Taking English placement exams can be a stressful process. Particularly when there’s a lot riding on the outcome, whether you have to take the exam for immigration purposes or to gain entry onto a higher education program. The good news is that IELTS aims to test your level of English without any additional specific knowledge, and a few tips and tricks can go a long way towards shifting your score on IELTS up a band or two.
How to Get a Great Score on IELTS: Tips from a Tutor
The examination is subdivided into four sections according to the four areas of language skills, reading, writing, listening, and reading. We’ll look at each of these sections in turn to furnish you with advice for each, along with useful tips concerning the structure of the exam so you’ll be fully prepared come examination day. Without further ado, let’s begin!
The reading paper requires you to read three long texts and answer 40 questions in 60 minutes. The time allowed for the paper can seem quite tight, so upping the speed at which you read and “scanning” a text effectively (where you pick out the text’s main focus points) should be a priority. To scan, let your eyes travel across the page looking for a key sentence in each paragraph to underline. This will give you an idea of where to look for crucial information when answering the questions later.
Get reading the same type of texts that you’ll be covering in the exam. These are usually high-level general interest texts from magazines such as The Economist and National Geographic as well as high-quality newspapers. Nothing too specific or technical is going to come up, so these types of publications will get you fully prepared.
Increasing your reading comprehension should also be a priority. This doesn’t necessarily mean looking up every word, but rather getting better at guessing unknown words from context. When you meet an unknown word, see if you can gain an idea of its meaning from any suffixes and prefixes. Let’s say you come across the phrase, “Tom was overjoyed by the arrival of his new brother.” If you have a guess from the surrounding words in the sentence, or try to break the word down into smaller units, what does it probably mean? You might well guess that he was delighted, in which case you are correct.
You’ll have to read three non-specialist texts in the exam, with answer types including completing the sentence, matching, and multiple choice (yes/no/not given).
Make sure that your multiple choice answer only focuses on the information given in the article; don’t rely on your general knowledge. Answer only according to the information in front of you to make sure you correctly differentiate between “no” and “not given.”
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You’ll compose two texts for the writing section, named Task 1 and Task 2.
Task 1 is the shorter of the two, with a 150-word limit. You will summarize a graph, table, chart, or diagram. Practice makes perfect, and learning some task-specific phrases will help you get your marks up. For instance, “the number of participants shown on the graph sharply increases, levels off and then slowly decreases.”
Task 2 has a 250-word limit and covers an open-ending question where you are invited to examine both sides. For example, “Many tasks within the home can now be done by hand. Does this fact have more advantages or disadvantages?”
Write a short introduction outlining the question (around 15% of your text), with the next 35% covering arguments for, a further 35% covering arguments against, and the final 15% for a conclusion to fill your 250-word limit. It may sound obvious, but make sure that you clearly answer the question in your answer, underlining this in your conclusion.
As with all of the IELTS exam sections, the more writing answers you can practice, the better. Start by planning out your structure. Spend the first couple of minutes sketching out a plan for your essay with main points and ideas. This will help you in terms of both time management and putting together a coherent essay.
You can also note down good introductory phases and linking words you find when preparing for the reading section to use in your own answers, such as “in other words,” “in comparison to,” and “as an example.”
You’ll be marked on the quality of your response, the cohesion of your text (which is why linking words are so crucial), and vocabulary use as well as the range and accuracy of your grammatical structures.
Don’t just stop at practice – get a native speaker to take a look at your essay and highlight major errors. Then rewrite your essay incorporating the corrections. This will ensure that you remember to not make the same mistakes the next time.
My experience in preparing students for the written part of IELTS is that after doing three or four corrected essays, student accuracy increases by a significant factor.
The listening section of the exam is tough, covering four audio snippets and 40 questions. You’ll face different question types, including multiple-choice, and “gap fill” type answers, which sometimes require you to state the answer in your own words.
You need to excel at listening for specific details (common information you’ll need to find often takes the form of train times, personal information, etc.). Also work on improving your short-term memory, as you only get to listen to the audio once. Making notes as you listen will help you to keep all the information you might need to hand.
As for expanding your general listening skills, getting into radio and podcasts with a variety of accents is a good plan. Don’t just stick to one region as the audio on the listening exam can cover a range of speech types, from Australian to regional British speech. Many of these can be found on the Tools and Resources page for English learners.
Don’t just listen, listen intensively. Jot down key words and info as you go for 1-2 minutes. Then try to summarize the main points of what you’ve heard. In the actual exam, your ability to pinpoint key points of data is extremely important, and this technique will aid you in listening for detail.
You get 10 minutes at the end to transfer your answers. Use any time left over and don’t leave anything blank as you won’t receive a penalty for incorrect answers.
You’ll need to score around 36/40 for Band 8.0. Listening to as much US/UK radio as possible and doing multiple practice tests will help you to achieve this.
The speaking part of your test is 11-14 minutes long, with three sections: questions about you and your family, a question on a specific topic, and further questions expanding on that topic. You’ll have one minute to prepare your speech of 1-2 minutes for the specific topic. Use this time to make brief notes to help formulate your ideas.
Joining a language club in your area or finding an exchange partner will help you to feel ready to speak when exam day comes around, even if it’s only for an hour a week.
Make sure to add in a couple of second and third conditional sentences to increase your marks. Do this by adding a few “if” sentences into your speech. For example, think about how you’d change the situation you’re describing. “I like living in Holland, but if I were able to move, I’d go to South America.”
The difference a little confidence can make…
Imagine the examiner is reviewing two candidates with exactly the same level of English.
The first enters with a smile, warmly greets the examiners, and gives the air of the examination being a conversation.
The second enters the room without saying hello, avoids eye contact, and seems nervous.
Both of them give the same answers, so they should get the same mark, right? In theory, yes. However, if you come across as personable and confident in the exam, the examiner may subconsciously mark you higher. Your personal demeanor might boost your band a little, so be positive and personable in the exam!
Here’s a tip to boost your speaking instantly: start using synonyms for your most frequently used words. Why say “big” when you can say “substantial”? Instead of “strange,” go for “peculiar.” Adding these words (and seeking out other synonyms) will boost your speaking result, as your vocabulary mark will increase.
Overall, putting the tips above into practice will get you a long way towards achieving your desired result.
Plan your time effectively in the weeks leading up to the exam to make sure you prepare thoroughly. Often, 30 minutes a day for an extended period will yield better results than cramming over a short timeframe.
Keep doing practice tests until you’re achieving the band scores you need and best of luck with your IELTS exam!
You can read more on the advantages and disadvantages of taking language certificates in Luca’s article here.