If you’re interested in studying abroad at an English-speaking university or another type of education institution, you will need to demonstrate a level of proficiency in the language. The IELTS Academic test is one of the main ways to do this.
Introduced in 1989, IELTs (or, to give it its full title, the International English Language Testing System) is one of the principal English language proficiency tests for non-native speakers looking to study or work abroad or migrate.
It is offered at more than 1,200 test centres in over 140 countries and territories.
The IELTS General test covers working or living abroad. Meanwhile, those looking to study at English-speaking education or training providers throughout the world take the IELTS Academic test.
IELTS Academic is accepted by all universities in the UK and Australia, over 3,400 institutions in the US, and the vast majority of academic institutions in Canada, Ireland and Europe.
An IELTS test result goes beyond demonstrating a passive knowledge of English. It shows an ability to use the language effectively in a variety of real-world contexts and is proof of the language skills needed for success in higher education, professional contexts and everyday life in English-speaking countries.
What to expect from the test
The test covers listening, reading, writing and speaking and is scored on a banded system from 1 (non-user) through to 9 (expert user).
The 30-minute listening test plays four recordings of native English speakers in various settings: everyday conversation between two people; a monologue about an everyday subject; a conversation between up to four people in an academic context; and a monologue on an academic subject.
The tasks around these recordings include multiple-choice questions, matching information, labelling plans, maps and diagrams, completing forms, tables and flow charts, and completing sentences and short-answer questions.
The speaking test, which is recorded, is 11 to 14 minutes in length. The test is split into three sections – one with general questions about yourself, your home, family and work (4-5 minutes); a talk on a specific topic (1 minute to prepare and speaking for 2 minutes) and further questions on the same topic, lasting 4-5 minutes. The examiner is looking for fluency and coherence, a varied vocabulary, grammatical range and accuracy, and correct pronunciation.
The 60-minute writing test is made up of two tasks based on a topic appropriate for those entering undergraduate and postgraduate studies or seeking professional registration.
Task one will ask you to analyse an illustration – such as a graph, table, chart or diagram – and explain, in your own words, what the image is showing. Task two is an essay, written in a neutral style and addressing a specific element or a point of view, argument or problem. Sticking to the question is crucial, and the writing will be marked on the criteria of task achievement, coherence and cohesion, vocabulary, and grammatical range and accuracy.
The reading test involves responding to 40 questions in 60 minutes. Using three lengthy texts from books, journals, magazines and newspapers, this test is designed to test a wide range of skills. These include: reading for gist, reading for main ideas, reading for detail, skimming, understanding logical argument, and recognising writers’ opinions, attitudes and purpose.
These are tested through multiple-choice questions; identifying true/false information; identifying claims with yes/no/not given choices; locating specific information; matching information to particular headings; matching sentence endings; completing sentences; completing tables or flow charts; labelling diagrams; and short-answer questions.
How to study for the test
Immerse yourself in English language
Becoming accustomed to hearing a language spoken and seeing it written down is key to picking it up. Watching English-language television programmes (particularly the news, a sitcom or a chat show), YouTube videos from English university students, and listening to songs and podcasts are all useful. Reading newspapers, magazines and even books can help you to practise for the reading test.
Along the way, it’s vital to write down words and phrases that you don’t know and look them up and learn them. Also important is to take in a range of accents, as various accents (British, American, Australian and New Zealander, among others) will be featured in the listening exam.
Read academic articles in English
Your ability to study and discuss ideas at an academic level is crucial for the Academic IELTS. Reading academic papers or textbooks in your chosen subject is the best way to get into that mindset. This way, you will get familiar with technical terms, the way sentences are phrased and how academic writing is structured.
Familiarise yourself with the test format
It’s worth reading the full breakdown of the tests on the IELTS website. Meanwhile, the rules and regulations are noted in the application form, under Notice to Candidates and Declaration.
Take practice tests
Taking mock exams under timed conditions is one of the best ways to prepare for any exam. Once you have registered for IELTS, you can access practice tests.
Many test centres around the world also offer preparation courses, which may be a good road to go down if you have the time and the resources.
Be ready for test day
When you have registered for the test, find out where your nearest test centre is and how you are going to get there well in advance. You’ll thank yourself on test day when you arrive calm and collected and ready to ace the exam.
The IELTS Indicator is a version of the IELTS Academic test that can be taken from home instead of at a test centre. The IELTS Indicator was created in response to ongoing test centre closures and disruptions due to Covid-19. This test assesses all the same areas as the IELTS Academic; the speaking element of the test is taken via video call with a trained IELTS examiner.
Many institutions around the world are accepting the IELTS Indicator, and you can use this list to check if your chosen university is among them.
The IELTS Indicator is very similar to the IELTS Academic, with a few minor adaptations. If you’ll be taking the IELTS Indicator from home, you can still follow the above advice about preparing for IELTS Academic to get ready.
However, you should also be thinking about the practicalities of taking a test from home. Remember to ensure you have a strong enough internet connection to support a video call with ease, as well as a quiet workspace where you won’t be disturbed during the test.