What’s It Really like to Take the IELTS Test?

It must be my lucky month. Last Wednesday my post was written for me by regular reader Warwick, it was called The Beautiful and Friendly Wildlife of Inner Sydney.

This week I get to put my feet up again as another regular reader, djmcbell, has provided us all with an excellent article about taking the IELTS test.

IELTS_logoWhat is so wonderful about it from my point of view is that this is a post I could never possibly write. I wasn’t required to take this test when we moved here in 2007, so I have no idea what it’s really like to take it.

Well I do now, thanks to djmcbell, and so will you once you have read this article.

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that djmcbell did exceptionally well in his test securing a maximum 20 points from the Australian government, enormously enhancing his prospects of a successful application.

So it’s worth listening to what he has to say, or as my schoolteacher used to put it “Stop staring out of the window boy and pay attention!

And with that, I will hand over to djmcbell.

Taking the IELTS test

StudyingThe International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, is used by the Australian government to assess the English language skills of applicants looking to move to Australia. It’s also used by a lot of other bodies and, as such, is quite an official test.

But, most importantly, getting a good result in it may be worth points in your visa application! If you’re using a migration agent they should be able to tell you what score you need in the IELTS test and which test you should do (there are a few).

My situation – I needed to do the General Training IELTS. This is, I understand, the most common test.

I had 50 points more or less guaranteed in my visa application, so I needed 10 more to get the required 60. Getting a 7.0 in each of the four exams that you sit in the General Training IELTS would get me the 10 points, though I’d get more points if I got a higher grade.

So, without further ado, it’s onto the exams!

The General Training IELTS consists of four exams, each testing different aspects of your ability to use the English language. These are:

  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking

You’ll be scored in each of these, a grade from 0 to 9, and then given an overall “average” grade. The scoring system is a little strange, but it seems that, for the Listening and Reading exams, the exam is divided up into a few sections, each of which contain a few questions, resulting in 40 questions. They work out an average and grade you on that.

The IELTS website can be found at http://www.ielts.org/ and you should use this to book your exams. It also has some good free practice material, and you can check your results here. Results are released 13 days after your exams. The IELTS General Training tends to cost £150-ish a go, and can be done at several places throughout the UK. It can also be taken in many other countries around the world at equivalent local prices.

I honestly can’t tell you much about preparing for your exams – the main thing to know is what you’ll be expected to do. This isn’t like the driving theory test, where you can learn what questions they’ll ask. The answers for the Listening and Reading exams are there in the exam, you just need to look out for them. The Writing and Speaking ones are ones you need to think about.

However, there are various sites on the internet which will give you lots of papers to practice from. Note that the exams you take will have different questions, so you should only use these to get an idea of what types of questions will be in the exams. There are, however, a lot of resources available in different languages, which will be useful to a lot of people. As an English person myself, I honestly can’t comment on how useful these are.

By the way, for those of you who are English speakers, I’d probably say that this is about the same level that would be expected of those studying English in high school in their teens, before they take their GCSE’s.

But, in any case, I’ll go onto my experience.

First off, there is a chance that your exams will take up an entire day. I did my exams in Sheffield, and got there early. Registration takes some time, and you’ll have your fingerprints and a photo taken. You’ll need to have booked your test using some form of ID, such as a passport, and bring that ID with you – it will be checked a few times throughout the day. Also, you will need to leave a lot of things in the cloakroom outside the exams – any practice material or notes, books, mobile phones, scraps of paper and, with the new Smartwatches available, any watches you have. If they think you’re cheating in any way you may well get kicked out without a refund.

I believe you are allowed to take in some water in a clear bottle if you want, but don’t take my word for it. Different exam centres may operate different rules.

Also, ensure you go to the toilet before you go start! Note that you won’t be allowed to go to the toilet during the Listening and Speaking exams, but can during the others (again, depending on your centre). However, you will lose time, and you will probably need it.

My exam day went like this:

  •   9:00 – Registration
  • 10:15 – Listening exam (1 hour)
  • 11:15 – Reading exam (1 hour)
  • 12:15 – Writing exam (1 hour)
  • 13:20 – Speaking exam (15 minutes)

This doesn’t sound like a full day, but then the Speaking exam can be at any time in the afternoon. I didn’t know what time mine would be until you sit down and are ready to do the Listening exam, at which point there was a piece of paper on my desk telling me my Speaking exam time and location. The Speaking exams were held at different times up until 17:30, so for some people it will have been a full day – I was lucky and could leave early (though you can leave the facility before your Speaking exam and come back for it).

So, the exams themselves:


ListeningYou’ll listen to several conversations over the course of this exam, and have to answer various questions based on them. You’ll be given a question booklet and an answer paper. The question booklet contains the questions, and you’ll be expected to write your answers in this. At the end of the exam you’ll be given a few minutes to copy your answers over to the answer paper.

There will probably be a total of 40 questions, but some of them will be worded to confuse you. For instance, the recording may say:

I went to a restaurant called Burger Time and really liked the meal, but the place itself was really chilly.

The question sheet will ask you:

What was the downside of the Burger Time restaurant?

1 – dirty
2 – cold
3 – unfriendly staff

The answer would be that it was cold, but the word “chilly” is used in the recording. You’ll be expected to know what various words mean. Also, listen carefully as sometimes the people in the recordings will correct themselves, for instance:

Oh we just did some city trips last year, we went to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Sorry, I meant Sydney. Perth, Adelaide and Sydney.”

The questions will all appear in the same order that you’ll hear their answers, so there’s no need to try and remember an entire conversation and the questions that match. I looked at two questions at a time, and as soon as I heard the answer to the first question, looked at the next question along.


readingThe Reading exam isn’t that different from the Listening exam. You’ll be given 40 questions, split into different sections, all relating to a different bit of text. You’ll have a question booklet, which contains all the texts and questions, and an answer sheet. Again, you can fill in the answers in the question booklet. I think you’re expected to use the time as you will, and copy the answers to the answer sheet in your own time.

You should make sure you read the instructions carefully as they will tell you what to write. Quite often you will find that you have to “choose no more than two words from the text” to fill in the blanks in the questions. For instance, you may have some text about different management styles, then be given a question such as:

Using different management styles has helped to _______ of staff.

You’ll have to fill in a blank there. You’d have to find a section in the text that relates to what impact different management styles have on staff, and select a few words from the text (according to your instructions – it could be one, two, three or more) to complete the sentence.

A lot of the Reading exam is like this, but there are other things you’ll have to do. You’ll need to:

1 – complete sentences using words from the text (as above)
2 – read a few pages of text, and then decide which title should be applied to which paragraph of text
3 – read some text which describes an object, and then label a picture of the object using words from the text

You may well finish the exam before the hour is up – in which case, go through it again and check your answers! That’s what I did, and thankfully caught a couple of mistakes. Don’t forget to copy your answers to your answer sheet.


WritingThe Writing exam is a difficult one to describe. You’ll be given an hour, a question booklet and an answer sheet. You will have to write TWO things – a letter regarding something (e.g. trying to arrange a meeting with an old friend, instructions for how to look after pets whilst you’re on holiday etc), and an essay on a particular topic (e.g. should we stop teaching foreign languages in school). For the essay, you will be expected to argue BOTH sides of the essay question (so, for instance, in the “should we stop teaching foreign languages in school?” example, you’ll have to make an argument FOR and AGAINST in your discussion).

You’ll be expected to complete both parts, and the second part (the essay) is worth more points. There is also a word count – for the first part, you should write no less than 150 words, and for the second part no less than 250 words.

That’s more or less it, so all I can give is some tips that may be useful:

  • write straight onto the answer sheet. You’ll find time passes quickly and you only need the question sheet to read the instructions. This way you save a lot of time as you don’t need to copy what you’ve written over.
  • make sure you have an eraser handy and are writing in pencil. For your exams you should be provided with some form of pencil and eraser, but take your own anyway.
  • count how many words you’ve written as you finish a paragraph, and write this number at the end of each paragraph so you know how you’re doing. Before you finish the exam, erase this.
  • read both questions before you start. I read both, then did the first section whilst thinking about what I could write for the second section.

You will not be given time to copy what you’ve written from the question sheet to the answer sheet – it’s up to you to do this during the exam time (hence why I went straight onto the answer sheet). Don’t be afraid about exceeding the minimum number of words if you want – I think my first section was about 230 words (where the minimum was 150), and my second about 350 (where the minimum was 250).


talkingPut bluntly, you’ll be asked questions and expected to answer them. These won’t be simple general knowledge questions, but ones where you’ll need to provide your own opinion on things. Some random ones I remember from mine include:

  • which part of your life do you remember most fondly?
  • what do you think of the attitude people have towards elderly people?
  • do you enjoy going to the cinema as a hobby?

I can’t really give much advice here, apart from some of the obvious:

  • don’t give simple answers. You’ll be expected to provide reasons for your answers. For instance, in the cinema example, I’d say that I used to but rarely get the time nowadays, and the cinema has become too expensive whilst buying a DVD has become cheap.
  • don’t try to steer the conversation – it won’t work. If you’re given a question about your favourite film, don’t try to steer it towards favourite books because chances are the next question will be something completely different, like what kind of job would you like.
  • it should go without saying that you should try to speak clearly, and not let nerves get the better of you.


Results are issued 13 days after your exam, and are slowly released over a 24 hour period – so some people who took the exam will get them first, and you may get yours later on. You can check them on the IELTS website above, but note that if you check them on the internet, the results are PROVISIONAL ONLY. They are not final. The final result is sent to you in the post on your IELTS certificate, and this is generally sent on the same day.

If all goes well, you should receive the scores you need – however, don’t be disheartened if you don’t. A fair few people in my exams had sat them before and not achieved the results they needed. Your results will give your individual scores for each exam, so you know which one you need to improve.

Best of luck!


My thanks to djmcbell for this excellent contribution to this website.

For more information see:

If you have taken your IELTS test and have any further tips or suggestions to add to this, please do so in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.

Update December 2016:

IELTS isn’t for everybody though, so if you are struggling with this test, it might be worth looking at the other options. This, according to my MARA migration agent, is a full list of acceptable English-language tests as at this moment in time:


Visa Assessment Service
{ 34 comments… add one }
  • Kelly September 26, 2016, 4:18 am |

    Hi, do I have to take an IElts exam if I have a degree and masters degree (both UK) for visa purposes? The AITSL assess my qualifications regarding teaching and do not require ielts.
    Also UK since birth.
    Thanks in advance,

    • BobinOz October 2, 2016, 5:25 pm |

      I’m afraid I don’t keep up with all the rules on these things Kelly, so I don’t know. Maybe somebody reading this does know; can anybody help out here?

    • Martin October 2, 2016, 6:28 pm |

      Hi Kelly, there is a list of countries (I think they are all native English speaking countries) and if you are from one of these countries you are not required to do the IELTS test. But if you are applying for a points based visa there are some serious points on offer for getting a good result in this test. I’d say that’s why so many English speakers still take the test.

  • Ronny November 21, 2015, 7:32 am |

    I sat the IELTS test two weeks ago and just received the results.
    Overall score is 7,5.
    It’s good, but not enough.
    To set the context, I’m french, 40 and have studied english from 12 to 20 years old. I work in the medical field I had to book the academic test and needed a 7 in each branch.
    I took some notes just after the exam day, to see if my feelings would be corroborated aftermath.

    Listening : I was disturbed by an unexpected coughing and didn’t get 1 answer. And one section of the sequence had a group of 4 questions with one long question sentences and 3 long answer sentences each. Therefore I doubted on 3 answers out 4 of these. As a result I expected a 7 or 7,5. I got a 8,0.

    Reading : no particular trouble apart from being just right on time.
    I Expected a 8 and was granted a 8,5.

    Writing : I trained myself alone and was quite at ease with the vocabulary and tenses during the training time. But on the exam day, I was really short on time. As I never had any feedback on my testing but I was confident regarding the good reading level I have, I expected the minimal 7,0 I needed. I got a 6,0. This is why I say I failed.

    Speaking : I feared this part as I do not live in an english speaking country and have no daily speaking in english. The examiner put me at ease from the beginning and asked the usual formal questions “where do you live” then he asks me to talk about the seasons, and “are you influenced by advertisement” ?
    The 2 minutes monologue was about a research project I lead during my studies.
    Then the tricky part : what do you think of people who don’t send their children to school ? In fact I do not have any concern about this but as a part of the examination I had to say something. Then the very tricky part : do you think children can learn without doing homework ? Ugh, what to say ? blabla … And now the very very tricky part : to what extend do you agree that one can learn without attending school ? DRING time’s up
    I expected 7,0 and I got 7,0.

    The overall result is good : 7,5 but I could not afford to have any mark under 7,0. Thus, I do have to sit again….

    • BobinOz November 27, 2015, 8:48 pm |

      Sounds like a tough exam, hopefully you will get the scores you need next time. I know quite a few native English speaking people who have found this exam difficult, so given that you are French I think you can be encouraged by the results you got first time out. I’ve also heard that some people have taken this test as many as eight or nine times before passing.

      Hopefully you can pass second time. Good luck, Bob

      • djmcbell January 27, 2016, 6:45 pm |

        A late reply Ronny – hopefully you’ve retaken the IELTS since and got the scores you need, but if not then good luck.

        It sounds like you were mainly the same as me – the listening and reading parts you were fine with, the speaking you scraped by and the writing let you down. Though it sounds like you did a lot better than a lot of other people would have done, and you’ve got the language barrier to contend with!

        I must admit, I barely revised for the speaking part and some of the questions caught me off guard – they really do ask some completely random ones with no rhyme or reason. It sounds like speaking English wasn’t the problem in your case (your English seems perfectly fine), it was that you just couldn’t think of an answer to the strange questions they ask. But you did manage to get the mark you wanted in this.

        For the writing – it does seem time is against you. I can’t write that fast, especially now as I’m used to doing everything on a keyboard. So I would recommend taking in a pencil and a rubber/eraser (a good one, not one that’s on the pencil itself). And a pencil sharpener.

        Read BOTH questions at the start of the test. That way, you can be thinking about how to answer the second question whilst you’re doing the first one.

        I would write straight onto the sheet, as opposed to using the blank space they provide for a “draft” and copying it over. This way, you only have to write it once, giving you a bit more time.

        Finally, for the number of words, every time you finish a paragraph do a quick count of how many words you just wrote. Write this, in pencil, at the end of the paragraph. This way, you can quickly judge how many you’ve written overall. Rub out the word count just before the test finishes.

        Again, good luck – sounds as if you’ll be fine though.

        • Ronny March 19, 2016, 2:23 am |

          Dear djmcbell, dear Bob,

          First off I want to thank both of you for your kind words.
          @djmcbell : at the time you wrote, I was preparing for my second sitting for ielts.
          I decided to take private lessons to improve my writing (band 6.0). I sat 2 weeks ago and I got the results today.

          The reading, listening and speaking were the same ( 8.0 – 8.5 – 7.0). The writing, though, is better 6.5. Unfortunately not good enough because I cannot afford any band under 7.
          Thus, my down under project is down. I might try again although, despite all my efforts, I think it is too demanding.

          Good luck to all

          • BobinOz March 20, 2016, 11:51 pm |

            Don’t give up Ronny, your other scores are really good. Some people take this test many times, I’ve heard stories of people having eight or nine goes.

            I have a feeling for you though; we have a phrase in the UK, maybe you have it as well, it’s ‘third time lucky’.

            Give it another go, because 6.0 which became 6.5 could become 7.0.

          • djmcbell March 31, 2016, 10:59 pm |

            Hi Ronny

            Again, sorry for the late reply. You’ve taken the IELTS twice now (as far as I know) and you’re getting the hang of it. You’re basically there, just being let down on minor things.

            Please don’t let it get you down. There were people that were taking the tests at the same time as me who had taken it (as Bob says) 8 or 9 times, yet they were still trying. And I dare say, some of them will probably have passed.

            You are doing well in both the reading and listening, but it is the speaking and writing that appear to be catching you out (but not by much). That’s to be expected from everyone, as they’re the ones where you have to try and express yourself.

            I guess the only piece of advice I can give is that it is okay, on occasion, to…

            … LIE!

            Okay, one of my writing questions asked whether we should continue teaching children science subjects in school. My personal opinion is that we should, no questions asked. But I remembered my old English classes and how we had to address both sides of the argument in essays, so I made some stuff up about maybe it’s not necessary as not all children will need to know it, and maybe science could be optional… more to fill up space and show I was at least considering both sides of the argument.

            As for the speaking… I think they’ve got an infinite amount of questions to draw from to fill the 15 minutes, so I don’t think it would have been a case that you would have gotten to the end of the 15 minute slot and didn’t answer all the questions in time. I think they just keep asking them until time runs out, so don’t be disheartened.

            If you decide to try again (and I hope you do), best of luck!

  • Sandra July 7, 2015, 12:23 am |

    This is an excellent and timely article. My husband and I will be taking the IELTS general test at the end of July as a precursor to getting our skills assessments and submitting an EOI. The closer the date looms, the scarier it gets. Will take the advise given practise!

    • BobinOz July 7, 2015, 7:44 pm |

      You mean practice.

      Practice, practice, practice!

      Can you see the difference? Just trying to help, everything else was grammatically perfect 🙂

      Good luck with your test, Bob

  • Isobel June 24, 2015, 9:43 pm |

    Thanks for the advice djmcbell and Peter. I keep checking back for these hints!

    I should be booking my test for the next week or so. I’m pretty nervous and worry I’ll forget how to speak English at all! You wouldn’t think I was a professional who does presentations and chairs meeting all the time, would you!? 🙂

    • Peter June 29, 2015, 4:52 am |

      English is not even my first language and I did well. So don’t worry. You will be fine.

  • Peter June 22, 2015, 2:25 am |

    Hello guys,
    My experience and advise to people taking IELTS:
    Secret of success: Practice, Practice and more Practice

    I took my IELTS in USA and scored 8 overall. My wife and I prepared together and it helped. She got 8.5. When I went to take IELTS, I was surprised that the Listening part was little difficult for me because it was conducted on an open classroom, no individual booth with head phones, people were coughing and sneezing at the wrong time, while the CS was playing. “Paper” noise bother my concentration as well. Australian accent was different than American but I could guess mostly. Other part was fairly fine.

    I used Cambridge preparation. Concentrate and practice.

    Just letting people know.

    • djmcbell June 23, 2015, 12:19 am |

      Yep, listening test in an open classroom. I had a tickly cough that day and had to try to hold it back until the next section!

  • Claire June 15, 2015, 7:54 am |

    Very useful. We have just started the visa process so this will be interesting to read through beforehand. If everything goes according to plan, the three of us should be arriving in Brisbane sometime in the next 18 months ??

    • Alex June 15, 2015, 4:19 pm |

      Hi Claire,
      i wish you and your family all the best for your journey.
      Cheers, Alex

      • Claire June 15, 2015, 10:12 pm |

        Thanks Alex. The other half should be fine with the IELTS but we are still very nervous. It’s been a while since he has done any type of exam. If he can’t speak English after living in the UK his whole life then we are in trouble! It would also prove my point that he always talks jibberish 😉

        • Isobel June 17, 2015, 9:57 pm |

          Same situation here. Born in England and studied to Masters degree but slightly panicking over the IELTS! I really need the full 20 points which does mount on the pressure.
          I have purchased the IELTS Express training for £29 via a link on this site and must say I am finding it really helpful and certainly worth the money. The structured and timed exam practice is just what I need. The written test seems to be pretty formulaic and the course has a copy of the marking criteria so you can be sure to include exactly what they are looking for.
          I’m pleased to say I’ve done well in the pre-course practices so hoping that it’s mostly about technique and time management now. And not letting nerves get the better of me!
          Will feedback when I’ve passed.

          • Claire June 18, 2015, 12:30 am |

            We were discussing paying for the training package earlier today. Now you have said it’s bee. helpful, that is now our job for the weekend. I’ll keep our 18 month old entertained and the other half can go through it. I hope it doesn’t rain!

            • djmcbell June 23, 2015, 12:21 am |

              Best of luck to you both, Claire and Isobel. 20 points – hope you get them. I managed a 9.0 overall, which equates to 20 points, but only needed to get 10 which I was already nervous about getting. I’d probably have been a bag of nerves if I’d had to get the full 20.

        • Peter June 22, 2015, 2:27 am |

          Hey Claire,
          Try to speak clear and full sentences. Do not use slangs in the speaking test. Also be very professional. They will be casual talk after the test.

          • djmcbell June 23, 2015, 12:23 am |

            Definitely good advice. Don’t worry about trying to fit as much into your sentences as possible too – take your time and, as Peter says, speak clearly and in full sentences.

  • Ronny June 12, 2015, 12:18 am |

    excellent post & congrats for your high scoring !

    I guess you sat in for the first time ? Nice job !
    Can any non-english native speaker share his own experience ? I’ve been told the IELTS is meant to assess your capability to “think” in english (and thus to express your thoughts in english), and surprisingly many english native speakers are fearing this test.
    I’m french and will have to mark 7,5 point on each part of the academic module to fulfil my profeciency requirements … a bit scary.

    Anyhow I do notice to learn as many synonyms as possible ! thanks for this hint 😉

    • djmcbell June 12, 2015, 1:12 am |

      Yep, it was my first one. I really cannot imagine what it must be like for someone who doesn’t use English as their first language. I’ve only studied other languages in high school (just the obligatory bits of French and German, and a tiny bit of Italian) and found them very difficult – having to think about whether a word is male or female got me every time.

      I really hope you do well – best of luck. And yep, synonyms will help in the Listening exam.

    • Alex June 12, 2015, 4:51 pm |

      Hi Ronny,
      i’m not a native English speaker (german speaker – from austria) and I did the general IELTS together with my wife. For both of us one of the best preperation was to speak english with each other as much as possible. And of course the preperation material from the IELTS site.

      Take your time for preparation, study hard and of course you’ll make it.
      I wish you all the best!
      Cheers, Alex

  • djmcbell June 11, 2015, 4:57 pm |

    Yay me! And it’s got clipart and everything!

    One thing to quickly point out is what Martin said when I posted this in the main IELTS topic, which is that his Listening exam was done on a different day. Obviously different places have different facilities.

    I’m now on my EOI having achieved a quite satisfying 75 points (20 of them in the IELTS, having got a 9.0 in everything but Writing, where I got an 8.0, but that gave me a 9.0 overall – though I believe Martin got 9.0 in everything).

    • BobinOz June 11, 2015, 6:05 pm |

      Just so that you know, I did run spell check as well, couldn’t find a danged thing wrong with it. Great post djmcbell and I’m glad to hear you like the pretty pictures 🙂

    • Martin June 12, 2015, 4:24 pm |

      Very nice article and well presented 🙂 You can probably tick internet famous off the bucket list! It may not be a you tube clip of someone getting cracked in the nuts to roaring applause but it is a lot more useful 🙂

      • djmcbell June 12, 2015, 5:08 pm |

        Well I know what I’m doing this weekend now!

  • Claire Pepper-Rogers June 11, 2015, 4:56 pm |

    I did the academic version as being a teacher I thought the slightly harder qualification might stand me in good stead later on. Got 8s/9s and my 20 points-yay! My advice is practice; for many people it’s a long time since they’ll have written timed essays and the like and a few dry runs are worth it. The practice booklets are really helpful as like all examinations sometimes the answer they are looking for can seem slightly obtuse. Good luck to all IELTS-ers out there 🙂

    • BobinOz June 11, 2015, 6:03 pm |

      Yes, you can’t beat practice for preparation. Congrats on an excellent score Claire, academic as well, very nice 🙂

  • Alex June 10, 2015, 11:59 pm |

    Great post – as usual 😉
    I also took the IELTS in austria and for the listening i totally agree: know as many synonyms as possible. And for the writing make sure you don’t write less or more words than requested.

    Cheers, Alex

    • BobinOz June 11, 2015, 6:02 pm |

      It was a marvellous, fine, exceptional, awesome, wonderful, terrific and good post and as you can see, I’ve been brushing up on my synonyms 🙂

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