Getting ready to take an English language exam? Guess what? It’s not easy. Achieving high scores (be it a 6.5/93 or 7.5/110, IELTS / TOEFL, respectively) requires a lot of work, a lot of determination, and a lot of patience. That said, what your test success depends on the most is your preparation.
Taking your English level into account, give yourself enough time to get to know the test as well as your abilities. Take as many practice tests as you can and figure out your strengths and weaknesses, and then concentrate your efforts on the latter.
For most test-takers, this weakest link is writing. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a test-taker say, “I’ve taken this test (5, 10, 12, ____) times, but always I fail in the writing section. What should I do?” —well, you’re not alone. This chart from ielts.org proves it:
These figures show the mean overall and individual band scores achieved by 2015 Academic and General Training test takers according to their gender.
Mean band scores for female test takers
Mean band scores for male test takers
So, what can you do to change this? Here are five steps to start with:
1) Start early — Most people preparing for a language exam start by practicing the listening and reading sections first. Instead, start with the writing. This is the most difficult of the four skills to develop, and as such it takes the longest to master. By working on your writing skills you will also, as a natural byproduct, improve your reading. Keep in mind that reading and writing are related skills. So, …
2) Start reading — Read. Every. Day. Read the news in print or online (in English), read magazines, books on your favorite subject, fiction, non-fiction, practically anything (well, maybe not comic books). I personally recommend novels because the style of writing and the vocab you will encounter in these books will give you much better insights into sentence structures, grammar rules (see how they bend), and vocab usage. Novelists don’t just write —they play with the language. As should you. Reading should be fun and informative, so why not enter a magical world and create a movie in your mind, or learn something new? Besides, your test likely has a reading section, so, really, you’re preparing for two sections at once, and having a broad vocab range is essential to both.
Speaking of vocab…
3) Keep a vocabulary journal — If you’re reading Harry Potter, don’t worry too much about muggles, but do take note of new words that appear often and whose meaning you’re unsure of. Don’t forget to look at different forms of the word as well (did you know that the noun accent can be used as a verb? To accentuate means to emphasize, or make more noticeable), and don’t forget a synonym or two to help build your vocab base faster and extend your range. Keep this journal with you at all times until test day and go over your list regularly; you never know what word you’ll hear in a movie or see on a bus advert.
Most importantly, start using these words (learn more about vocab building).
4) Brainstorm ideas before test day — Another statement I often hear from test takers: “I don’t know what to write about. I don’t have any ideas for these topics.” This, too, can be remedied— start building an idea bank. This is a collection of keywords, questions, examples, associated subtopics (e.g., Education learning a foreign language when to start (elementary school vs. high school, etc.), consequences (culture loss, hurt native tongue, etc.), and so on.) In other words, don’t wait until you are sitting for the test to start thinking about what to write; by the time you get to the essay you will already be stressed out and tired. Have your ideas ready to go, and use your energy to concentrate on the writing itself, on the grammar, the vocab, sentence and paragraph structures, transitions, and so on.
Sounds difficult? Of course it is. Impossible? Hardly. (Learn more about the idea bank)
5) Write, write, write. — You know the old saying: practice makes perfect. Don’t let your official test be the first or second time you write an essay. Write 2 – 3 essays per week until your test. Ideally, get feedback on these samples to see where you’re making errors so you can work to fix them.
Again, it’s not easy (if it were, I wouldn’t have any tips to give you.) But…, it’s doable. So…, go do it!