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The IELTS Test

It is helpful to understand how the IELTS test is conducted and how to avoid the potential pitfalls. We will tell you what goes on during the test so that you are familiar with the procedure before you even take it. Anyone who has taken an exam for the second time knows how much easier it is compared with the first - simply because they know what to expect.

We will look briefly at what the IELTS test is for to make sure you are taking the right exam! We will then discuss all aspects of the IELTS test from application to receiving your result. In depth details of each of the modules - listening, reading, writing and speaking - can be found on their own pages, but read this page first to understand how the test is conducted and be aware of any hazards along the way.

What is the IELTS test?

IELTS is an English testing system designed to assess the language ability of candidates who need to study or work where English is the language of communication. It is not considered suitable for candidates under 16 years old.

Many academic institutions, employers and immigration authorities require you to have a certain IELTS score before your application is accepted.

Parts of the IELTS test, namely the reading and writing modules, differ depending on whether you are taking the Academic or General Training version. Academic is for those wanting to study abroad while General Training is aimed at those wishing to emigrate or work abroad.

If you haven’t already done so, you should visit the official IELTS website to get information in more depth. I would recommend you download the IELTS Information for Candidates booklet.

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Should you take the IELTS test?

The IELTS test is necessary only if you want to work, study or emigrate abroad and an IELTS score is required either by the organisation you are going to or the immigration authorities.

Remember, IELTS is a business, not a charity. To be successful in business you need to have a good product. This involves extensive research and development. The IELTS Handbook explains how Cambridge ESOL develop and validate the IELTS tests. Needless to say this costs money. This, together with the increasing demand for IELTS, goes some way towards explaining the test fee.

As the cost of the IELTS test varies from country to country you will need to check with your local centre to find the actual cost to you.

It can be very expensive to take the IELTS test. Those of you in developing countries in particular will be aware of this. Not only do you need to pay the examination fees, you should also consider the cost of travel to the nearest IELTS test centre and accommodation while you are there. In some countries you may have to travel hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometres to the nearest IELTS test centre. IELTS preparation, if required, can also be costly and should be taken into consideration.

You should note that there are other similar English testing systems used by universities, organisations and immigration authorities, notably TOEFL. Do not assume that IELTS will be acceptable to the university or organisation to which you want to apply. Some only accept TOEFL so be sure to check first.

You should also be aware that IELTS recommends that your IELTS result is valid for up to 2 years and some organisations will only accept your result if it is more recent than that. So, don’t take the IELTS test just because it might be useful in the future …

If all you want is a measure of your own English ability it is likely you will find a better, and possibly cheaper, alternative to the IELTS test.

You can see from our comments above that you should be certain the IELTS test is necessary for you – unless, of course, money is no object. Don’t waste your money on something you don’t need.

One last consideration is that, even though an organisation may require an IELTS score, you may be able to convince them otherwise. Some universities and organisations will waive this requirement if you already have some other equivalent qualification (TOEFL, perhaps) or if you can demonstrate your English ability in some other way such as a telephone interview. They are more likely to be amenable to this request if you have a good reason for not wanting to take the IELTS test, e.g. you would have to travel a long way to do it. So make enquiries, it could save you a lot of money!

Applying for the IELTS test

Again, this information is best obtained from the official IELTS website or your local Test Centre to ensure you have up-to-date information. The IELTS Handbook and Information for Candidates both explain how to apply to take the IELTS test; however, we will explain the process briefly here and add some of our own comments.

You apply to your local IELTS Test Centre, so first you need to find out where your nearest IELTS Test Centre is. You can use our Test Centre search facility or go direct to the IELTS site and use their's. You can find your nearest IELTS Test Centre together with its address and contact details as well as upcoming test dates.

If convenient, go to the IELTS Test Centre yourself and get any free information they have, as well as an application form. Test Centres also sell specimen materials. If it’s not easy for you to go to the Test Centre you can download the application form from the official IELTS website. Alternatively you could contact them and ask them to post details and an application form to you.

One thing we don’t like about the application form is that you are expected to provide personal information that is not relevant to taking the IELTS test. We can understand that IELTS can make good use of this information for statistical purposes but don’t see why you should be obliged to provide this information e.g. questions 12-15, 21-22.

They then have the gall to ask you to pay £10 for the privilege of seeing the data they are storing on you!

When you have decided what date you want to take the IELTS test, fill in the application form. Read the form carefully and complete it as directed. Make sure you enter the correct format, Academic or General Training depending on the requirements of the organisation you wish to apply to. You will be completing it in your second language so don’t be afraid to ask a native English speaking friend, or someone with very good English (a teacher?), to check you have completed the form correctly. If you are applying at short notice the last thing you want is to have your application returned.

Before signing your application be sure to read the Declaration carefully – not that you have much choice but to agree if IELTS is a requirement of the university or organisation you wish to attend.

A note about your ID. You must provide the same ID on test day as you put on your application form – a different ID will result in you not being allowed to take the IELTS test. If, for some reason, you have to renew your ID or if you lose it, contact the IELTS test centre immediately so that they can find some other way of verifying your identity. If you do not notify the IELTS test centre before test day your ID will not be acceptable.

All this concern about ID may lead you to think that IELTS is being overly paranoid. We can assure you that their concerns are fully justified. The stakes are high so the temptation to substitute a candidate with another person is always going to be present.

If IELTS failed to take this seriously the credibility of the exam results would suffer. So bear with the administration staff and examiners when they check your ID.

Renewing your ID often results in a new number being issued. Some IELTS test centres also require a photocopy of your ID and if this is different, even if it has the same number, you will not be allowed to take the IELTS test. If in doubt, contact your IELTS test centre.

After completing the form, take or post it to the IELTS test centre together with the test fee and two passport sized photos.

Be sure to read and keep page (i) of the application form (part of the separate pages fixed in the middle). This lists the Rules and Regulations as well as giving advice and information. You should read this again, just before going to the test centre, to ensure you don’t inadvertently infringe any of the rules that could result in your disqualification from the IELTS test.

Many centres do speaking interviews on a different day to the main test. If you need to have the interview on the same day as the main test be sure to write a covering letter indicating this and explaining why. The IELTS test centre will oblige if possible.

Once your application has been received and processed you will be sent a confirmation letter with details of the time and date of the test. You will also receive other instructions such as what to do on arrival, where to go and so on. Read these carefully. Every IELTS test centre is different so we can’t give you more specific details here.

A note on cheating:

DON’T!

The stakes are high and so the temptation to cheat is bound to be there. Quite apart from the fact that cheating is immoral, if you are caught you will not be given an IELTS result and may be refused any future application to do the test.

The test is designed such that it is very difficult to cheat and get away with it. Even if you are not actually caught cheating during the test you can be sure that the examiners marking it will detect it and mark accordingly.

As an example, it is easy for an IELTS examiner to spot memorised scripts and they are marked down accordingly. So, even by cheating, you are unlikely to get a higher score than you warrant.

As a final thought on this subject, do you really want an IELTS score that is higher than your true English level? Minimum IELTS scores are required for a reason. If it’s for study, you can be sure that you need this level to be able to complete your course satisfactorily. Imagine the stress when you can’t understand what your lecturer is saying or what’s in the texts you’re reading. If it's for emigration, imagine the frustration of not being able to communicate with your neighbours or colleagues.

Your aim should be to get the IELTS score you merit. Not a higher one by cheating and certainly not lower - that’s why Your IELTS Guide is here to help you!

Test Day

When you arrive, follow the instructions you have been sent by the IELTS test centre. Every IELTS test centre is different but you will need to register your arrival and have your ID checked. You will then be shown to your seat in the examination room. There will be a place assigned specifically to you. You will not be allowed to take your belongings, including mobile phones, into the exam room and will be asked to leave them in a separate area outside the room.

The exam room doors will be closed at a specifci time before the start of the exam. The exact time will depend on the Test Centre but anyone arriving after this time will not be allowed to take the IELTS test. Listen carefully to the instructions the invigilator gives you. If you can’t hear the invigilator clearly, put up your hand and tell them your problem. They will speak up or increase the volume.

Note that once the exam has officially started you are not allowed to talk. If you require assistance raise your hand. You will know when the test has officially started because the invigilator will state this clearly.

During the test you will be asked to write your name not only on the answer sheets but also on the question papers. This is to ensure all papers are returned.

Whilst it is important to fill in your details correctly, don’t get concerned if you later think you forgot to fill something in. It is not uncommon for candidates to go to the invigilator after the test because they think they forgot to put their name on one of the answer or question sheets. In most cases they have completed the information correctly. In any case, there is a lot of redundancy built in so, as long as your candidate number is on the form, there should not be a problem. The invigilators should also be checking the answer sheets as they collect them so they will notice if any haven’t been completed properly. In other words, don’t fret about filling in the answer sheets correctly once they have been collected – just get on with the rest of the exam. IELTS is not trying to catch you out!

The listening module is the first to be tested followed by reading and then writing. The speaking module is tested separately and you will be interviewed individually.

Each module, listening, reading, writing and speaking, is discussed in detail on its own page.

Once the final module, writing, has been completed and the papers collected in, the invigilator will thank you for you cooperation and allow you to leave.

Please remember that other candidates may still be finishing their IELTS test in other rooms so please be quiet as you rush to the toilets. ;-)

Once you have completed this morning and your speaking interview it just remains for you to wait for your IELTS test results, which will be issued after 13 days. It might be possible at some Test Centres to arrange to collect your Test Report Form on the 13th day, but you will need to check with the test centre about that. Test Centres are not allowed to notify any results by phone, by fax or by e-mail.

We have compiled information about the IELTS test result and what you can do if it is lower than you wanted.

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