This is a guest post from Dan Garcia (see below for his full profile), who recently wrote the IELTS and is hoping to relocate to Canada!
According to ielts.org, over 3 million people took the IELTS exam in 2019 alone. That means millions of people are following their dreams of advancing their studies, broadening their work experience, or migrating to “greener pastures”. All of these take an emotional toll, raise stress and anxiety levels and can make the exam process even more difficult.
Due to IELTS’s popularity there is a plethora of literature available, from the official partners (IDP, British Council, ielts.org) to specialized consulting and adventurous individual testimonials. That means you can easily get dragged into a spiral of miraculous tips, thought processes, canned magic words/phrases and all that jazz. People spend countless hours going over videos and tutorials in hopes of absorbing all the mumbo jumbo needed for that perfect score…
Enter Danilo (me).
Energetic due to finally putting my move-to-Canada plan in motion, I initially clicked on every single link on the first 30 google search pages. I took test samples, many test samples. Some of them apparently designed for 5-year-olds, others carefully crafted to boggle the minds of English PhD’s.
How can you truly know what to expect from the exam if each sample has a different difficulty level? I closed all Firefox tabs. Searched again on only official IELTS affiliates. Hmm, it seems balanced now. Tried 4-5 tests from these three sources. Booked an exam.
A week later, results came in: overall score 8.5 , aced both Listening and Reading. First run at it.
Since then, I got flooded with questions, mainly for “what’s the trick to get these scores?”
The answer: just chill.
My personal take on the IELTS exam sections is that each of them is designed to check how well you handle interactions with the language in different ways:
General Training – this is the test to be taken for immigration purposes. Let’s think about this for a moment: when you immigrate to an English-speaking country, you will be exposed to infinite scenarios in your day-to-day life. Be it at bus lines, shopping/going to the market, seeking directions, ordering a burger with no lettuce but extra cheddar, maybe being pulled over by a police officer
The possibilities are endless, not to mention regional/generation slang, accent, voice tone, diction… Well, that’s exactly what this exam is about! Throughout each of the tests, you’ll have to work around everyday situations, small talk and a few trivia texts.
In summary, General Training aims to gauge how broad your familiarity with the language is, not necessarily how deep!
Academic Training – mostly used for applying to study abroad. Reading texts and speaking in a language is one thing, but have you tried to explain mathematical expressions or complex operations in English? Can you read a medication’s composition, but pronouncing it in English? If the answer is no, then you’ll have some additional barriers to overcome when starting your studies in the classroom…
While I may be exacerbating the challenges on your horizon (please don’t give up!), academic verbiage is a lot more formal and sophisticated, full of technical terms and expressions, which can certainly be a challenge for those who are not first-language English speakers. This is the prism from which the Academic test is crafted for.
In summary, Academic Training is more focused on how deep/technical your understanding of the language is, and not necessarily how broad.
Keep these nuances in mind. Try to plan your study and preparation accordingly.
Here are a few tips that I can offer for General Training – although portions of it may be pervasive to Academic as well, which worked for me.
Yes, this is a language test. That means you should get familiar with the language. Just don’t worry about learning 15th century English. You know your way around past perfect? Cool. You don’t? That’s fine, it is more desirable to be able to clearly convey your message using plain phrases than speaking one incredibly well-crafted sentence followed by awkward silence as you mentally structure your next jaw-dropping structure.
Instead of spending countless hours through each night studying, plan for shorter sessions where you can truly focus and that doesn’t jeopardize your mental/physical health. Allow yourself to rest, it’s all about the quality of your time, not just stacking hours of robotic training.
I would recommend you start by taking two samples from each Test (reading, listening, writing, reading). Pick from the ones available on British Council’s website. This should give you an idea on where you’re falling short, therefore where your biggest focus should be (note: we also have some great IELTS study resources in our free portal here!).
Always remember the story of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady can get you far.
For those of you living in non-English speaking countries, it can be hard to truly appreciate regular English. After all, your academic contact will most likely have been during your English course/classes, with teachers… speaking… sloooowly… so you can catch every word.
Well, this may come as a shock, but Americans/Canadians do not speak slowly. At all. In that case, you’ll have to resort to other forms of exposure to colloquial English. I 100% recommend you watching the Friends show to start training your ears. You can diversify from there, watch some epic/medieval movies, law-related series, etc.
The same goes for Youtube. Remove subtitles from your life, for good. If you had a hard time understanding something, rewind, give it another shot, but please push yourself to get acquainted with the language. This is as close as you’ll get to a truly natural experience (if you can’t travel to such countries, of course).
Now, let’s talk about the tests themselves, one by one. Again, this is all my perception and experience on going through the process.
First of all, steer away from magic formulas, don’t pay too much attention to pre-defined linking words or using 10 different sentence styles. The test lasts for 15-20 minutes, and consists of a dialogue, so your ability to consistently deliver sentences and demonstrate thought process is far more important than landing that cheesy “notwithstanding’ word to connect your ideas. You might potentially have to navigate through a subject that you’re 200% unfamiliar with, with only two minutes to prepare your narrative.
This is hard for non-native English speakers… if you’re not into cars, you may not know what a “clutch” is, or even may not understand if the interviewer asks if you prefer to “drive a stick”. But then again, consider if such an unfamiliar question was asked in your home language, how would you overcome this while keeping the other person entertained?
In case of doubt, watch a couple “IELTS Speaking Band 9 test” videos on Youtube, and you’ll see that you don’t have to be a scholar with profound dominance of the language to get a good grade.
What you need is “flow”, consistence, cohesion. In other words, have a nice conversation!
On my test, I misunderstood one question, mixed “complicated” with “comprehensive” (D’oh!) and couldn’t complete my narrative on the “test card” section on time (two-minute story around a pre-defined subject matter). But I did keep the conversation going, provided as much complementary information as possible to the questions asked, and managed to stay calm like it was “just a small talk with a very friendly lady”. I scored 8.0.
This is probably the only time your actual vocabulary and grammar will be put to the test. The test takes 60 minutes, split into two essays: the first one is a short 150-word (20 minutes), and the other requires 250 words (40 minutes). The first essay will generally be around interpreting a piece of data, like a chart or a newspaper section.
The second one is rather more sophisticated, where you’ll have to write about a specific subject matter, typically linking opposing ideas presented to you, and concluding with your opinion. In both instances, try to form a well-structured text, with an introduction (one short paragraph), contextualization (one or two longer paragraphs) and a conclusive statement.
Pay attention to whether they are formal in nature and elaborate as required. One last tip would be trying to stay on point. The more you write, the more you’ll be prone to errors, increasing your contact surface.
On my test: In the first essay, I had to write a letter to a store on another state which was the only one in the region that had the specific product I was looking for (they didn’t even tell me what product it was). I wrote around 250 words (100 more than needed).
On the second, I had to ponder the advantages and challenges that exposure to technology – mainly cellphones with internet access – brings to kids and teenagers. I went way off-track and wrote 500-ish words (doubling the requirement). I believe that brought unnecessary exposures to my test, I scored 7.5 .
Now this is one test that requires practice. In 60 minutes, you will be faced with a series of short texts, each followed by 5-7 questions. This is where dozens of gurus of the internet will tell you their secret sauce. I, for one, don’t think there is one. Reading and interpreting text is completely individual. You know your pace, how quickly you can digest content. Do not fall into temptation of using any formula other than what already works for you.
There are several types of questions, objective, relational, true/false/not given. That’s where taking a few samples from the official sources can help you out. If you come upon a specific type of question you’re uncomfortable with, or slow at, focus on that. As I mentioned in the title of this section: find your rhythm.
Scanning is hard as the questions are all paraphrased. You will not find the specific verb or noun from the question in the text. You must read it. Nevertheless, there are people who like to take a peek at the questions first. Again, whatever works for you.
Another rule of thumb is to stick to the script! There are vague/ambiguous questions left and right, so remember: if it’s not explicitly stated in the text, it IS “Not Given”. Additionally, the questions tend to follow the order for which the paragraphs were presented. That doesn’t mean there will be one question per paragraph, although it surely means question #1 will not be at the bottom of the text!
Lastly, don’t get paranoid about the clock. Some people will tell you that you have 90 seconds per question. There is plenty of time if you manage to keep focused and calm. Our concentration level tends to fluctuate, to indulge yourself a few moments to breathe between questions, look at the ceiling, close your eyes, regain your grip and carry on.
On my test: Before reading the texts, I did, in fact, sweep through the questions, and tried to create mental post-its in my mind about what I should be looking for as I went through the texts. I had a hard time deciding on the correct answer on a few questions, so I moved on and flagged them to review. This allowed me to take a “fresh look” at them again later, which made the answers pop out easier.
Plus, it made it possible for me to finish the test within 45 minutes, take a couple of minutes to regain balance, and do a full review and spellcheck each answer. I changed my response to question #1 literally in the last ten seconds. I aced this exam: 9.0.
As I stated in my personal view about the General Training objective, this 60-minute test is designed to expose you to different accents, voice tones, and levels of language formality. There are four audio sections, each followed by 8-12 questions. The complexity increases per section, as they get longer and more dynamic. It sounds worse than it actually is, trust me.
Each section delimits the exact number of words expected per question, and it’s explained in bold letters: “For this section, write no more than three words”. Keep that in mind.
Before each section begins, they allow you around 30 seconds to take a look at the questions – you should do it. That way, you can have a high-level notion of what they’ll be talking about and, with practice, you can build a mind-map of what to expect as an answer. There may be a form partially filled out, with a gap where it says “Address”. Well, now you know you should watch out to when they say an address in the audio. Practice really is all you need here.
If you are accustomed to day-to-day chitchats (Netflix, Youtube), you should have relative ease to exclude unnecessary talks and focus on the key words you’ll need.
Be careful though: they will only play each audio once, so here is where your hyper-focused mode must be really turned on. Cut off any distraction, control your breathing, and try your best to remain calm. If you stumble/slip for a moment, it can de-rail the next 2-3 questions before you can get your grip back. Keep your head in the game.
On my test: I scanned through the questions before each section and kept repeating to myself what I should look for… “Maiden name, phone number, address, type of insurance… repeat”. Once I got the first answer, continued the mantra “Phone number, address, type of insurance… repeat”. As soon as I finished writing down the answer, I took a second or two to read the next question one more time, always trying to be ahead of the dialogue.
During the minute between sections, I closed my eyes, flushed all previous information from my mind, took a very deep breath, and started scanning the next set of questions to form the mind-map. I aced this test as well: 9.0.
Begin your preparation for the exam the day before. You will not learn anything in the last 24 hours leading to the exam, that’ll only raise your stress levels and impact your performance. Instead, do something you really like, watch a good movie, or just sleep. Make sure you sleep early and wake up early, have a good meal, put on comfortable clothes, listen to your favourite music. Raise your dopamine levels.
When entering the exam room, make sure you keep a positive state of mind and give yourself a few seconds with your eyes closed to regain strength and attention. That is particularly important in Reading and Listening, as these require the most concentration. If you’re calm down, you’ll sound less robotic on your Speaking test, and it’ll help preventing mental blackouts.
I did my exam in Brazil, the staff only spoke English within the premises, which made me feel more comfortable. I also took that opportunity to talk to them about the weather or whatever, just to loosen the tongue a bit. Be as natural as you can and remember why you’re doing this.
The test day will come and go, your objective/dream is bigger than that. If you don’t do as well as you expected, keep in mind you can do this as many times as you want/can. Your world will not crumble because of that.
Don’t allow yourself to carry the world on your shoulders as you enter the test. Just do it.
These are not pro tips. I’m just a regular guy who took the same exam as millions of other people. That being said, when I was preparing for my exam, I could not find testimonials from other regular people and what they felt/thought about the process, only “experts” trying to sell magic potions, so I decided to share how it went for me.
If you got this far on this blog post, congratulations. Here’s a cookie!
I work with computers, tablet and phone the whole day. I can no longer figure out this whole pen/pencil thing anymore, my hands get stiff and I write shamefully slow nowadays. That was a decisive factor for why I chose to travel 120 km to take the computer-based exam rather than the around-the-corner paper-based centre.
That worked out very well for me, especially in the Writing exam. It can save you precious minutes to correct your words with the stroke of a key instead of rubbing the eraser on the paper and re-writing. I took whole sentences and moved them between paragraphs just by cutting and pasting, that’s impossible with a pencil. In the Listening exam, you have your own enclosed workspace and headphone that you can adjust the volume as needed. I would strongly recommend you trying it.
Thanks very much for reading about my experience and best of luck with yours!
This is a guest post kindly written by Danilo Garcia, a senior IT Delivery Manager working at IBM for the last 11 years, leading support organizations from across the globe and responsible for the IT Infrastructure in two major banks in the US. Dan is currently preparing to relocate alongside his wife and 2-year-old daughter to Canada, and is looking for a job opportunity in the country.
Please connect with Dan directly on LinkedIn or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info! And if you want guidance through the Express Entry process, including more IELTS resources, sign up for free here