INTRODUCTION TO THE IELTS EXAM
The International English Language Testing System, or IELTS exam, is a standardized test meant to determine the English proficiency of test-takers who are hoping to study or work in a country where English is the primary language. The exam is scored on a “band” scale, with 9 being the highest (expert English) and 1 the lowest (non-English user). The exam is broken down to test three skills: IELTS speaking, IELTS reading, IELTS listening, and IELTS writing.
There are also two types of IELTS tests available: Academic and General Training. The IELTS Academic exam is for people who are planning to pursue higher education in an English-speaking country or university. The IELTS General Training exam is for those who are applying for secondary education or, more commonly, to live or work in an English-speaking country. The types of tests are the same in the speaking and speaking component, but they are different in reading and writing.
But there will be more on all of these details below, including a breakdown of what makes a good IETLS score, how to read your IELTS results, and what to do once you’ve taken the test. Follow this link for a breakdown of the best IELTS preparation courses available to you.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that your IELTS band score is only one part of your overall college application. No matter how high you score on the IELTS, you will still need to take another admissions exam, such as the SAT, ACT, or GRE if you are applying for graduate 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 in-depth analysis of the best SAT, ACT, and GRE prep courses out there.
What does the IELTS measure?
The IELTS exam is broken into four categories, and two of these are different depending on whether you are taking the IELTS Academic or General Training exam. My #1 choice for IELTS preparation, Magoosh IELTS prep, offers preparation courses that are tailor-made for each version of the test, so whichever you choose you can be sure you’ll be prepared.
The IELTS is different from the TOEFL, the other main English language proficiency test in terms of the scoring mechanics, the time allotted, and the types of questions. To see which test is best for you, check out our page that looks in-depth at the TOEFL vs IELTS exams.
But for now, let’s dig deeper into what the IELTS will ask of you.
IELTS Section Breakdowns
IELTS Academic Reading
- There are 40 questions in this section, meant to measure reading comprehension skills that include reading for main ideas, detail, skimming, understanding logical arguments and how to distinguish an author’s opinions and purpose.
- There are three long texts, which can be descriptive as well as analytical, and they are all taken from books, journals, magazines, and newspapers. This is meant to simulate the type of English that will typically be found in an academic or research setting.
- Section lasts 60 minutes, with 40 total questions in different styles:
- Multiple Choice
- Identifying information
- After reading a passage, you will be given a series of statements and asked if they agree with the information in the text. Answer choices are: “True,” “False,” or “Not Given.” Knowing the difference between False and Not Given is important for this question type. Answering false means that you think the passage says the opposite of the statement but answering Not Given means that you think the passage does not have anything to do with the statement.
- Identifying writer’s views/claims
- Matching sentence parts
- Sentence Completion
- Table Reading and Completion
IELTS Academic Writing
- The IELTS Writing test is made of two tasks.
- IELTS Writing Task 1: You are presented with a graph or other diagram and asked to summarize or explain the information in your own words. You should write 150 words or more in 20 minutes.
- IELTS Writing Task 2: You are asked to write an essay in response to an opinion or logical argument. Your response should be at least 250 words long and take you 40 minutes.
- Written responses should be formal, avoiding conversational phrases and slang.
- The Writing section lasts for 60 minutes
- You will lose points if you write in bullets or incomplete sentences.
- The IELTS Speaking Test is broken down into three parts, which will ask about topics that are at first personal but then more general.
- 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 be asked to speak on that topic for no more than 2 minutes. Then, the examiner will ask you one or two questions about the topic.
- Part 3: The examiner will now ask you more in-depth questions about the topic from Part 2, which is meant to allow you to discuss abstract ideas. This part lasts another 4-5 minutes.
- Overall, the speaking section takes between 11-14 minutes, depending on the conversation with your instructor.
- The IELTS Listening Test lasts 30 asks you to listen to four audio recordings.
- Recording 1: A sample of an everyday conversation between people
- Recording 2: One person speaking about an everyday topic
- Recording 3: You will listen to a conversation between four people in a training context, such as a teacher and students or boss and employees discussing an assignment.
- Record 4: A monologue like an academic lecture.
IELTS General Training Reading
- The IELTS General Reading test is 40 questions that take 60 minutes.
- Like the academic test, questions are meant to measure reading comprehension skills that include reading for main ideas, detail, skimming, understanding logical arguments and how to distinguish an author’s opinions and purpose.
- Unlike the academic test, the passages in the IELTS General Reading are taken from everyday sources and categorized in three sections:
- Social Survival: Deals with relaying general information, such as the time and place of an event given by a public notice or advertisement.
- Workplace Survival: Materials are taken from common professional sources, like contracts, training manuals, or job descriptions.
- General Reading: The passages here are longer and a little more complex. You will be asked to get information from descriptive and instructive texts, not argumentative ones.
- You will see the same kinds of questions as in the IELTS Academic Reading test.
- Multiple Choice
- Identifying information
- Identifying writer’s views/claims
- Matching sentence parts
- Sentence Completion
- Table Reading and Completion
IELTS Score: How to understand your IELTS Results
IELTS Band Score
The IELTS is scored on a scale from 0-9. Each score is referred to as a “Band score,” and each number corresponds to a certain level of English proficiency.
|IELTS BAND SCORE||SKILL LEVEL|
Your IELTS score will always be a number between 0 (“non-user”) and 9 (considered “expert” or “basically fluent”).
You may find that your score comes back with a decimal (like 5.5, 6.5, or 7.5). That is because your overall band score is calculated by averaging the score from each separate section.
Writing, reading, speaking, and listening are all scored on a 0-9 scale, and then the average of these numbers is what makes up your final score.
BestMyTest IELTS prep, my #2 choice for IELTS preparation, offers students a guaranteed improvement of up to 2.5 points on their band score after completing the full course. See the comparison page for an idea of how that measures up with the other top IELTS preparation courses.
How is each section scored? Plus: IELTS Score Calculator
Because each section of the IELTS test is meant to assess different pieces of your English skills, they are also scored slightly differently. That means that the same criteria used to calculate your IELTS listening score is different from how your IELTS reading score is calculated.
If you take your test or practice tests and find that you are struggling with a particular section, take a look at Udemy IELTS prep, which offers a great comprehensive course with the option to focus on specific sections.
Let’s breakdown how each section is graded:
IELTS Speaking Band Score Description
The IELTS Speaking score is determined according to four main categories:
|Fluency and Coherence||This category judges your confidence and how naturally the conversation flows. The other three categories 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 grasp of idioms and expressions.|
|Grammar||Like vocabulary, 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, but 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 four different categories.
|Task Achievement||This is a cumulative score that considers how well you follow the instructions given 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 the use of relevant details.|
|Vocabulary||Measures how wide a range of vocabulary words you can use correctly in different contexts.|
|Grammar||Judges how well you remain consistent with grammatical laws while still having a varied structure.|
IELTS Reading and Listening Band Scores
Because both the reading and listening sections are made entirely of multiple-choice questions, each of the 40 questions contributes to a raw score which is then converted to give your band score for the section.
In this system, each correct answer will earn you one point towards your raw score. This is a simple ratio out of 40. So, for instance, if you get 30 questions correct, your raw score will be 30. The actual conversion from a raw score to a band score is not a straightforward percentage, so be sure to take a hard look at the methods IELTS uses for conversion in order to fully understand what to expect from your score.
After a quick review of what each band score says about your English proficiency, we will look more in-depth at how your final score is calculated.
What Do These IELTS Band Scores Mean?
So now you have the general sense of how to read the IELTS score you’ll get after you finish the exam. Next, let’s dive into each of these band scores and see how the official IELTS page defines each of the band scores, and—most importantly—how potential schools and employers will judge your IELTS results.
On the official IELTS webpage, you can find a helpful chart that is similar to the one above but expands a bit more on what each band score means. I’ve reproduced the chart here, so have a look at what each of the band scores means and then keep reading for a breakdown of what you can expect to get out of each level.
|BAND SCORE||Proficiency level||Explanation|
|9||Expert user||Functionally a native speaker. Fully fluent all aspects of English and able to understand and use the language in all contexts.|
|8||Very good user||Almost-native fluency. You may have occasional mistakes in certain contexts, but not regularly and it is easy to make corrections.|
|7||Good user||Skilled in English, but not fully fluent. You probably still have a good grasp of complex English at this level and are able to use it in many scenarios, but you are more prone to repeat mistakes or have trouble in unfamiliar contexts.|
|6||Competent user||Strong English speaker, can use complex English but normally only in familiar situations. You will probably repeat some fundamental errors, but still be able to make corrections.|
|5||Modest user||You can generally grasp the overall meaning in most situations, but struggle with complex English or very unfamiliar circumstances. Still, scorers at this level can usually speak and understand within their own field.|
|4||Limited user||Not able to use complex language and show problems most often with expression and understanding. Limited to familiar situations.|
|3||Extremely limited user||Conversation will break down often at this level, though you can typically understand the very basic meaning in very simple and familiar contexts.|
|2||Intermittent user||Understands only a small amount of English and can produce with great difficulty.|
|1||Non-user||Knowledge of just a few words. Usually these are in isolation and not able to form complex meaning.|
|0||Did not attempt the test||Not an indication of fluency. This score is only given if you gave no answers to any test questions.|
IELTS Score Calculator:
Here are the questions we’ll answer in this section: How are band scores calculated? What makes a good IELTS score? What are the requirements in different schools and countries?
How are band scores calculated?
As mentioned above, your raw score (or number of correct questions out of 40) in both the reading and listening sections are used to help determine your band score for that section.
In each case, the scores are not an exact conversion or percentage, but luckily, there is a very useful IELTS band score calculator on the official IELTS website. To save some time, here is a condensed version of the information available on the website.
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|
General Training Reading
|Band score||Raw score out of 10|
So you see, with this knowledge in hand, you will have a much better idea of exactly how well you should hope to do in each section in order to achieve the band score you want!
Your overall band score is the average of the four section scores, and they are all weighted equally. This means that none of the points from one section count for more than another: a 7 in reading and a 7 in writing contribute equally to your overall score. Simply add up all of your band scores, then divide by four, and then round to the nearest half point.
Your overall band score is the average of the four section scores, and they are all weighted equally. Simply add up all of your band scores, then divide by four, and then round to the nearest half point.
Let’s look at some examples of how this math works out for 3 IELTS test-takers:
|Listening||Reading||Writing||Speaking||Average of four components
Now that your know how each section is graded and how you can calculate your score based on how many questions you answered correctly and how your four section combine, let’s learn a little bit about what makes a good IELTS score.
What is a good IELTS score?
Every school is going to have slightly different requirements when it comes to your band score when you are applying to a program. These requirements will also vary based on your level (undergraduate, graduate, professional) as well as what specific program you are applying to. For instance, at most colleges and universities, math and science fields have slightly lower band score requirements.
Keep in mind also that schools will typically list the minimum overall band score as well as the lowest score accepted from each section. Keep this in mind when studying, because it shows you that it is important to be consistent in your performance and give equal attention to all parts of the exam. Scoring poorly in one section might not bring your overall score below the required level if the others are high, but it might exclude you based on the minimum section score.
In order to give you an idea of what you should be shooting for in your band score, let’s have a look at three top universities in different English-speaking countries and how they differ in band score requirements.
University of Alberta
If you are applying to an undergraduate program at the University of Alberta, you will want to have an IELTS band score of 6.5 and a minimum section score of 5.5. As mentioned above, the section requirement emphasizes how important it is to practice for each section.
If, for example, 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.
Applicants to graduate programs at Alberta are asked to have a score within the same range. This score is typical of top-tier Canadian universities.
At schools like 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 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, be prepared to have an IETLS band score that matches university requirements if you are planning to attend school in the states. Here is an example of undergraduate and graduate requirements.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Undergraduate and graduate applicants to UNC are asked to have an overall IELTS band score of 7. Most U.S. universities do not seem to have a minimum section score like you see in many of the other countries.
UNC is a typical example of the IELTS score required at top US colleges. There are others that only ask students to score at least a 6 on the IELTS, fitting into the category of “Competent User.” Students at universities like University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University, and Carnegie Mellon University score in this range.
If applying for a work visa in the UK, you’ll want to have a minimum IELTS band score anywhere between 4.5-6.5. The exact requirements will vary based on what Tier of visa you are applying for.
Schools can also sponsor your immigration, just as your employer might, so here is an example of what kinds of requirements you can expect when applying to graduate or undergraduate programs in the UK.
At Oxford, there are different IELTS score requirements for different programs. Applicants to undergraduate programs like Biomedical Sciences, 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, the IELTS band score should be 7.5 with a minimum section score of 7.
Graduate programs follow the same standards, although the programs are categorized differently.
Keep in mind: Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. For a sense of a more common IELTS score at other UK universities, consider the requirements at Birmingham and Westminster, which ask for band scores of 6.5 and 6, respectively.
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, or work, or immigration purposes, you might be finally ready to send in your applications and get started on a new life in one of the world’s English-speaking countries. But what if your IELTS score doesn’t measure up to the requirements for your institution?
Don’t worry, you still have options available to you.
First, if applying to a college or university, you should speak with the admissions department at the school. If you have a strong background professionally or academically, the school may be willing to be more lenient about your IELTS score. Schools may either let you in on the basis of your other qualifications, or even extend conditional acceptance, which means you will be accepted with the understanding that you will continue to work on your English and score better on the test.
Second, you could try the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which is another widely-accepted tool for assessing English language skills. Check out our comprehensive TOEFL resources for more information:
Finally, 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 in between each test you take. If you find your score isn’t as high as you wanted, the IELTS website says that you can register again as soon as you’re ready.
With that being said, though, why not make sure you go into the exam as prepared as possible so that you don’t need to take it again? 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.