Your (Not So) Short Guide to the IELTS Test

If you are applying for scholarship or planning to work in an English-speaking country, you will most likely be required a language qualification test such as TOEFL or IELTS. They test your speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills.

For the IELTS test, a 9-scale scoring system (1 is given to “non-users” and 9 for “expert users”) is utilized and though there’s no pass or fail marks, most universities and companies abroad require a band score of 6.0-6.5 and above.

GENERAL TIPS:

  1. Prepare for the correct type of test.

Those who will study abroad are required IELTS Academic while those who will work will most likely be required the IELTS General Training test. (It is important to ask the company what test type they’re requiring. ) They differ in the reading and writing components so prepare accordingly.

  1. Go for the IELTS computer-based test (CBT).

I was at first leaning towards the paper-based test, as I like to hold the booklet and write by hand. The decisive factor, however, is the listening test. Choosing paper-based means you will be listening to accented recordings on the stereo with the rest of the test-takers. CBT means you will be provided with a headset for clearer audio and you will also be saved from manually counting words in the writing test. (Note: You will still be taking the CBT onsite not online.)

  1. Schedule the speaking test before or after the rest of the test.

I had all four of them in one day with speaking at 12 noon and the rest at 2 p.m. Because of nervousness (and because I could not find a Jollibee that has walking distance to the test center), I was only able to eat a cupcake and kalamansi juice for lunch at a nearby café.

  1. Highly recommended: Practice using IELTS Online Tests.

This website simulates the test so accurately that I wondered how it is legal. Take as many mock tests as you can and receive your band score right after. The length of the reading passages is closer to the actual test than the ones found in reviewers. It has a timer that you can pause if you need a breather. (You can’t do that in the actual test though.) The speaking tests also contain sample answers. The writing test can be graded if you pay.

  1. If you prefer self-study, download these e-books from my digital library.

If you must read one, read Peter May’s IELTS Practice Tests published by the Oxford University Press. I first saw this book at the British Council lounge in Cebu an hour before the test began and I grabbed it to quell my anxiety. It is compact and helped me so much in my cramming. 🙂

  1. But if you prefer a more structured review, take classes in a review center.

My friends in Cebu told me most of their friends took a formal review. When I met my batch of test-takers—nurses, students, workers, and one holder of a blue diplomatic passport—I found out most of them did the same. (There’s also a student who came all the way from China in order to review in Cebu.) That most of them formally reviewed made me so worried that I almost forgot I had been an English teacher. British Council Philippines recommends these centers.

  1. Eat strategically before the test.

Time your bladder and bowel movements. Why? You will not be allowed to take toilet breaks during the test. If you must go, then the time won’t be stopped and you’ll lose precious score. Eat light and healthy meals on test day.

  1. Test day tips.

Ensure you won’t get lost on test day by taking a trip to the center days ahead. Leave early as photos and fingerprints will need to be taken. (I was three hours early.) Don’t forget to bring your passport and ID. No need to bring anything else as pencil, eraser, and scratch paper will be provided. Read the tasks carefully. If you have questions or problems, talk to the invigilator.

  1. Pray.

Leave it all to God. Pray for perseverance while reviewing for the test, mental strength during the test, and a miracle after. 😀

Now on to the individual tests, arranged in the same order that I took them. (Click the headings.)

SPEAKING

Challenge: For 15 minutes, speak one-on-one with an examiner about your life and your views. There are three sections: 1) 5-minute personal interview; 2) 1-2 minute talk based on a given topic with 1-minute prep time; and 3) 5-minute discussion on the said topic.

Booboo: I was too engrossed with our discussion about science fiction and self-driving cars that I forgot the examiner is British, and that I was referencing mostly the US public transport. I got self-conscious and told him this mistake. He just laughed it off though.

Scoring criteria: Fluency and coherence, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Tips:

  1. Practice with a friend, preferably an English teacher. 🙂 Have him/her correct your grammar, pronunciation, flow of ideas, etc. Also note your use of speech fillers (e.g. um, like, kinda, kanang, erm, I mean, actually, etc.) and break this habit. Use a timer.
  2. Wear comfortable clothes (smart casual). Avoid distractions such as heavy makeup, heavy perfume, sweating, unkempt hair, nervous tapping of feet, touching of your face…Bring hanky.
  3. Build an easy rapport by observing basic courtesies—gently close the door, use firm handshake, wait for an invitation to sit (but not too long: sit but don’t be rash), smile, eye contact, etc.
  4. Think that the examiner wants you to succeed. Thinking otherwise will just make you nervous and who wants to talk to a bumbling, sweating interviewee?
  5. Be sincere in your answers.
  6. The second part is best answered mostly by telling a story. You’re welcome. 🙂
  7. For the third part, listen to the examiner and try to understand what you’re really being asked. Expand your answers but don’t hog the discussion.
LISTENING

Challenge: For 30 minutes, listen to four recordings and answer 40 questions. The recordings involve 1) conversations between two people; 2) monologue in a social context (e.g. tour guide); conversations of up to four people in an academic context; and 4) university lecture.

Question types: multiple choice, matching, labelling (map, plan, diagram), completion (form, note, table, flow-chart, sentence, summary) and short-answer questions.

Scoring: Each item corresponds to 1 point, which will be transmuted to a band score. Here’s a calc.

Tips:

  1. Check your headset and audio. Report any kind of malfunction before test starts (or during, if there is).
  2. Read what is asked before pressing the play button. Write your answers as you listen. Remember you only get to hear the recording once.
  3. Double-check your answers esp. the spelling and capitalization.
  4. If you were not able to hear the word properly, write down your best guess. Do not leave any blank items.
  5. Familiarize jargons. For example, in my actual test, the speaker was counting numbers and kept on saying “naught” to mean zero.
  6. Familiarize various native-speaker accents such as American, British, Canadian, Australian…
  7. Usually the questions follow the flow of the recording. But there are booby traps to watch out for.
ACADEMIC READING

Challenge: Read three texts and answer 40 questions, all in a span of one hour. The passages are extracted from journals, newspapers, and magazines and can have about 800 to 1,400 words each.

Topics vary. For example, my practice readings involved magnetism, Mozart effect, pest control, neuroscience of music, children’s literature, talcum powder, heat wave of 2003, dinosaurs, Ice age, fruit trees, among others. The time limit scared me because even if I am an avid reader, I read at a leisurely pace.

Question types: multiple choice; identifying information (True/False/Not Given); identifying writer’s claims (Yes/No/Not Given); matching (information, headings, sentence endings); completion (sentence, summary, table, notes, flow-chart diagram); and short-answer questions.

Scoring: Each item corresponds to 1 point, which will be transmuted to a band score. Here’s a calc.

Tips:

  1. Read a LOT in the aforementioned website (ieltsonlinetests.com). Time yourself.
  2. Practice critical reading: Try to understand the purpose of the text—is it meant to just present an idea or a problem or argue against or for something? Note its flow.
  3. Use the website’s instant results to spot the question types that you are weak in answering. Mine is the Yes/No/Not Given type and I had to work on it. Analyze your mock results.
  4. During the test, read the questions first before reading the passage.
  5. Note the word limit of some answers (e.g. “not more than two words”). Check first if the words are already given in the text or you have to formulate your own. Contextualize.
  6. Use the highlighter tool in the test interface. In my case, I have employed color-coding for names, key words or phrases, topic sentences, concepts, dates/years, etc.
  7. Some of the questions are tricky so review your answers. I had a few minutes left in the actual test so I was able to guesstimate my score.
ACADEMIC WRITING

Challenge: In one hour, write a 150-word report and a 250-word essay based on two different topics.

For the report, you will be given a table, chart, or diagram. Analyze or compare the data and present them in a coherent manner. For the essay, you will be given a topic that you can explain, argue about, depending on the instruction.

Booboo: So, my problem started when I tackled the 250-word essay first, which I know will be scored twice as much as the report. The task required me to discuss how air travel affects the environment and how to regulate it. It was a tough task as I had to organize my ideas on pollution and noise, carbon footprints, benefits of air travel in this age of globalization, of mobilization being a human right, budget flights, how some regulations can be anti-poor, the wealthy’s excessive use of private jets, etc., etc.

I was actually satisfied with my essay. Except that when I checked the time, I only had 15 minutes left to analyze the chart and write the report. Time went by so fast when I was writing the first task.

Fourteen minutes left and I was still squinting at the bar graph about company sales, which began from June of one year to May of the next year. 12 minutes left and I was regretting why I did not tackle it first. 11 and I was writing the intro and trends (highest and lowest sales based on months or season). 8 minutes and I was already panicking how the word count did not even reach half the 150 words needed. I was typing though my chest was already pounding. 5 minutes left and I still needed words. 4 minutes and I was already guesstimating my band score for the writing test and realizing that even if I get high marks on two-thirds of the test, it will not be enough. Two minutes left and I returned to the report. One minute left and I was writing and editing it until the seconds tick to naught…

Scoring: You will be scored based on how much you complete the task; present, compare and analyze data; describe a process or explain how something works; organize ideas; present opinions and compare, contrast and evaluate them. All in an academic or neutral tone.

Tips:

  1. The best way to practice is to write and write. (I sweated so much in this section because I only read sample reports and essays.) Write your own answers first before comparing it with the model texts found in the books.
  2. Budget your time wisely. Tackle the chart/graph/table/diagram first. Review tips on writing from non-prose to prose. (Basic English 1/ English 11.) Note trends, processes, and the many ways of articulating them and write the report.
  3. For the second task, note the verbs used in the instruction as they give a cue on how to organize your essay. Organize your ideas first before writing them.
  4. Some IELTS consultants from Cambridge suggested a set of essay structures for Task 2. They said the essays fall into two types—Opinion essay and Ideas essay—and each has their own formulas.   
    Opinion essays: Sample tasks and essay structures
    “So and so is X. Do you agree or disagree with this view?” [Introduce the topic and your stand—Supporting paragraph—Discuss opposing view—Restate your opinion in conclusion]
    “Discuss both sides.” [Introduce the topic—Discuss first view—Discuss opposing view—Conclude]
    “Discuss both views and give your own opinion.” [Introduce the topic—Discuss first view—Discuss opposing view—State your opinion—Conclude]
     
    Ideas essays: Sample tasks and essay structures
    “What are the causes and effects of X?” [Introduce the topic—Discuss 2-3 causes—Discuss 2-3 effects—Summarize/Conclude]
    “Identify one or two serious problems and suggest ways that X can tackle these.” [Introduce the issue/problems—Supporting details—Discuss solutions—Summarize/Conclude.]
    “What are the benefits of X? How can we Y it?” [Introduce the issue—Answer Q1 and support— Answer Q2 and support —Summarize/Conclude.]
     
  5. Some basic tips: Spell out words (no contractions), spell out symbols (e.g. percent), use third-person POV, use formal language/tone, don’t write too much (meet the word count but don’t exceed by 100 words), think quality over quantity, write clearly and concisely. Edit well.

Do you have questions or tips or IELTS stories? Share them below.

Photo credit: IELTS Pencil

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