure and elaboration. This prompt will be given to you in writing, but you will answer verbally.
Part 3 involves answering further questions on the topic more deeply. You should practice IELTS Speaking test part 1, IELTS Speaking test part 2, and IELTS Speaking test part 3, but the following are some general tips to ace the IELTS speaking test:
Talk as much as possible
Make sure to fill your time with as much speaking as possible. While you will likely make some mistakes, the more you talk, the more opportunity you have to earn points.
You should also make sure that you are talking more than the examiner during the discussion portion.
Be relaxed and confident
Even if you feel nervous, try to speak in a calm, even, comfortable tone. Talk a lot, but remember to take necessary pauses. Be as sincere and direct as possible, just like you would be in your native language.
Elaborate on your answers
The best answers are clear and simple ones that are then developed as thoroughly as possible. Provide specific examples to support your answers and to illustrate your points.
Ask for clarification
During the discussion portion, do not be afraid to ask the examiner for clarification. You are best able to answer a question if you are clear on what is being asked.
Express your opinion
The Speaking portion of the IELTS test is perhaps the best opportunity you have to convey your English skills through your own personal voice and tone. Avoid overly general answers found in sample tests in favor of stating your actual thoughts and opinions. The more personally you answer the questions the less likely you are to accidentally use predictable, sample answers for which you will lose points.
It is true that the IELTS exam is difficult. But if you practice each section repeatedly and keep all of the above tips in mind, you should be well on your way to the next exciting chapter of your life!
About Nadyja von Ebers: Nadyja von Ebers holds a BA and MA in English from DePaul University and has been an English instructor at the high school and college levels for the last eleven years. She has extensive experience teaching preparation for various AP exams as well as the ACT, SAT, GED, GRE, and IELTS. Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. Check out more IELTS resources to help you prepare for the exam!