According to Greg Selby, Head of Exams, British Council East Asia, there is much evidence that learning the various task types in IELTS is the quickest and most effective way of improving your band score. Recent research conducted on over 100,000 British Council candidates who were using an official IELTS preparation product, found that after using the program for just six hours, candidates’ scores in the Reading module activities improved by, on average, 64%. His conclusion? Since there can be no significant change in their level of English in 6 hours, their improvement came from learning how to answer the questions.
Even for high level students of English, it is naïve to think that you can just turn up for the exam and perform at your best based purely on your English proficiency. If you want to achieve the very best band score you can, it is fundamental to prepare well for IELTS in advance of test day. Whether or not you choose to take an accredited IELTS exam preparation course (online or classroom-based), you should definitely plan an effective study schedule, source appropriate practice materials and seek quality websites, podcasts and online tutorials to help you learn exam strategies that are specific to IELTS.
Being well prepared includes:
Understanding the structure of the exam
Can you answer the following questions?
- What’s the difference between the General Training and Academic modules?
- Which one should you choose?
- How many sections of the IELTS test are there?
- What are they?
- Which order do you have to do them in?
- How many questions are there in each paper?
- How much time is allowed for each section?
If you are able to answer these questions, you are already familiar with the format of the test. If not, this is your starting point. The IELTS exam is different to any exam you may have done before and therefore it is important to know its components and what will be expected of you.
Understanding the requirements of exam
Students often underestimate the requirements of the IELTS exam because they misunderstand its purpose and assume it will test how much English they know. In actual fact, the IELTS exam is very much a test of what you can do in English, rather than what you know. The IELTS test has a number of tasks with specific objectives and your goal is to achieve the objective. You are assessed on how well you accomplish the given task.
Understanding how it is graded
Each band score corresponds to a description of the language ability required to achieve it. It is important to have a realistic idea of how your current level of English compares to the band score you hope to achieve so that you know how much preparation you need to do and what kind of preparation. The Writing and Speaking tests have band descriptors which more specifically describe a candidate’s performance in four categories. Familiarising yourself with these descriptors will help focus your individual study plan.
Being familiar with task types and content
In the Reading test, there are 14 different types of questions you may be asked and in the Listening paper, there are 10. By preparing in advance, you will know exactly what they are and get plenty of practice in answering them. The same concept applies to the content of both papers. The reading texts and dialogues are all of a certain type so if you have done some practice papers before the exam, you will know what to expect and won’t be surprised on the day.
Being familiar with common topics
Certain topics occur regularly in the Speaking and Writing exams. By knowing these in advance, you can equip yourself with a wide range of lexis, including high-scoring vocabulary, synonyms, phrases, expressions, phrasal verbs and so on.
Being able to identify and improve on your weaknesses
Of course, positive thinking and self-belief are important factors for any exam success. However, so is a realistic awareness of your weaknesses. You may already know the kind of skills or questions that you find difficult, but you should also be aware of the areas in which you under-perform, which is not necessarily the same thing. Find out by doing practice tests and past papers, which will give you a general idea of your weaker and stronger skills, as well as highlight any particular tasks or strategies you need to practise further. For example, you may find labelling maps really easy but take too long choosing an answer in the multiple choice section. This information can guide your preparation schedule.
Being able to complete the tasks under exam conditions
Good time management is essential on the IELTS test. Many candidates fail to get the score they need because they don’t finish the tests in the time given. Preparation should include lots of practice under strict exam timings, as well as using specific strategies to help you read more quickly, listen more effectively and locate or identify the answer successfully.
Having specific strategies for effective Reading and Listening comprehension and for approaching Writing Tasks 1 and 2
Skills need practice but they also need to be practised in the right way and that means quality, not quantity. For example, it is no good just practising exam tasks over and over again if you are not using good strategies for reading/listening strategically. So good exam preparation means researching different strategies that will help you do these, finding those that suit you and then practising them intensively before the exam. The same goes for the Writing paper. Tasks 1 and 2 in both the General Training and Academic modules are very different and you should be familiar with what is required of you in each case and have a well-developed strategy for organising your ideas and writing an appropriate response.
The very best thing you can do to boost your confidence on the day of the exam and increase your chances of success is to be well-prepared. I have previously written blog posts on most of the above sections, which you may find helpful to kick-start your exam preparation and remember to check our IELTS Hub regularly, where each week I add 10 new links to free online English language websites, podcasts, tutorials, videos and TED talks to help you improve your level of English and to help you prepare for the exam.