In July, just 2 days after my graduation, I had to sit through yet another English exam. This time I had to take the IELTS, specifically the academic module. If you’re planning to study abroad, chances are you’ll have to take an exam to get your language skills assessed too.
All the school I had selected to apply to required the same scores: 6 overall, at least 5.5 in each skill band. In the Common European Frame of Reference that would be a B2. I literally had just 10 days tote prepare, but in the end I got what I consider to be a decent score.
I’m sharing what I’ve learned during those intense 10 days so you can be as successful as possible with a limited time frame and without spending any money. Yes, I did not spend any money on books or classes and you don’t need them either.
A quick note on my results
I was hoping for at least an 8 overall, because years ago I took the CAE exam and I got an A. But I got a 7.5 overall and my strongest skill was reading (I got the highest grade on the scale!). I thought my weakest skill was writing, followed by speaking and listening. But I got the same exact score (7) on these three skills, which is still a mystery to me.
If you really want to get the highest grade possible, I wouldn’t recommend getting ready in just 10 days. The exam itself is not too hard, but you need to get a bit familiar with the format. Also, if your proficiency level doesn’t already match the grade you need you’ll have to practice a bit more and take your time. But if you’re in a hurry and you need to make the best you can in a short time, I hope my tips will be useful.
If you’re reading this post, I assume you’re about to take the IELTS, so you know what it is, but maybe you don’t know what it means. IELTS is an acronym that stands for International English Language Testing System. The IELTS exam will give a measure of your English proficiency. There are several reasons people take this exam. Mostly it is because they want to go study abroad or they want to migrate to some English-speaking Country. But I know people who had to take the IELTS just to apply to a Master’s degree here in Italy, even if that is taught in Italian (for some reasons some of these Italian courses even require an overall score higher than the one required by Canadian schools, go figure).
There are two different test formats: the Academic or the General Training. The first is mostly for people who plan to attend school abroad, while the latter is for people who are about to move abroad. There a 4 different parts in this exams. Every part assesses a different language skill: listening, reading, writing and speaking (I was particularly delighted when I found out there wasn’t the use of english part). Listening and speaking are the same for Academic and General Training, while reading and writing are different. I took the Academic module so I will talk about that one.
The test scores are calculated based on a band system, which ranges from 0 to 9. Usually you have to get at least a 6.0 overall (which correspond to a B2 level) and you’re classified as a competent user of the English language. However, there are some institutions that require higher scores (I was talking with a girl before getting into the exam room and she was doing the exam for the third time because she needed a 7.5 overall and she couldn’t go past 7.0).
What to do
What inspired me to write this post was that I managed to get nice grades in every part even if I spent literally just 10 days practicing, so I thought I could share what I’ve done. Because I took a very last minute decision, I had to spend hours and hours practicing every single day, no matter what else I had to do. After a couple of days I already wanted to give up because I was too stressed out and I was feeling like I couldn’t make it. Don’t let those thoughts stop you. I made it and you can make it too!
The first thing you need to do is a reality check. You need to figure out what’s your English proficiency level and you need to check if it matches the band score you need. The university I wanted to apply to required just a 6.0 overall and a minimum of 5.5 in each band. My level of english was supposedly higher than that and so that’s why I was able to get a somewhat good score with just a 10 days preparation.
Since you don’t have time to read everything you can find about every task, what I suggest to start with is to try and do a complete practice under exam conditions (you can find a complete exam practice on The Road to IELTS website). By doing this, not only you will get familiarized with the test format and the contents, but you will also understand where you’ll have to work more and what you’re already pretty good at.
The next step is to go over one skill a day. I didn’t buy any specific book, neither I’ve attended any course, I just relied on online material (one of the most useful blog I’ve stumbled upon is ieltsliz.com). Youtube is full of free lessons. I suggest you watch some videos about listening and then practice a bit every type of question, the next day you can do the same with reading and so on. My weakest skill was writing, so at the end of each and every day I practiced describing a graph or writing an essay too. Unluckily I didn’t have anyone who could grade my work, but what I’ve found very useful was to compare my written productions to some models you can find online.
At the end, you should do some more practice under exam conditions, using a timer and the answer sheets (this is particularly important for the writing part because you need to write at least 150 words for task 1 and 250 for task 2, but you don’t really have time to keep counting your words during the exam, so you can just estimate the amount of words you’ve written).
In addition to this, you should also:
- review some grammar;
- write down a list of linkers for the writing task;
- read and watch the news to get more ideas for the writing task;
- make vocabulary lists about different topics for the speaking part;
- use vocabulary builder websites (I recommend memrise) to learn a whole lot of synonyms;
- watch English, Australian and even American tv shows to get used to the different accents.
BUT because I’m that awesome, I’ve just made your life easier. I’ve gathered all my notes in one place and I’m giving it to you for free. So, instead of having to do all these things, you’ll just have to click here and you’ll get my awesome collection of IELTS vocabulary and answer templates.
The first part you’ll do on the day of the exam is usually the listening. This is a bit tricky, especially because you hear the audio just once. But don’t panic just yet! Before the audio is played, you have enough time to go over the questions for the section. Read through them and underline keywords. Then, listen carefully to the conversation and quickly write down your answers on your booklet (you get 10 minutes at the end to transfer your answers to the answer sheet). If you don’t catch something, don’t worry, go on or you’ll miss even more answers.
In my opinion, this is the easiest part of the whole exam, along with speaking. Personally, I didn’t have any problem with the time, but I talked to some people after the exam and most of them conveyed one hour isn’t enough to read it all and find the correct answers.
If you’re not a fast reader, you could use the following method: you read just the first line of every paragraph of your text, maybe underline some words you think might be important; then go over the questions, read them and underline keywords; once you’ve done that you get an idea of where you can find your answer, so go back and read the correct paragraph.
I personally find all these methods they suggest very time-consuming. Even during the exam I read the whole passage, I underlined names, dates, things I thought I could be questioned on and then I read the questions and, because I already read the whole text, I knew the answers to some of them even without going over the text again. If I was not sure about something, I just had to go back to the paragraph, but, because I read it all, I always knew where to find the correct answer.
The last tip I have for reading is to write you answer directly on the answer sheet, not in your booklet (you don’t get extra time to transfer your answers like in the listening part). You must use a pencil to write on the answer sheet, so if you want to change something, you could just use an eraser.
This was the hardest part for me, so I don’t really have many tips to survive the writing. First of all, always remember to leave a line in between paragraphs and you’ve already done ¼ of the work (apparently they really give you extra points if you do this). Especially in your essay, be sure to have 3 main parts: introduction, body, conclusion. Use a lot of different words to say the same things over and over again in the introduction and in the conclusion, use a lot of synonyms in the body paragraphs and don’t forget to fill them up with linkers. If your text sounds a bit redundant, that’s perfect.
One thing I found really useful was to read through all the essay models I could find online, so you can get not only some ideas you could reuse, but also an idea on how to structure your work.
Back in the days, when I took my CAE exams I got the lowest grade in the speaking part. All my other skills were marked as exceptional (even the use of English), but my speaking skills were between good and borderline. I was so mad at myself when I walked out of the exam room because I knew I could do so much more than that, but anxiety got the best of me. I think speaking is still my lowest skill (along with writing). Not only I have a strong accent, but also because you have to say things quickly and you don’t have time to go over and correct mistakes. I tend to make many syntactical mistakes.
Even if I am not able to avoid mistakes while speaking, I don’t have any problems making conversations and I have a good ability to use periphrasis when I don’t remember a specific word. So this time I was determined to have a good conversation with the examiner and I have to say I succeeded, I was able to reply to all the questions and in the second part of the speaking, I was able to speak for two whole minutes.
When you sit down at the table, remember to just talk and tell lies. For example, if they ask you what’s the latest sport competition you have attended, don’t say you don’t like sports and you never watch them, make something up. Tell them you don’t like sports (so if you’re saying something very incorrect about that sport, that’s your excuse), but also tell them your best friend is a soccer/hockey/lacrosse/whatever fan and she drags you with her to see the games and then talk about the food they usually eat at the stadium. They’re not interested in knowing you or what you do with your life, they just want you to talk so they can give you a grade.
Final tips and reminders
Arrive early. None likes to wait for more than an hour in a corridor, but you have to register before getting into the exam room and you won’t be allowed to take the test if you arrive too late.
Remember your ID! You won’t be allowed in if you don’t bring the ID you used when you booked the test. The day I took the exam there was this guy who just got robbed on the train and he wasn’t allowed to take the test because he didn’t have his document.
Don’t bring a watch. You can’t bring one in the exam room.
Bring extra pencils and an eraser. You must write with pencil on your listening and reading answer sheet, you can also write your essay in pencil (and that’s what I’ve done because it’s so much easier to correct mistakes). I suggest you use a mechanical pencil and then also bring a couple of extra regular pencils just in case.
Bring water. But remove the label. And don’t drink unless you really need it because you really don’t want to take a bathroom break.
Dress warm. I knew there was ac where I took the exam, so I wore a sweater and I got cold halfway through the exam anyway.
Good luck with your exam and let me know how it goes and if my tips were useful!