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The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is one of the most popular English language proficiency tests in the world. If you want to study or work in a country where English is the primary language of communication, you may need to take the IELTS.
Deciding that you are going to take the IELTS is a big commitment. Preparing for the test requires a lot of studying, and the IELTS is probably different than most of the tests you’ve taken in the past. If you want to succeed, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Luckily, the Magoosh test prep experts have collected a whole bunch of information about the IELTS, and narrowed it down to the top 10 things you absolutely need to know.
- Should you take the Academic IELTS or the General IELTS?
The IELTS comes in two versions: the Academic IELTS and the General IELTS. If you’re thinking about taking the IELTS, the first thing you need to know is which version of the IELTS is right for you.
- The Academic IELTS (as the name suggests) is meant for students who want to study at English-speaking universities. However, many professionals are also required to take the Academic IELTS, so if you are taking the IELTS for a skilled job placement, make sure you check with your employer about which test they require.
- The General IELTS focuses on English reading and writing skills that are useful in everyday communication, rather than skills you might need in an advanced educational setting. If you are planning on working a regular job, or want to study below the degree level, then the General IELTS is probably best suited for your goals.
Even if you have a good idea of which version of the IELTS you want to take, always check with your employer or institution to make sure you know what they require.
- Are you using the IELTS for immigration?
The everyday English covered in the General IELTS is more useful for people hoping to simply to immigrate than the academic English skills that are tested on the Academic IELTS. For this reason, most prospective immigrants choose to take the General IELTS. However, there are several instances in which the Academic IELTS may be used for immigration purposes.
- Skilled professionals, such as doctors, who were required to take the Academic IELTS for their jobs, are allowed to substitute the Academic IELTS for the General IELTS when applying to immigrate.
- English-speaking university graduates who took the Academic IELTS for school, but now want to live in-country long-term, typically won’t have to take the General IELTS. All the major English-speaking countries allow international students to pursue work after graduation as an extension of their student visa, although policies vary from country to country.
Basically, if you’re trying to immigrate, take the General IELTS, unless there is some reason you have to take the Academic IELTS.
- Should you consider taking TOEFL instead?
If you’ve heard of IELTS you may have also heard of TOEFL. Along with IELTS, TOEFL is one of the most widely accepted English proficiency tests.
So how do you know which test to take?
TOEFL is more like the Academic IELTS than the General IELTS, so if your goals are immigration, secondary-level study, or work that is not highly skilled, the General IELTS is probably still your best choice.
If you are a prospective university student, the first thing you should do is check which schools accept IELTS and which schools accept TOEFL. If the institution you’re applying to only accepts one of the tests, then that is the test you should take. If you find that both tests are accepted at the universities you are considering, you should find out more about how the tests are formatted to decide which one your test-taking style is better suited for.
- How is the IELTS formatted?
There are four sections that make up the IELTS: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The Listening and Speaking sections are the same for both the Academic IELTS and the General IELTS, but the Reading and Writing sections will differ depending on which version you take.
- Listening: You have 30 minutes to listen to four recordings of native English speakers and write your answers to a series of questions.
- Reading: You have 60 minutes to answer 40 questions on a series of passages. The Academic IELTS will test you on passages from books, journals, and newspapers. The General IELTS will test you on excerpts from books, magazines, newspapers, notices, advertisements, and company handbooks.
- Writing: You have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. Academic IELTS Task 1 will ask you to summarize the information given by a graph or chart in your own words. Academic IELTS Task 2 will ask you to write in essay in response to an argument. General IELTS Task 1 will ask you to write a letter requesting information or explaining a given situation. General IELTS Task 2 will ask you to write an essay in response to an argument.
- Speaking: You have 11-14 minutes to answer general questions about yourself and a range of topics, speak on a single topic (which you will be assigned during the test), and then answer questions about that topic.
When taking either IELTS test, you will complete the Listening, Reading and Writing sections one after another, without breaks. However, the Speaking section can be completed up to a week before or after you take the main portion of the test.
The total test time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.
- How is the IELTS scored?
All IELTS scores are between 0 and 9, in increments of 0.5. You will get a score (called a band score) for each section of the IELTS. Because each section is different, each section score is calculated differently, but the four band scores will be averaged to provide your overall IELTS score.
Take a look at these descriptions of some of the higher scores.
6. What IELTS score should you aim for?
Because IELTS is used for so many different purposes, your target IELTS score will depend on your goal.
If you’re applying to a university, generally you should aim higher the better ranked the school is. For example, Princeton requires a 9 band score in Speaking for admission into its graduate school. However, most top universities IELTS score requirements are closer to 7, and there are many good schools that accept even lower scores.
For people taking the IELTS for reasons other than college admission, the requirements vary from country to country. However, more general visas will typically require higher scores. For example, if you are applying for highly skilled visa as an engineer, doctor, or entrepreneur, you are more likely to get in with a lower IELTS score than someone applying for a regular work visa.
As always, it’s best to check with your specific university, country, or job about their IELTS score requirements, for more specific information on what IELTS score you should aim for.
- How can you register for the IELTS?
To register for IELTS you need to find the testing location closest to you. The IELTS is offered at more than 1,100 test locations in over 140 countries, so hopefully there will be something in your region.
Once you find your testing center, you can register online or download an application form to print, complete, and submit to your local test center.
And don’t forget to bring the valid ID you used to register with you on test day!
- When are the IELTS test dates?
IELTS test dates are available on 48 fixed dates every year, three Saturdays a month and one Thursday a month. However, most testing locations will offer the IELTS less frequently, depending on local demand.
The Academic IELTS and General IELTS tests are offered on different days, so make sure you’re signing up for the correct test date. The Academic IELTS is offered more frequently than the General IELTS, so it may be more difficult to find a General IELTS test date that works for you.
- How much does the IELTS cost?
The IELTS fees are set by each individual test center, and vary from country to country. However, you can expect to pay around $200 USD. If you need to postpone or cancel your application more than five weeks before the test, you can get a full refund (minus an administrative charge).
Unfortunately, if you cancel with less than five weeks to go to the IELTS, you won’t be able to get this refund, unless you can provide proof of a medical reason within five days of the test date. So if you are sick on test day, make sure to get in touch with your test center as quickly as possible to get your money back!
- What’s the best way to study for the IELTS?
If you have decided to take the IELTS, the next step is to start studying. Here are some tips to get you going.
o Understand the test format. Make sure you really know what’s going to happen on each section of the test, so you aren’t blindsided on test day. Try reading up on the IELTS, and make sure to take an IELTS sample test. The best way to prepare for the real thing is to practice with real examples.
o Consider a test prep course. Not everyone chooses to take a test prep course for the IELTS, but having the structure and guidance of a formal course is a great way to improve your IELTS score. If you’re looking for help studying, Magoosh’s IELTS prep offers online courses and guarantees you an overall band score of at least 7.
o Register for the test as soon as possible. Once you have a study plan, make sure to register early for your IELTS test date. Space in testing locations is limited, so contact your test center as soon as possible once you’ve picked a date.
Now that you know these 10 things…
You probably have a good idea of how to succeed on the IELTS, and since you read this far, chances are you’re pretty serious about taking the test. Congrats!
Molly completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She has been tutoring the SAT, GRE, and LSAT since 2014, and loves supporting her students as they work towards their academic goals. When she’s not tutoring or blogging for Magoosh, Molly takes long walks, makes art, and studies ethics. Molly currently lives in Northern California with her cat, who is more popular on Instagram than she is.