what international students should know about IELTS

Learning about the IELTS can help international students applying to U.S. universities better prepare for the English proficiency test.

TO PREPARE FOR HER International English Language Testing System, or IELTS test, Indian national Harshapriya Prasad says she used several online resources, many of them free. Her preparation paid off and led to a high score.

“Practice. Practice. Practice. This is the key to acing the IELTS,” says Prasad, who is planning to apply to graduate school in the U.S.

Many U.S. universities require prospective undergraduate and graduate international students to demonstrate their English proficiency through standardized tests such as the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language; Duolingo English Test; or the IELTS Academic test. The IELTS test can be taken on paper or computer and students receive a score between 1 to 9, referred to as bands, for each section. The IELTS test fee varies by country since it is set to each market’s local currency, and can cost up to $250 if taken in the U.S.

Here are three tips for prospective international students considering taking the IELTS:

 Understand the test format.
 Take advantage of study aids.
 Know testing options.


Understand the Test Format

Experts recommend prospective international students get acquainted with the IELTS first by reviewing the content, question and task types.

“Getting to know the format of the test is crucial to achieving a high score because it is impossible to score well without familiarizing yourself with the requirements of each task and without a clear plan on how to handle all the possible task types,” Simone Braverman, founder of the IELTS preparation website, IELTS-Blog.com, and author of several IELTS books and practice tests, wrote in an email.

The test is two hours and 45 minutes long with assessments on listening (30 minutes), reading (60 minutes), writing (60 minutes) and speaking (11 to 14 minutes).

The listening portion has four parts with question types such as multiple choice, matching and sentence completion, among others. The reading test has three long excerpts from books, journals, magazines and newspapers, and students “are measured on their ability to read for gist, main ideas, detail and understand inferences from the texts,” says Amy Carter, director of partnerships and communications for IELTS USA.

The writing test has two tasks: one that requires summarization or explaining data shown in a graph, chart or diagram in 150 words, and the second, Carter says, “is an essay response to an argument or point of view that should be explained in 250 words.”

The speaking test is a two-way discussion with an examiner, like a real-life conversation. It has three parts, and English speaking abilities are measured based on factors such as the range of vocabulary used and pronunciation.


Take Advantage of Study Aids

Experts suggest international students use all available resources, from books and practice materials to prep courses, to help them prepare for the IELTS.

“Find a speaking buddy for practice, join a Facebook group for practice, watch English movies, news and practice writing every day,” Tarlok S. Chauhan, director and mentor at India-based EdFlight, which offers educational consulting services, wrote in an email.

“I highly recommend subscribing to the IELTS-blog. This blog sends you daily communications on questions posted by students who took the IELTS exam,” says Prasad, who earned an overall band score of 8.

She says she prepared by taking a lot of practice tests and timed herself using the blog as well as the websites IELTS Liz and the British Council that have useful resources for all four parts of the test. The British Council jointly owns the IELTS, along with IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English.

“My advice to any IELTS applicant would be to do their own research finding a good coaching center for higher training and practice,” says Sonam Sherpa, a Tibetan from Nepal who is a computer science major at CUNY—City College in New York.

Coaching centers, which require a fee, can help with the basic fundamentals tested on the IELTS, such as grammar, Sherpa says. He adds that the British Council provides useful test prep materials and time management skills for test-taking. Sherpa used these resources along with the IETLS-blog site; after several months, he took the exam and received an overall band score of 8.

Braverman says even though the IELTS sections are very different, each requires active time management.

“IELTS is a time-intensive test and there is a lot to do, so for people who mismanage their time it can feel like mission impossible, but think of time management as your superpower to safely get you to the other side,” Braverman says.

Joseph Bleazard, an IELTS teacher and learner management system and special programs coordinator for Kaplan International Languages, says the reading part of the exam is where strategies are most important.

“Read as many strategies as you can or get them from YouTube and try the strategies out on up-to-date mock exams to see which work for you. However, if an IELTS strategy sounds too good to be true then it almost certainly is,” Bleazard says, citing as an example a strategy of just filling in all the blanks with the longest words found in the reading passages.


Know Testing Options

Preparation for the IELTS also involves understanding available testing options, experts say.

While the coronavirus pandemic has affected the administration of various standardized tests, including the IELTS, in-person testing has resumed in more than 90 countries, according to the IELTS website.

There is also IELTS Indicator, an online test that can be taken from home in more than 40 countries due to COVID-19, Carter says. “The test content, format, marking and scoring is exactly the same as the in-person test, and the speaking test is a video call conducted by qualified examiners,” she says.

Before committing to taking the IELTS and choosing a test option, prospective international students should first ensure they know which schools accept or require the test. Students can find information about which U.S. colleges and universities accept IELTS scores, including score requirements, on the organization’s website, Carter says.

Once students decide on whether they will go to a test center or take the exam online, the next step is registering for the IELTS. Based on her experience, Prasad recommends students register early enough to ensure time to prepare for the exam and to choose a test date that works with their schedule.

Prospective international students should rely on information from the official IELTS website, says Jan Bond, former IELTS examiner and online tutor for English Teaching Live.

“Everything candidates need to know about the format is available at IELTS.org and will be learned and reinforced through practice,” Bond wrote in an email.