IELTS Strategies & Tips

As with any project you will face in university, college, or your chosen career,
success will begin with a carefully planned approach to the task(s) at hand. The first step on this path is actually the end—What are you trying to achieve?
What is your aim/target? What is the best way to get there?

When it comes to a standardized test, your first step is to understand what score/band you need in order to achieve the results you want. Then, you must understand what is involved in achieving that score/band, that is, what is demanded of you. For example, what raw score do you need in order to get a 7 or 7.5? Knowing this will allow you to calculate how many questions you can “afford” to miss or skip.

Let’s look at the IELTS listening and reading conversion table on the right as an example:

Table 1: Source: http://www.ielts.org/institutions/test_format_and_results/how_is_ielts_marked.aspx

Listening
Band score Raw score out of 40
5 16
6 23
7 30
8 35

 

General Training Reading Academic Reading
Band score Raw score out of 40 Band score Raw score out of 40
4 15 5 15
5 23 6 23
6 30 7 30
7 34 8 35




What this table suggests is that to get a 7.5 in the listening section, you will need to correctly answer 33–34 questions (out of a total of 40). In other words, you can skip or make an error on 6–7 questions and still reach your score.

You should also make use of your strengths. The final score is an average of the four sections. For example, if you score an 8 in the Listening section, you can score a 6.5 in the Speaking section and still make the 7.5 total (8 + 6.5 =14.5/2 = 7.25, which rounds up to 7.5, though you would still need at least one 7.5 band in either Writing or Reading). What this suggests is that you can focus more on one skill, score high on it, and use that score to boost your weaker skill. Keep in mind, however, that some schools and governments may ask for a minimum score in all four sections.

Most test takers aim for a 7.5 band. This band will gain you admission to any university as far as English proficiency is concerned. In other words, you do not need a 9, or even an 8 (except in some rare cases). This means that you do not need to aim for a perfect score. Why not use the fact that you can afford a buffer of 6–7 questions to a) help you focus on the strongest sections and relax a little during the more difficult sections, and b) use the buffer to gain time and better prepare for those difficult sections? This is even more useful if you only need a 6.5 or 7 band.

What follows is a list of tips and strategies to follow in preparing for and taking the IELTS exam:

  • Be prepared:

Make sure you have completed at least 3–4 full practice tests before your official test. Don’t leave yourself open to any surprises on test day. Know all the directions, the question types, the test structure, timing, etc.

  • Simulate the test experience:

When you practice a full test, do it early in the morning at a place where you will not be disturbed. Turn off your phone (you will not be allowed to take your phone into the test room, so get used to your phone being off for 3 hours).
Tell friends and/or family not to disturb you for 3 hours. Follow the timelines of each section. Use a pencil. If you have no one to administer the Speaking section, do it yourself and record it (read out the questions, answer them).
Get someone capable to score your Writing and Speaking sections (WritetoTop offers this service).

  • Practice, Practice, Practice:

Listen to native English speakers (radio, online, TV, wherever you can) and take notes. Write a summary of what you heard. Write essays and reports, leave them for a few days, then return to them and edit them. Read every day (read what is interesting for you, but also what is not so interesting). Learn new vocab and practice recent vocab, every day. Speak English at every opportunity, preferably with a native English user. However, if you don’t have this opportunity, speak with someone who does not speak your native language*.
If you don’t have this chance either, record yourself speaking (reading an article out loud, or have a “conversation” with a character in a movie) and check your own delivery.

*(For example, a Chinese student should speak with a Korean, or Mexican, or German student if possible. This will force you to use English as the common language. Speaking with someone who shares your language (i.e., another Chinese student) will usually result in a short conversation that will quickly turn away from English. Also, both/all of you probably make similar mistakes, especially if you learned English in the same educational system. In this case you will overlook these mistakes because you might not recognize them as such.)

  • Go fresh:

The night before the test, do not study and do not go out with friends (obviously do not drink any alcohol). Go to sleep early to be well rested. Wake up early and take your time with your morning rituals (bath, shave, makeup, hair, etc.). Have a good breakfast (protein and carbohydrates; minimize the sugars; if you need a coffee, have it well before the test starts; energy drinks are not recommended—there is no (washroom) break during the IELTS exam and nothing allowed in the test room, so when you come down from the energy high, you can’t raise it again).


  • Speak with real people:

If you are shy or become nervous speaking in English,
make sure you practice at least once before the test. Speak to a native English user, in person, just to see that he or she will not eat you alive;
you will not explode; neither your head nor your tongue will melt; you will not faint—in fact, nothing will happen to you. The interviewer at the IELTS test center is just doing his/her job. Do not be nervous—speak!

  • Develop a broad vocabulary base:

The only way to score high on the IELTS is by knowing many words, especially higher-end words. You will listen to these, read these, be required to write and say these. Keep a notebook and write down new words you learn. Don’t forget to review these lists every day.

  • Discover your approach to the Reading section:

Find one way that works well for you and practice that one way every time. Do not experiment with different approaches close to test day (see some ideas for this in the reading strategies section).

  • Create an idea bank for the Writing Task 2:

Try to minimize the thinking you need to do for your essay. Have some ideas prepared beforehand and spend the bulk of your time writing. What this means is that you should not face an essay question that you have no idea how to answer because you had never thought about this topic before. This will cost you lots of time and you will likely write a weak essay. Have the ideas ready for any topic well before test day (Find out more about an idea bank).

  • Spelling counts:

In order to remember how to spell words that are difficult for you, write them out 50 times. Each repetition should be the same as the one before it. Start with a dictionary for the first copy, then copy it exactly for the next 49. (seperate is an example. Check the dictionary; write separate on a sheet of paper. Repeat another 49 times. Entry 50 should look the same as entry 1, and you should be able to do it again without looking at previous entries).

  • Legibility counts:

Learn to write neatly with clear letters and words. If the grader can’t read what you have written, then you may as well have not written anything and therefore either not answered the question, or not answered it well. Regardless, you will receive a low score. The graders will not struggle to read your messy handwriting.

  • Learn grammar:

You will read and be asked to write complex sentence structures. Make sure you know how to analyze them in text for content and how to construct them in your writing. Sentence variety is very important.

  • Focus on transition and linking words:

These will offer clues in the Reading section and are necessary for a high score in the Writing section, especially the essay. (moreover, on the other hand, therefore, however, consequently, nevertheless, etc.)

  • Learn to relax:

There is never a need to panic. Breathe. You can take the test again if necessary—the more nervous you become during the test, the more likely it is that you will need to take it again.