The IELTS Test

The IELTS test - what is it?

The IELTS test is a standardised test of English language proficiency, which is accepted by universities, immigration departments and professional bodies all around the world. Some 3.8 million students sit IELTS every year, and the results are accepted by 10,000 institutions in 140 countries.

The IELTS test aims to assess both specific and overall knowledge of English and is made up of four papers: Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing.

If you are reading this blog, you are no doubt planning to sit the IELTS test in order to support your application for an undergraduate or postgraduate course in higher education. This means that you will be sitting the Academic IELTS test, and not the General Training IELTS test, which is required for work experience and immigration purposes, and forms part of the application process for settling in an English-speaking country.

The Academic IELTS test shares the Listening and Speaking papers with the General Training IELTS Test, but the Writing and Reading papers are quite different.
The Table below, breaks down the various papers, in terms of questions and the time you are given to complete each paper:

Listening30 minutes40 questions
Speaking11-14 minutes3 tasks
Writing60 minutes2 tasks
Reading60 minutes40 questions

The IELTS test – where can I take it and how much will it cost?

You can sit the IELTS test as often as you like, and there are more than 800 centres which offer it, found on every continent. The exam is held approximately 48 times a year and, in order to discover your closest the IELTS test centre, you should contact the British Council – or call Elab and we will advise you. Remember that you will have to pay a fee of around £190 each time you sit the IELTS test, so you should register once you are reasonably confident that your preparation has gone well and you are ready.

How do I register to take the IELTS exam?

Registering to sit the IELTS test is a straightforward and quick process.
1. The first thing you need to do is to choose a test date at a centre which suits you. Make sure you have the right ID – usually a passport.
2. Create an account with the British Council by going online at
3. Book and pay the fee.
4. You will get an email confirming the date, location and time 5-10 days before you are due to sit the IELTS test, so it is important to double-check your email address before submitting it online. Write down your reference number – you will need it when you come to sit the papers.
5. If you need to change the date of your the IELTS test, make sure you do so at least five weeks before your booked date, so that you are only charged an administration fee of 25 per cent, and are refunded the rest of the test fee.

Do I sit all IELTS exam papers on one day?

When you are booking your the IELTS test, you will notice that you book the Speaking paper separately. Candidates usually do the Speaking section a week before or after the other three papers, which are taken together, without a break in between each paper.

The IELTS Listening Paper


The IELTS Test Listening paper takes 30 minutes, but you are given an extra 10 minutes on top, to transcribe your answers onto a separate answer sheet. Make sure you don’t make any mistakes when you are copying the answers over.

Check singulars and plurals and look carefully at your spelling, because you will be penalised for incorrect spelling and bad grammar. Each of the four listening pieces will be played only ONCE, so focus and pay attention. You may hear a number of different accents, so be prepared.

Each of the 40 questions is worth one mark, so if you run out time or are not quite sure what to write, GUESS, but do not leave any blank spaces. Sometimes our gut instincts tell us what the right answer might be, while our brains appear to freeze.

Remember, too, that the answers appear in the order in which they are heard, so if you find yourself skipping forward or backwards, something is not quite right: Stop, catch up, make sure you are in the right place, and carry on. Where you are asked to fill in blanks, you will be told exactly how many words you can use, and you will be marked down if you ignore this. Hyphenated words, such as over-cooked, count as one word, not two.

The four pieces become progressively more difficult, so make sure you pay attention to the introduction to each recording. It will give you valuable clues about who will be talking, the context in which the conversation will be taking place and the reason for the dialogue. 

This will help you.

The IELTS Listening Test – the four recordings:

  • Recording 1: two people talking about an everyday situation, for example, booking a restaurant or planning a trip to the seaside
  • Recording 2: a monologue about an everyday event in a social context, for example, someone complaining that the local library is not open at the weekend
  • Recording 3: two to four people discussing a subject in an educational or training context, for example students and their tutor talking about an essay they have been asked to write
  • Recording 4: a monologue on an academic subject, for example, a lecture on healthcare in the UK.

The IELTS Listening Test - types of questions

  • Labelling a diagram, map or plan
  • Matching a list of items to a number of options
  • Finishing notes, forms, tables or flowcharts
  • Short answers and Finishing a sentence
  • Multiple choice – three or more options

The IELTS Speaking Paper


An experienced IELTS examiner will  be in charge of this paper. You will be assessed to check:

  • Your ability to use appropriate language
  • Whether you can communicate ideas clearly
  • How you organise your information
  • If you can speculate and defend your opinions.

The four marking criteria are:

  • Pronunciation
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Fluency and organisation

You have to try and overcome your nerves and speak naturally, so that the examiner has a realistic conversation, rather than a well-practised and artificial experience.

They have been doing this job for many years and know when something is off the cuff and spontaneous, and when it is not.

Relax. They are not here to trip you up or to catch you out and don’t forget that the whole paper only lasts under a quarter of an hour. Don’t use words you are unfamiliar with because you want to impress, and keep it fluent, simple and clear.

The IELTS Speaking Test – the three sections

Part 14-5 minutesIntroduction by the examiner, 10-14 very general questions about you, your family, your work , your holidays etc.
Part 23-4 minutesYou will be given a task card, which tells you what subject the examiner expects you to talk about for 1-2 minutes – as well as a few points for you to address. You can take a minute to write down brief notes.
Part 34-5 minutesThe examiner will respond to what you said in your Part 2 monologue, and ask you extra questions and expand the subject. For example, if your monologue was about environmental damage, you may be asked about the situation in your country, what you think should be done, and how to choose between preserving green spaces and providing much needed housing.

The IELTS Writing Paper


Although there are only two sections in this paper, they do not have equal marks. The first paper is worth 33 per cent, the second 66 per cent, so take this into account and split your 60 minutes accordingly. Put aside 20 minutes for the first paper and aim to write 150 or more words; leave 40 minutes for the second paper and try to write more than 250 words.

Grammar, vocabulary and organisation are key to doing well in the IELTS test Writing paper. You will be marked according to a set of criteria:

  • Achieving the task – 25%
  • Coherent and organised structure -25%
  • Grammar- 25%
  • Vocabulary – 25%

Make sure you use a range of different sentence structures; write simple and complex sentences; don’t repeat your vocabulary – try and think of synonyms, for example, “I found” can be “I determined” “I concluded” “I realised” “I recognised” etc.

Don’t forget to paragraph your written work and follow a straightforward  framework: introduction, one or two paragraphs, conclusion.

Watch the time…

The IELTS Test – Writing: Test 1

In Test 1 you will be given a table, a pie chart, a bar chart, a map, a diagram, or a process. You will need to summarise ,describe or discuss the image that you are given.

For example, you may see a pie chart which demonstrates that people are eating out less often, and using meal delivery services more in 2020, when compared to 2010. You need to summarise the key information contained in the illustration and compare the data for each year. 

You could be presented with something quite different, like a process – how cotton is turned into a t-shirt, for example – and asked to describe every step from the field to the shop. Whatever the question, do not panic, and if you are lost for technical vocabulary, use a simpler form.

Make sure that if you are dealing with prices or statistics, you don’t always say it “dropped” – try and use decreased, fell, declined etc. Punctuate correctly throughout.

The IELTS Test – Writing: Test 2

Two-thirds of the marks in this paper come from Test 2, the essay. Although the subjects change from one year to the next, certain topics are more likely to crop up than others, namely:

  • The environment
  • Education
  • Health
  • Employment
  • TV and Media
  • Advertising
  • Transport
  • Technology
  • Business
  • Crime and punishment

The focus of the essay could be:

  • To find a solution to a problem
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • An opinion piece
  • Discussion

Task 2 must be over 250 words long.

The IELTS Reading Paper

You have 60 minutes to answer 40 questions in this paper. There are three or four sections, each with an authentic text, taken from a book, newspaper, magazine or report etc. Don’t forget that the texts become more difficult as you work your way through the questions.


Make sure that you divide your time up correctly, and if there are three sections, do not spend more than 20 minutes on each one. Try and read through each text for gist before you start answering the questions. 

Do not get disheartened if you come across phrases or terms you have never met before – you should be able to work out more or less what they mean from the context. If you are given a technical piece to read, then you will also be provided with a short glossary. 

Remember that you are not writing a detailed summary, but trying to sift through information in order to find the right answer to a question.

The IELTS test – Reading: what types of questions will I find?

The most common types of questions are:

  • sentence completion
  • multiple choice
  • matching headings
  • summary completion
  • filling in diagrams, tables or labelling pictures
  • true/false/not given
  • choosing a title
  • true or false

The texts can be descriptive, factual, analytical, opinion pieces, biographical or discursive. The best way of getting  an idea of what to expect is to go on the IELTS website and read through the samples they have uploaded from past papers. 

Make sure you  look at the Academic Reading test, because the General Training Reading paper is quite different.

The IELTS Test – hints on how to prepare for the test

Sit a mock the IELTS test and discover your areas of weakness.

Practise the Speaking paper with a friend, colleague, teacher or family member.

Make sure that you listen to English films, radio or television programmes so that you are familiar with a range of accents and the speed at which people speak to each other.

Put aside 15 minutes a day to read one article, whether from a newspaper or a fashion magazine, a non-fiction book or  a piece posted online. Choose the subjects at random, to broaden your vocabulary.

Practise writing 250 words on a number of topics – get someone to suggest a subject or write and then cut up a list of possible essay topics, and draw one out of a hat every weekend. The more you write, the better you will become and the easier you will find the essay task.

And finally…

The IELTS test is valid for two years and most universities require you to score between 6 and 7.5, with 6.5 being the average course requirement.

You can do it!
If you would like a mentor to work alongside, or have any questions on the IELTS test, just call or drop us an email here, at Elab, and we will help and give you the support and information you need to shine and sail through the IELTS test.

Good Luck!

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