An In-Depth Guide to IELTS Preparation

An In-Depth Guide to IELTS Preparation

The IELTS is the world’s most recognised English-speaking test and is accepted by over 11,000 organisations in 140 countries around the world.

Unfortunately, as many as 50% of the people who take their IELTS test fail to achieve their desired score. Whether you’re aiming towards a specific goal with your IELTS results, or you simply want to ensure the proficiency of your English speaking skills, preparation is key for ensuring that you’re not amongst them.

In this in-depth guide, we consider what effective IELTS preparation should look like, and how it can enhance your chances of securing the score you require.

What is the IELTS?

The IELTS (International Language Testing System), is a widely recognised English proficiency test that’s run by the British Council in partnership with IDP Education and Cambridge Assessment English.

Rather than operating on a pass-or-fail system, the IELTS rewards different proficiency grades, which assess English language abilities across four skills, which are –

  1. Listening
  2. Reading
  3. Writing
  4. Speaking

People have many different reasons for taking the IELTS, including a desire to generally improve their English speaking skills, but primary uses for a high IELTS score include –

  • Evidence of English proficiency for study purposes
  • Business registration requirements in fields including law, medicine, and pharmaceuticals.
  • A migration requirement for permanent residency

When you embark on IELTS preparation, you may, therefore, be working to strict time frames, and experiencing a lot of pressure about your test results. With additional tests also costing more in terms of testing itself and ongoing tutoring, effective IELTS preparation is crucial.

Professional classes are the best way to ensure that you’re preparing for your test in the right ways. You can also improve your chances of success with self-led IELTS preparation at home.

The Main Difficulties With IELTS Preparation

The 50% of people who don’t receive their desired IELTS score are a testament to the fact that IELTS preparation isn’t always easy. In fact, there are a few fatal mistakes that could impact your score despite your best preparation efforts, and these include –

  • Rushed preparations
  • Failing to understand your test options/format
  • Prioritising the IELTS test over English language skills
  • Overlooking vocabulary
  • Failure to join a preparation course

An In-Depth Look at IELTS Preparation

It’s important to approach your IELTS preparations in the right ways to ensure that they’re effective. Keep on reading to find out what ‘good’ IELTS preparation looks like.

Know Which IELTS Test is Right For You

There are primarily two different types of IELTS test, and they each focus on different things and are applicable to different situations. The Speaking and Listening sections in both tests are the same, but you can expect differences in the Reading and Writing sections.

By taking the time to understand this in advance, you can better ensure your desired results with a more tailored revision plan. You can also ensure that your IELTS results are the ones required by your employer, university, or other establishment.

The two IELTS test types can be categorised as follows –

IELTS Academic:

Intended for students who want to study English, or for professionals in academic fields like medicine.

Features vocabulary that’s familiar in an academic setting.

Reading materials include newspapers and journals from a non-specialist academic setting, and will likely cover things such as:

  • Narratives
  • Descriptions
  • Logical argument
  • Etc.

Two academic writing tasks include:

  • Task 1: Describing visual information such as a graph or diagram in your own words
  • Task 2: Discussing a point of view, argument or problem

IELTS General Training:

Intended for individuals who are moving to an English-speaking country, or people who wish to train or study below degree level.

Assesses everyday English vocabulary skills that may be needed in social situations or workplaces.

GT reading texts are relevant to everyday life as follows –

  • Section 1: Advertisements and timetables
  • Section 2: Job descriptions and contracts
  • Section 3: Newspapers, magazines, and books

Two general writing tasks include -

  • Task 1: Writing a letter in response to a situation
  • Task 2: Discussing a point of view, argument or problem


It’s important to choose between an Academic or General Training IELTS when booking your exam. You can then use this as a basis for your IELTS preparation. The right exam for you will depend on factors that include –

  • Your chosen country
  • Whether you intend to work/study/live in that country
  • The entry requirements of your target country or association

Understand the IELTS Test Format

Understanding the format that your chosen IELTS test will take makes it easier to know what to expect on the day of your exam, and what you should practise beforehand.

There are four different categories for both types of IELTS test, and they are –

  1. Listening
  2. Reading
  3. Writing
  4. Speaking

You’ll complete the first three of these in order on the same day, without breaks in between. You will then complete the speaking section of your test either later that same day or during an appointment in the next few days.

Remember that the Listening and Speaking sections of the exam are the same for each test type. The format you can expect within each section of your exam is as follows:

1. Listening

  • The test takes around 30 minutes, with an additional ten minutes to transfer your answers.
  • You will listen to four recordings of a native English speaker, and must answer 40 questions based on these.

Questions will include:

  • Multiple choice
  • Diagram labelling
  • Table completion

Your score of 40 will be converted to the IELTS 9-band marking scale.


2. Reading

  • Both Academic and General Training reading tests take around 60 minutes.
  • Academic reading: Three long texts that range from descriptive to analytical.
  • General Training: Three extracts that you may encounter on a daily basis.

Questions will include:

  • Filling gaps in written passages
  • Matching headings
  • Completing sentences

Your score of 40 will be converted to the IELTS 9-band marking scale.


3. Writing

  • Both Academic and General Training writing tests take around 60 minutes, broken up into twenty minutes for task 1, and 40 minutes for task 2. You’ll need to manage your own time.

Academic writing:

  • Task 1 – Summarise the information presented on a chart, table, or diagram.
  • Task 2 – Write an essay in response to a point of view, argument, or essay.

General Training Writing:

  • Task 1 – Write a letter requesting information about or explaining a situation.
  • Task 2 – The same as the Academic test.

You should write at least 150 words for task one, and 250 words for task 2. Your writing will be marked by a certified IELTS examiner. Scores are reported in whole and half bands.


4. Speaking

  • Test will take between 11-14 minutes.

You will speak to a certified IELTS examiner across three parts of this exam, which are:

  • Task 1 – You will need to introduce yourself and confirm your identity. The examiner will ask general questions on familiar topics like home and family.
  • Task 2 – The examiner will give you a task card with a topic to talk about, and points to include in your talk. You will have one minute to prepare and your talk should be between 1-2 minutes long.
  • Task 3: The examiner will ask further questions relating to your topic.

You will be marked across four criteria, which are –

  1. Fluency
  2. Lexical resource
  3. Grammatical range
  4. Pronunciation

Your certified IELTS examiner will mark you based on the speaking criteria in whole and half bands.

IELTS candidate using dictionary for writing assignment

Understand the IELTS Grading System

Unlike a traditional pass-or-fail test, the IELTS is marked on a 0-9 grading system, where 0 is the least proficient and 9 is the highest score.

You’ll be marked according to this grading criteria for your listening, reading, writing, and speaking tests. An average will then be taken from those scores to determine your final test band.

It’s useful to understand this marking system before your exam, as this will help you to track any improvements or problem areas during your IELTS preparation. If you’re taking the IELTS exam for a specific work or study purpose, researching which band you’ll need to achieve will also help you to understand roughly the level that you should reach before sitting your exam.

Ideally, you want to consistently achieve a score of seven or above before your IELTS exam, as this shows that your English-language skills are at a high level.

The specific band requirements are:

  • 0 skill level: Did not answer the questions in the test
  • 1 skill level: Non-user with no ability to use the language except for isolated words
  • 2 skill level: Intermittent user who has great difficulty speaking and understanding the English language
  • 3 skill level: Extremely limited user who conveys and understands only general meaning in familiar situations.
  • 4 skill level: Limited user with basic competence in familiar settings
  • 5 skill level: Modest user with a partial command of the language in most situations
  • 6 skill level: Competent user with an effective grasp of the language despite some inaccuracies
  • 7 skill level: Good user with operational command of the language, though some inaccuracies
  • 8 skill level: Very good user with full operational command with only occasional inaccuracies in unfamiliar settings
  • 9 skill level: Expert operational command of the language that shows complete understanding

Familiarise Yourself With IELTS Question Types

Each section of the IELTS includes a variety of different question types. Familiarising yourself with these makes it easier to practise for your test, and avoid any uncertainty in your official exam.

We’ve briefly covered the different types of questions that you can expect when discussing the format of your test, but it’s worth thinking about these in more detail. This is because there will be at least ten different types of questions in your Reading and Listening modules and another 10 in your Writing test. You should practise each of these multiple times before your test date.

The main question types that you’ll need to prepare for are:

  1. Matching headings questions: You’ll need to choose the heading from a list that matches a sentence or paragraph in the passage.
  2. True/false/not given questions: Decide if the information or opinion provided can be found in the passage.
  3. Summary completion questions: Complete a summary by filling in the gaps using the words provided.
  4. Multiple choice questions: Choose the correct answer or the correct ending to a sentence from 3-4 options.

Seek High-Quality Practice Papers

Understanding the questions you’ll need to answer on your IELTS exam is important, but you also need to practise them.

Luckily, there are a lot of high-quality practice papers available online. As well as providing the best possible opportunity to prepare for, and understand your upcoming IELTS exam, these can help you to accurately determine your current score band. This will help you to track your progress and will give you a realistic idea of your English-speaking skills right now.

When seeking practice papers, you should make sure to look for resources that are –

  • Up to date
  • Varied across all question types and sections of the exam
  • Supplied by official companies

Reliable sources for practice papers include the British Council and IELTS Essentials. You’ll also have the opportunity to complete well-sourced practice papers if you embark on an IELTS preparation course. This option also provides access to personalised, professional marking by your teacher.

When completing your practice papers, you should always aim to achieve exam-like conditions. For instance, you won’t have any breaks between your listening, reading, and writing exams on the day, so try to replicate this in your practice.

It can also be useful to keep to exam time frames in your practice sessions, especially in the weeks leading up to your exam date. This is because the tests can be much more difficult to complete under time constraints, and replicating that will help you hone your skills and perform under that pressure.

The times to keep in mind when practising include:

  • Listening: You’ll have 40 minutes in total, including 30 minutes to complete your answers and 10 minutes to transfer them.
  • Reading: You’ll have around 60 minutes to read three different texts and answer 40 questions.
  • Writing: You’ll have a total of 60 minutes, which must be split into around 20 minutes for task 1 and 40 minutes for task 2. You must manage this time yourself.
  • Speaking: You’ll have between 11-14 minutes, including one minute to prepare a talk on your allocated topic.

You should also take care to complete practice papers for all four sections of the exam. This is key to making sure that you’re as well prepared across all areas as you possibly can be.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

People often make the mistake of leaving themselves just a few weeks of preparation time before their IELTS. But, according to the British Council, it can take as long as 12 weeks of study to move up an IELTS score band by just one point. And, you should be achieving a high score consistently before you even consider booking your IELTS test and beginning official preparations.

With that in mind, you should aim to speak English for at least six months before booking your IELTS exam. Even after your English proficiency is good enough to book your test, experts state that you’ll need between 6-8 weeks of solid IELTS preparation time, which contains a study period of no less than three hours a day.

While you can shorten this period with a dedicated, professionally-led IELTS course that involves intensive study, it’s rarely worth rushing your IELTS date. Instead, you should take your time and prepare properly. By saving you from having to rebook your test, this slower approach should end up leading to quicker results in the long-term.

Join an IELTS Preparation Class

Joining an IELTS preparation class like the ones we offer here at Speak English Institute can be a huge help in getting ready for your IELTS exam. In fact, a high-quality IELTS preparation class should make every point discussed here easier to manage.

As well as helping you with every element of your English skills, qualified IELTS teachers should be in a position to book your exam for you, at a time frame that realistically suits your skills level. They’ll then be able to coach you in everything that we’ve discussed here, including exam contents, and practice papers.

IELTS preparation classes are particularly valuable because they provide you with a community of students who are also learning the English language, and who will be more than happy to exchange ideas and conversations with you.

Professional classes also provide you with the opportunity to have your English assessed. This in-depth, personalised review can be the best thing for helping you to realistically see where your English level is right now, as well as any specifics that you need to work on. Your teacher can then provide you with a well-prepared IELTS schedule to help you tackle those issues in plenty of time for your exam.

IELTS candidate sitting in room with examiner for speaking test
IELTS candidate with examiner during speaking section.

Find Ways to Practise English Every Day

Consistent, regular use of the English language is a crucial element of preparing for your IELTS exam. This ongoing practice will provide you with a level of fluency that will prove invaluable, particularly in your speaking exam.

While practice papers should play a major role in your English-speaking practice, you’ll also want to integrate the English language into your everyday activities in the weeks leading up to your exam. An IELTS course is great for this, as you’ll have dedicated time to practise your English alongside your fellow students..  

There are also some great ways to do this at home, which include:

  • Watching English-speaking programs and films
  • Reading English newspapers/books/journals
  • Having conversations with English-speaking friends

It’s especially useful to embark on these activities with IELTS topics in mind. Topics that you can expect to come across during your speaking exam include the environment, education, and technology. By watching programs or centering your reading around these topics, you should be better able to speak about them competently later on.

Preparations for the Day of Your IELTS Exam

To get the most out of your long-term IELTS preparations, you need to make sure that your exam day itself runs smoothly. A few preparations that could help you to do that include –

  • Familiarise yourself with where your exam is taking place, and how to get there
  • Make sure to bring your ID card and essential documents
  • Arrive early to leave plenty of time for checking in and registration
  • Be prepared to leave personal belongings, including your phone, keys, and bag, outside of the exam room
  • Go to the toilet before your exam to save yourself lost time later
  • Raise your hand if you need to ask anything of the exam invigilators once your exam begins

Once you’ve completed your exam, you should be able to access your provisional results online in 3-5 days, or 13 days if you sat a paper IELTS test. You can either pick up your official results at the test venue or arrange to have them mailed to your home address.

Prepare for Your IELTS Exam the Professional Way With Speak English Institute

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to IELTS preparation, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you look at a list like this.

Seeking help with your IELTS preparation can make this feel like a much less daunting task, and it can significantly boost your English-speaking abilities during this crucial stage.

Whether you have your first IELTS exam booked or are looking for help rebooking after a disappointing result, then our IELTS preparation course could be perfect for you.

Across just four weeks, our flexible weekday courses can help you to strengthen all areas of your English skills, including vocabulary, writing skills, and even exam strategies. We’re also on hand to help you book an exam date that suits your skill level so that you can concentrate fully on your IELTS preparation.

Don’t hesitate to request a call back with a friendly member of our team to boost your IELTS score today!


Still have questions? Don't hesitate to get in touch with Speak English Institute