What is the IELTS Exam?
Updated: December 29, 2020
The International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, is a standardized test that determines the English abilities of test-takers who are hoping to study or work in an English-speaking country. The exam is scored on a ‘band’ scale, with 9 being the highest score (expert English) and 1 being the lowest (non-English user). The exam is broken down to test 4 skills: IELTS Speaking, IELTS Reading, IELTS Listening, and IELTS Writing. Along with the TOEFL exam, it’s one of the most popular tests for English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers in the world.
There are 2 types of IELTS tests available: Academic and General Training. The IELTS Academic exam is for people who plan to pursue higher education in an English-speaking country or university. On the other hand, the IELTS General Training exam is for those who are applying to live, work, or pursue secondary education in an English-speaking environment. These 2 versions of the test share the same speaking and listening sections, but they have different reading and writing sections.
Which IELTS should I take: Academic or General Training?
Anyone who knows the test can tell you the Academic IELTS is harder than the General Training IELTS. So, unless you’re trying to get into a college or university-or if you just really crave a challenge-take it easy on yourself and go with the General Training Version!
Below, we’ll break down how the IELTS is scored, what good IELTS scores look like across the globe, and how to get the IELTS score you need in order to accomplish your goals. Accomplishing those goals is a bit difficult if you’re taking the IELTS without any guidance at all, so we recommend IELTS students make a specific study plan based on a high-quality IELTS curriculum; check out our comparison of the best IELTS online prep courses available to learn more and find a course that fits your studying needs.
Beyond the IELTS, however, it’s important to keep in mind that you will probably still need to take another admissions exam, such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, or GMAT if you are applying to an English-speaking school. Just like the IELTS, it is important to study for these entrance exams in advance. For help with this, check out the links below for our analysis of the best SAT, ACT, and GRE prep courses out there.
What Does the IELTS Measure?
The IELTS exam is broken into 4 sections, and 2 of them change based on whether you are taking the IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training exam. Our #1 choice for IELTS preparation, Magoosh IELTS prep, offers online courses that are specifically made for each version of the test, so you’ll be prepared no matter which test you choose.
The IELTS is similar to the TOEFL (or Test of English as a Foreign Language), because both exams measure people’s English language abilities. Each of these two exams evaluates test-takers’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. However, these two tests are very different in terms of how they are scored, how much time students have to take them, and the types of questions that they include. To see which test is best for you, check out our page that looks in-depth at the differences between the TOEFL and IELTS exams.
But for now, let’s dig deeper into what the IELTS will ask of you.
IELTS Section Breakdowns
The IELTS Speaking section lasts between 11-14 minutes and has 3 parts. It will be the same no matter whether you take the Academic or General Training version of the IELTS. During this section, the test will ask about your personal opinions or experiences. Then, it will ask you to comment on abstract topics.
- Part 1: The examiner asks questions about your home, interests, family, or other topics that you should be familiar with. The conversation lasts between 4-5 minutes.
- Part 2: The examiner gives you a card with a topic written on it. After one minute for preparation, you will speak on that topic for no more than 2 minutes. Then, the examiner will ask you 1 or 2 questions about the topic.
- Part 3: The examiner will ask you more in-depth questions about the topic from Part 2, which will be about more complex, abstract ideas. This part lasts another 4-5 minutes.
The Listening section of the IELTS lasts 30 minutes and has 4 parts. Like the Speaking section, the IELTS Listening section is the same no matter which version of the test you take. During this section, test-takers will listen to 4 audio recordings and respond to questions about the specific details and main ideas of what they just heard.
- Recording 1: An everyday conversation between people
- Recording 2: One person speaking about an everyday topic
- Recording 3: A conversation between as many as four people discussing a task
- Record 4: One person speaking about an academic topic
The Reading section of the IELTS Academic test lasts 60 minutes and includes 40 total questions. This section measures various reading comprehension skills according to an academic standard, and requires students to read passages and identify their main ideas, specific details, the logical arguments, and also the opinions and purpose of each passage’s author. There are 3 long texts included in this section, which will either describe topics in detail or analyze them and make arguments about them. These passages may be taken from books, journals, magazines, and newspapers, which all simulate the types of English someone may find in an academic or research setting. The questions in this section come in several different formats, included below:
- Multiple Choice
- Identifying information
- Identifying writer’s views/claims
- Matching sentence parts
- Sentence Completion
- Table Reading and Completion
Crush the GRE Pro Tip:
With Identifying Information questions, you read a passage and then get a series of statements that might agree with or disagree with the passage text. Your answer choices are: “True”, “False”, or “Not Given”, but there’s a huge difference between the “False” and “Not Given” responses. “False” means the passage says the opposite of the statement, but “Not Given” means the passage provides no info that can prove or disprove the statement. Mixing these two up could tank your score in this section!
The Writing section for the Academic version of the IELTS lasts 60 minutes and includes only 2 tasks. These tasks will measure students’ abilities to analyze and explain information in their own words, and also to articulate a response to an opinion or logical argument. Students are expected to use formal English rather than conversational phrases (slang) in their responses—they will also lose points if they write in bullets or incomplete sentences.
- Academic Writing Task 1: You are presented with a graph or other diagram and must summarize or explain the information in 150 words or more. This task lasts 20 minutes.
- Academic Writing Task 2: You will write an essay of at least 250 words in response to an opinion or logical argument. This task lasts 40 minutes.
General Training Reading
The IELTS General Training Reading test has 40 questions and lasts for 60 minutes. Like the Academic IELTS test, these questions will measure students’ reading comprehension skills, including: reading for main ideas, reading for details, skimming passages, understanding logical arguments, and finding an author’s opinion or purpose. Unlike the Academic IELTS, the passages in the IELTS General Reading section are taken from everyday sources and categorized in 3 sections:
- Social Survival: These texts deal with general information, such as the time and place of an event given by a public notice or advertisement.
- Workplace Survival: These texts are from common professional sources, like contracts, training manuals, or job descriptions.
- General Reading: These passages are descriptive and instructive tests; they are longer and more complex than the others.
In terms of question format, you will see the same types of questions as you might see on the IELTS Academic version of the exam:
- Multiple Choice
- Identifying Information
- Identifying Writer’s Views/Claims
- Matching Sentence Parts
- Sentence Completion
- Table Reading and Completion
General Training Writing
The Writing section for the IELTS General Training exam is 60 minutes long and includes 2 tasks. This section will have different material when compared to the writing tasks for the Academic version of the IELTS.
- General Writing Task 1: The first task lasts only 20 minutes and requires a response of at least 150 words. In this task, test-takers must respond to a situation by writing a letter. It does not have to be written in a formal writing style, so test-takers can use more personal language.
- General Writing Task 2: This task lasts 40 minutes and requires at least 250 words. This task will ask test-takers to write an argument that includes examples and reasoning.
How Is the IELTS Scored?
The IELTS is scored on a scale from 0-9, which is referred to as your ‘band score’. This scoring system applies to both the section scores and the overall score of the IELTS, which we’ll break down in detail below. Each of these band score numbers corresponds to a certain level of English proficiency.
Your overall band score is simply the average of the 4 IELTS section scores, which are all weighted equally. This means that none of the band scores from one section count for more than the score from another: a 7 in Reading and a 7 in Writing contribute equally to your overall score.
To calculate your overall IELTS score from your section scores, simply add up all of your section band scores and divide by 4. This means you may find that your overall IELTS is a decimal rather than a whole number (like 5.5, 6.5, or 7.5). Here’s how section scores and overall scores work on the IELTS, based on a few examples:
|Listening||Reading||Writing||Speaking||Average of four components||Band score|
Your overall IELTS score will always be a number between 1 (“non-user”) and 9 (considered “expert” or “basically fluent”). If you don’t make any responses on the test, however, you can receive a score of 0, which just shows you did not attempt the test at all (not a great idea, by the way). Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the level of skill required for each band score:
How Are the IELTS Sections Scored?
Because the sections of the IELTS test are meant to assess different pieces of your English skills, they are each scored slightly differently. Let’s check out each section’s criteria below:
IELTS Speaking Band Score Description
The IELTS Speaking score is determined according to 4 main categories:
|Fluency and Coherence||This category judges your speaking confidence and how naturally your conversation flows. The other three categories below all factor into how your fluency is scored.|
|Vocabulary||This category judges the range of different words that you use in conversation, as well as your skill with idioms and expressions.|
|Grammar||This category judges how many different grammatical forms you can use and understand (such as verb tenses, noun forms, and agreements).|
|Pronunciation||This category judges how clearly you sound each letter and syllable, and also considers where you place emphasis in a sentence.|
IELTS Writing Band Score Description
Just like with the Speaking section, your IELTS Writing score is judged according to how well you do in 4 different categories.
|Task Achievement||This is a cumulative score that considers how well you follow the instructions in the prompt and how fully you answer the question. All other criteria contribute to your Task Achievement score.|
|Structure||This category looks at the structure of your essay. This includes having visible paragraphs, easy transitions, and your use of relevant details.|
|Vocabulary||This category measures how wide a range of vocabulary words you can use correctly in different contexts.|
|Grammar||This category judges the quality of your grammar and sentence structure in your response.|
IELTS Reading and Listening Band Scores
Because both the Reading and Listening sections are made entirely of multiple-choice questions, each of their 40 questions contributes to a raw score, which is simply the number of questions that you get right. That raw score is then converted to give your band score for the section.
In this system, each correct answer will earn you 1 point towards your raw score, which will be a simple ratio out of 40. So, for instance, if you get 30 questions correct, your raw score will be 30.
IELTS Score Calculator:
Now that you know how band scores reflect test-takers’ skills, there are still a few questions you may be wondering about, like: how are IELTS band scores calculated in the first place? To help answer this question, we’ve put together a IELTS score calculator for the Listening and Reading sections of the test.
How are band scores calculated?
The conversion from a raw score to a band score is not a straightforward percentage; instead, band scores are calculated according to a IELTS scoring formula. IELTS thankfully provides some converted score examples so you can see what some raw scores equate to as band scores.
Sadly, it’s difficult to put together a IELTS band calculator for the Speaking and Writing sections, because those scores are calculated by human graders according to the categories we described above, rather than according to a standard equation or the number of correct answers. Still, the IELTS Reading and Listening section band calculations we’ve listed below will show you how many answers you have to get right for a certain band score, which could be helpful for you as you set IELTS goals and study!
IELTS Listening Section Conversion Calculation
|Band score||Raw score out of 40 Multiple Choice|
IELTS Academic Reading Conversion Calculation
|Band score||Raw score out of 40|
IELTS General Training Reading Calculation
|Band score||Raw score out of 10|
With this knowledge in hand, you will have a much better idea of exactly how many questions you have to get right in these sections to achieve a certain band score! In reality, however, finding out the exact band score you need is not that easy, and requires that you research the institutions you want to apply to.
What is a Good IELTS Score?
Every institution is going to have slightly different requirements when it comes to IELTS band scores. These requirements will also vary based on the position you are applying to (undergraduate, graduate, professional), as well as the subject matter that you will deal with in that position. For instance, at most colleges and universities, math and science fields have slightly lower band score requirements.
Schools will typically list the minimum overall band score that an applicant needs, as well as minimum section band scores. If you are applying to a school with section score minimums, you could get the overall score you need (such as a 7), but score very lowly in one section (such as a 5), which could keep you from getting into your desired program. Keep this in mind when you’re preparing for the IELTS, because it shows you that it is important to give equal attention to all parts of the exam.
In order to give you an idea of the band score you might need for certain colleges, let’s have a look at a top university in 3 different English-speaking countries and learn how they differ in band score requirements.
Some Canadian visas do require certain IELTS scores. For example, getting Express Entry into Canada requires a 6.0 for each section of the IELTS, so be sure to do your research on the visa you will be applying for and its specific IELTS requirements before you tackle the test.
University of Alberta
If you are applying to an undergraduate or graduate program at the University of Alberta, you will need an IELTS band score of 6.5 and a minimum section score of 5. As mentioned above, this section requirement means it is very important to practice for every single section, even if you are exceptionally good at most of the sections.
For example, if you receive a score of 8 in Speaking, Writing, and Reading, but a 3 in Listening, your strong overall score of 7 still would not be good enough because the Listening score is below the 5.5 minimum.
The score requirements from the University of Alberta are similar to those of other top-tier Canadian universities: Royal Roads University (which ranks just in the top 25 Canadian universities), St. Clair College of Applied Arts and Technology, and Canadore College all require at least a 5.5 overall IELTS band score, with a minimum section score of 5.
The U.S. government does not have minimum English requirements when applying for a visa. You should, however, reach an IELTS band score that matches university requirements if you are planning to attend a school in the states. Here is an example of some undergraduate and graduate requirements in the U.S..
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Undergraduate and graduate applicants to UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the top 30 colleges in the country, are asked to have an overall IELTS band score of 7.
Many U.S. universities do not have a minimum section score, however, so a 7 overall could get you into UNC-Chapel Hill even if you did very poorly in one section.
UNC is a typical example of the IELTS score requirements at top U.S. colleges. There are other colleges that only ask students to score at least a 6 on the IELTS, such as the University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University, and Carnegie Mellon University.
If you are applying for a work visa in the U.K., you’ll want to have a minimum IELTS band score between 4.5-6.5. This is because unlike with the U.S., the U.K. requires minimum overall scores which vary based on what tier of visa you are applying for.
Schools can also sponsor your immigration, just like an employer might. Here is an example of what kinds of requirements you can expect when applying to graduate or undergraduate programs in the U.K..
At Oxford, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, there are different IELTS score requirements for different programs. Applicants to undergraduate programs like Biomedical Science, Computer Science, and Mathematics should have an IELTS band score of 7 with a minimum section score of 6.5. For those applying to any other programs (which will have a bigger emphasis on studying the English language), the IELTS band score should be 7.5 with a minimum section score of 7.
Graduate programs at Oxford have the same requirements, although the programs are categorized differently. Other U.K. universities have lower requirements than Oxford, however, such as the universities at Birmingham and Westminster, which ask for band scores of 6.5 and 6, respectively.
How to Get a Good IELTS Score
If you’ve identified the institution that you want to get into, and if you’ve learned about all the things you need to know about the IELTS, you have already started the IELTS prep process. Preparing for the IELTS is just like any other standardized test; most students can get the score they need by setting standards, putting a study plan together, and following through with consistent preparation. Here’s how:
- Do your research. The first step to getting a good IELTS score is setting a scoring goal. You will need to look up your dream organization, find their minimum overall and section IELTS score requirements, and set a scoring goal for yourself that you think you can achieve.
- Take a practice test. Once you have set your goals, the next step is seeing how much work you need to do to get there. The best way to do this is to take a practice IELTS test online—see what you are scoring at now, and based on your performance, you can set a study plan for yourself that will help you improve.
- Register. This step is not as simple as it seems, because you have to pick a perfect date: it has to help you meet application deadlines and it has to give you enough time to study. We recommend picking a date 3 months away for most students, but everyone will study differently.
- Prepare! Preparing for the IELTS will be a different process for everyone; however, the best way to study is to use high-quality studying materials. Using a good IELTS prep course or study guide will help you set up a study plan that fits your scoring goals and your schedule. Some courses, such as Magoosh IELTS and BestMyTest IELTS prep, even offer students a guaranteed band score improvement, meaning that if you do not do better on the IELTS after taking the course, you get all your money back!
- Take the IELTS. Once you’ve studied, it’s time for the big day: taking the IELTS. Make sure that you get good rest the night before and that you walk into the testing center feeling comfortable and confident in the work you’ve put in.
- Evaluate/Report/Retake. Any time you set a goal, the final step of the process is comparing your actual performance with the goals you set for yourself. Once you have taken the IELTS, evaluate your score and determine whether it is good enough for you. If it isn’t what you were hoping for, don’t worry—you still have options!
What Do I Do If My IELTS Score Is Too Low?
If you have finished your IELTS exam and put together all of your application materials for school, work, or immigration purposes, you might be finally ready to send in your applications and start a new life in an English-speaking environment. But what if your IELTS score is not good enough for the requirements of your institution?
Don’t worry, there are still options available to you.
- Ask about conditional admission.
If applying to a college or university, you should speak with the admissions department at the school. If you have a strong professional or academic background, the school may admit you without the exact IELTS score they said they needed. Schools may let you in if you have other good qualifications, but they can also give you conditional acceptance. If you get conditional acceptance from a university, it means you will be accepted while you continue working on your English through classes. You will probably have to retake and score better on the test; then, the school will offer you full admission.
- Take it again!
If your score is too low, you can always retake the exam! There are no restrictions on how often you can take the IELTS test or how long you have to wait between each attempt. If you find your score isn’t as high as you wanted, the IELTS website says you can register again as soon as you’re ready.
- Try the TOEFL.
If taking the IELTS is not working out for you, you could try the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam instead, which is another widely-accepted exam for assessing English language skills. Check out our comprehensive TOEFL resources for more information:
The IELTS is an important step for many people hoping to take on a new opportunity in an English-speaking institution. It is no easy task, though, and doing a good job on the IELTS requires planning and determination. If you’re ready to start preparing for the exam, check out our page with reviews of the top IELTS Prep Courses and see which is the best fit for you, so that you can CRUSH the IELTS and get the score you need for your job, school, or new life abroad.