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.
What 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
The 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:
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:
You’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.
The 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.
The 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).
Put 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: