IELTS Exam Overview

Mastering the English language is a big step towards securing your spot at many top universities globally. But how exactly do you prove your proficiency? The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a standardized testing method that can score your English abilities from beginner to expert levels. This testing method is owned by Cambridge Assessment English, IDP: IELTS Australia, and The British Council and is widely regarded as the foremost English assessment platform. The test follows a very logical structure and each section can be studied in depth to ensure sufficient results.

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What Is IELTS?

IELTS is a standardized English testing method. The test scores students on a band of 0-9 (beginner to advanced) in 4 areas of the language. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are all tested with a range of question formats. These test results are internationally accredited and will open many doors to universities and job opportunities all over the world. The IELTS test can be taken as an academic test (for university enrollment) or as a general training test which is more applicable to people entering the workforce.

Why is IELTS Important for International Students?

Tens of thousands of universities, businesses, and governments require a firm grasp of the English language. This test will allow you to prove those skills based on an international standard. The general training test is done especially by people hoping to emigrate to countries like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. It is also useful when studying below a degree level. The academic test is essential when enrolling at universities abroad where you will be studying in English. This is not only to prove your knowledge to the institution but also to ensure you are able to smoothly transition into a highly competitive academic environment, in a second language.

What is the format of the IELTS test?

There are four sections in the test: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Each section is divided into different sub-sections to evaluate various ways of answering questions. Usually, the listening, reading, and writing sections are all completed on one day and the speaking portion either before or after that. As previously mentioned, 2 IELTS tests can be taken. Academic and General Training papers are the same for the speaking and the listening portions of the test. The reading and writing sections differ as these tests aim to evaluate your proficiency for different purposes.


The speaking test has 3 parts. Part 1 is an interview format with 12 questions. These are more personal questions and cover themes of yourself, your life, and your country.

Next, you will receive a topic card containing a question and speaking points. You have one minute to make notes on your card where after you need to speak uninterrupted for 1-2 minutes. These questions usually require you to recount a story from your life.

The final speaking part will see the examiner asking broader questions about the topic you were given in section 2. This is a discussion section where you are able to relate your ideas to a bigger train of thought.


The listening section has 4 kinds of recordings you will hear.

  • Two people having an informal conversation.
  • One person speaking about an informal topic.
  • Up to four people speaking in a more formal setting.
  • One person speaking on an academic subject.

There are various question structures you can expect all with different instructions. It is very important to read the instructions clearly to know what is expected of you. This section can be particularly tricky as small spelling errors or word count mistakes will result in wrong answers.


The reading portion comes directly after listening and you are allotted 1 hour. There are 3 sections, each increasing in difficulty. The reading passages are often filled with technical or academic language. This will test students’ ability to look for context clues to derive meaning from the passage. There are various question structures that students should prepare for as there is no hard and fast rule on what kind of questions you can expect.

This is the first section where general training and academic papers differ. Here the question formats for both of them are the same but the content and layout of the reading passages differ vastly.


The final section is writing. This is divided into 2 tasks.

Task 1 requires you to write a minimum of 150 words and it is suggested that you spend around 20 minutes on this part. You are given a chart (line graph, pie chart, bar chart, map, diagram, or table) and you need to put the information from the chart into words. You will need to discuss numbers, trends, and changes over time as seen on the graphics you are provided with.

Task 2 has a word count of at least 250 words and it counts for two-thirds of your final writing score. Here you will write an academic essay discussing a topic or giving an opinion, providing a solution, or analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of certain scenarios. You should spend around 40 minutes on task 2.

For the general training test, task 1 requires you to write a letter instead of a report. Task 2 is very similar but it is easier and the issues are clearer and more familiar.

How is the IELTS test scored?

The IELTS test is scored on a band from 0-9. You can also score a half-point for example 6.5. Each of the four sections is scored individually and collectively give you an average band score. The reading and listening sections are scored purely based on the marks you receive. As little as one point can move you up or down a band score.

Speaking and writing sections have descriptors that give clear indications of where your skill set lies on the scale. Your grammar, vocabulary range (lexical resource), pronunciation, and fluency are all scored for speaking. For writing, your task response and coherence are also evaluated.

Most universities require a score of at least 7 which is a CEFR level of C1. This indicates that you are a good user but some recurring errors are still made and there might be a limited understanding in some contexts. A score of 9 reflects that you are an expert user. 0-4 is equivalent to CEFR levels of A1 and A2. These results are valid for 2 years but the test can be taken multiple times.

How do I prepare for IELTS?

It is very important to understand the scoring system and have a clear idea of the expectations for your required band score. There are countless resources online with practice tests and thorough explanations of each section.

The test is very methodical and it is possible to train for each step. You should have a clear comprehension of all the question formats you could receive. The test is timed and this is an added pressure factor for many students. Thus, you should be doing practice tests under time constraints to ensure you can complete all the tasks in the allotted time.

You do need to be trained to fulfill all the requirements for the test and it is a good idea to have your English level tested beforehand, to set realistic expectations.


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