About the IELTS Exam

Over three million people take the IELTS exam every year, for university admission, their careers and to emigrate to other countries. In this post, find out more about the world’s most popular English exam.

What is IELTS?

IELTS – the International English Language Testing System – is an English language proficiency test.   This means that if you are not a native English speaker, you can use the IELTS exam to prove your level of English.  IELTS is recognised all around the world and is run by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English.  The results are valid for 2 years.

There are two types of IELTS exam – the Academic test and the General Training test.  The IELTS General Training is for people who are going to English speaking countries for high school or work experience.  A number of countries, like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK also require an IELTS score for immigration purposes.  The test focuses on language skills needs in broad social and workplace contexts.  The IELTS Academic test is for people applying to English speaking universities or to become part of a professional body.  It is focused on academic language and the skills you need to study at a university where English is the medium of instruction.

If you apply to an English-speaking university, they will have a certain language requirement, and IELTS is one way to show that you meet this.  For example, if you wish to apply to UCT, then you will first need to meet the degree’s academic requirements with your high school or undergraduate qualifications.  Then you will have to meet the language requirement to show that you can study in English.  At UCT, and many of the English-speaking universities around the world, an IELTS score of 6.5 is sufficient for admission.  Achieving this score will show that you can read, write, listen and speak English well enough to study at a university level.

How is the exam graded? 

The IELTS grading is on a scale of 0 to 9, in increments of 0.5 – for example 5.5, 6, 6.5, 7, etc.  A score of 9 is considered proficient (better than advanced!).  Your result will show an individual score for listening, reading, writing and speaking and an overall score.  You cannot ‘fail’ the IELTS exam – you will just not get the score that you need.

Many universities require an overall score of 6.5, so the average of the four individual scores needs to be a 6.5.  Sometimes a university will state in its entrance requirement that an overall score of 6.5 is needed, with no score lower than 6.  In other words, if you get 6.5 for reading, listening and speaking respectively but a 5 in writing, you will not meet the language requirement.

Some universities also offer Pathway programmes (also known as a foundation or pre-sessional), that you can be admitted to at a lower IELTS score.  You’ll be conditionally admitted to your degree programme and spend between three months and a year improving your English on the Pathway programme.  If you pass the programme, you’ll be admitted to your degree without having to do another IELTS exam.

What does the IELTS exam look like?

There are 4 exam papers in the IELTS exam – speaking, reading, listening and writing.  Each paper is marked individually.  The reading, listening and writing exams are written on a Saturday morning, with very short breaks between each paper.  For reading and writing, you have an hour for each paper and the listening exam usually takes about 40 minutes.  The speaking part takes place on a different day – usually in the week before the Saturday when the rest of the exam is written.  The speaking exam is an individual exam, just you and an examiner, and last between 11 and 14 minutes. 

Can I write the IELTS exam without preparation?

You can, but you’ll get a much better result if you prepare well with an organisation or teacher that is experienced in training and preparing students for the exam.

There are two aspects to your preparation.  Firstly, the language aspect.  To obtain a 7 in IELTS, you need to be at least upper-Intermediate level.  It is possible to write the exam if your level is lower, but then you will score lower (and probably not get the result you need to get into your university).  Good preparation for the IELTS exam will focus on the vocabulary and grammar of particular topics, such as the environment, technology and the future.

Secondly, you need to learn exam strategies.  IELTS is a very specific exam and to be successful you need to know the best way to approach each aspect of it.  In the reading and listening sections, there are various different types of questions and you’ll benefit from knowing particular strategies to answer each question type.  A good IELTS teacher will teach you exactly what each question focuses on and will give you strategies for dealing with that type of question.

Similarly, the writing section requires you to use certain essay structures for different kinds of question.  By training and familiarising yourself with these structures you’ll be able produces your essay more quickly and to a better standard.  The examiners are also looking at specific aspects of your writing, such as your ability to use a range of advanced grammatical structures.  Through exam training you can improve your ability use the kind of language which will get you the best possible result.

Another aspect of exam strategy is time management.  Many students run out of time on the reading and writing sections of the exam.  Through training, you can make your approach to the exam more efficient and maximise your chances of completing the tasks within the time allowed.

By training and knowing every aspect of the exam in detail, you will be better prepared so that you can achieve the grade you need.  It is an expensive exam to keep rewriting!  

How long will I need to prepare for IELTS?

This depends on your current level.  A general rule of thumb is that it takes 8 to 12 weeks to improve by half a band, for example from 6 to 6.5.  This depends on whether you have experienced teachers, and how hard you work.  It’s a good idea to work very hard on your weakest skill i.e. the one that you hate the most!

One thing to bear in mind is that to use your time most efficiently, you shouldn’t start the exam training until your general English is at a suitable level.  So, for example, if you need a score of 6.5 or above, you should wait until you are least upper Intermediate level (B2).  Before this, it is better to focus on improving your English more broadly in all four skills. 

If you starting your exam training at upper-Intermediate level, then you’ll probably need three months to prepare for the exam.  If your level is higher than this, then you may only need a shorter period of time, because it is likely you’ll only need training in exam strategy rather than the language aspect of the exam. 

Where can I write the IELTS exam and how much does it cost?

There are 1600 IELTS exam centres around the world in 140 countries.  They are often, but not always, at the British Council offices. 

In South Africa, the test costs R4465 and there are 5 test locations in South Africa – Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria.

How can I book an IELTS exam?

The IELTS website will help you find a location near to you.  The exams take place once or twice a month, depending the venue.  In popular locations, they book out months in advance, so plan and book early.  If you are already studying at a language school, they should be able to help you with your booking.

When will I get my IELTS results?

Results are normally available on the IELTS website 13 days after the test is written.  Your results can be viewed online, and your official test score report is mailed to you at the address you provided when you booked the exam.  Bear in mind that universities often require the original test score report so that they can verify your results.

Follow our blog for more information about the IELTS exam, including an in-depth look at each section and strategies for success.

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