This might seem obvious. It might seem boring. People leaving exam preparation too late? What a surprise!
But, it’s the number one mistake that IELTS students make.
The problem is that many students see IELTS like exams you probably had at school: exams which tested your knowledge of facts.
With that kind of exam, you could start revising a few days before, memorise a load of information, and maybe get a good mark. We’ve all done that, I think, right?
I know I have! But, here’s the problem:
IELTS isn’t an exam about facts. It’s a test of your practical skills in English.
Those skills take time to learn and develop. You can’t spend a few days with your books and magically get a higher IELTS score.
You’re probably thinking: so how long does it take?
The answer is: longer than you think. In our experience, moving your IELTS score half a band—so from six to six point five, for example—takes around two to three months of study. Moving up one full band takes around six months.
Remember that we’re talking about regular study here: two or three hours of lessons a week, plus several hours of study in your own time.
Also, these are averages. How long it takes you depends on your exact situation, it depends on your strengths and weaknesses, and it depends on what kind of learner you are.
So, it’s possible that you could do it faster…
…but it might also take you longer.
If you need to take IELTS, probably it’s important to you. You’re applying to university, or you’re planning to emigrate to an English-speaking country.
So, don’t leave it too late! Even if you just think that you might need IELTS in the future, it’s a good idea to get into good habits now.
Here are some suggestions:
One: start reading in English every day. You don’t have to spend a lot of time: ten to fifteen minutes is enough. Try to read a variety of things.
Two:listen to something in English every day. Again, you don’t need to spend a lot of time on this, but you should try to listen to varied materials; don’t listen to the same thing every day.
Three: if you need IELTS in the next 12 months, find a teacher and ask for a speaking and writing assessment. This way, you’ll know where you are now, and how much work you have to do.
Start preparing early, and it’ll be much easier to get the IELTS score you need.
Two: Looking for a ‘Trick’
Often, people ask us questions like:
“Can you tell me some tricks to improve my reading score?”
“What are some linking words I should use in my essay?”
“How do I get a higher score in the listening exam?”
All these questions are looking for a trick. You think that there’s some secret to getting a higher IELTS score, and if you could just find someone to give you the secret, everything would be okay.
Here’s the secret: ready?
The secret is… there’s no secret.
Seriously: the IELTS scoring systems are public. You can read them, and we recommend that you do!
Take the reading exam. Many people ask how to improve their reading score. They want to know: what’s the trick? What’s the secret?
Again, there’s no secret. To get a high score in the IELTS reading exam, you need to be good at reading. The listening exam is the same. These are skills that take months or years to develop.
People ask: what are some linking words I should use in my essay? They think that using more linking words equals a higher score in the writing exam.
Here’s something which might surprise you:
We’ve seen hundreds of IELTS writing tasks. We have never seen a task which got a lower score because it didn’t use enough linking words.
We have seen many tasks which got a lower score because they overused linking words, or used them incorrectly.
It’s the same with vocabulary. We see students memorising sentences, idioms and academic vocabulary because they think that it will boost their score.
Again, if you do this, you’re more likely to hurt your score, because you’ll misuse the vocabulary that you just memorised from a list.
If you want to improve your IELTS writing score, it’s not simple: you need to learn to write more effectively, and that requires a lot of time and work.
You can’t memorise some sentences or a template and expect to get a high score—it won’t work.
Although, there is one case where there might be a kind of ‘trick’ to improve your score fast.
In the speaking and writing exams, if you don’t understand how the exam and the scoring system work, you might be making mistakes with how you approach the tasks.
For example, if you don’t write in clear paragraphs, that will have a big negative effect on your score. Correcting that problem—which is very easy to do—can make a big difference.
If you think that in the speaking exam, giving longer answers will always improve your score, then that can have a negative effect, because your answers also need to be relevant. Longer answers can easily lose focus and go off-topic.
Again, correcting this can make a big difference quickly.
However, this isn’t really ‘improving’ your score; you’re just getting the score your English should get.
This brings us to our third mistake:
Three: Not Understanding Scoring
How are IELTS scores decided, and what do they mean? Do you know?
As we said before, the IELTS scoring systems are publicly available. You should read them! There are links for you below the video.
There are two mistakes which people make here.
First, don’t think of IELTS scores as numbers.
Your IELTS score looks like a number, but it isn’t really. It’s a very detailed description of what you can or can’t do in English.
Why is this important?
Many students think about IELTS scores like tests at school: “I got five. I need seven, so I just need two more… Maybe if I try again, I’ll get a better score?”
Two more… Two more what?
The difference between band five and band seven is huge. It’s the difference between speaking very basic English and speaking at a level which is enough to study for a Master’s degree or work in a high-level job.
IELTS scores aren’t numbers.
Secondly, by learning about the scoring system, you can see what the examiners are looking for. This is very important, because you need to do different things at different bands.
For example, is your target band six? You need to focus on communicating clearly. You don’t need to worry about making grammar or vocabulary mistakes so much.
Are you aiming for band seven? You need to speak and write without making many language errors. It’s very different to band six.
Do you need seven point five in the speaking test? That means you need two scores of seven and two scores of eight. Where can you get eight? What do you need to improve to make sure you get at least seven in every score? You need to have answers to these questions in order to prepare effectively.
Are you looking to improve your score in the writing exam in a short time? You should probably focus on the task achievement and coherence/cohesion scores, which are easier to change, especially if you don’t have much time.
We could go on. The point is: depending on your target, where you are now, and how much time you have, you’ll need to prepare differently.
Understanding the scoring system will help you make an effective study plan and avoid wasting time.
Four: Overthinking what the Examiners Want to Hear
Many IELTS students have been preparing for IELTS or trying to get a certain score for some time.
In our experience, these students often think a lot about what they ‘should’ say. What does the examiner want to hear? Is this a good answer to this question? If I include some interesting facts in my essay introduction, will the examiner like it more?
This causes a problem: you feel paralyzed, because you feel like you can’t find ideas. You don’t know what to say.
Here’s the truth: the examiners do not care about your ideas or your opinions. Not one bit.
There’s no ‘right’ answer. If your answer is relevant and clear, then it’s a good answer. If it’s not relevant or not clear, then it’s not a good answer.
Let’s do an example. Here’s a common IELTS speaking question:
Tell me about your hometown.
Often, students will give answers like this:
Bangkok is the capital city of Thailand. It has a population of ten million. There are many tourist attractions in Bangkok, such as the Grand Palace, which is very famous and beautiful. More than three million tourists visit the Grand Palace every year.
Now, this isn’t a bad answer. It’s quite good, in some ways! But, it’s also very unnatural.
Think about it. If you were in a social situation, like a party, and someone asked you, “Hey, what’s Bangkok like?” would you give an answer like this?
No, almost certainly not.
Maybe you would, and that’s fine! But, most people wouldn’t. Many IELTS candidates try to talk and write in this very unnatural way, because they think it’s what the examiners want.
Here’s the problem: taking an exam is stressful. Speaking a foreign language is hard. Taking an exam in a foreign language is stressful and hard.
Trying to talk in a very unnatural way, which is totally different from how you communicate naturally? That just makes it harder.
Look at an alternative answer:
Bangkok’s never boring! There’s so much going on all the time. It has so many different neighbourhoods, and they all have their own character. Some things irritate me, but honestly I really like living here and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
This answer sounds much more natural.
To be clear, ‘natural’ doesn’t mean anything for your score. Both answers you saw are good answers.
However, the second answer is more natural, which means it’s probably easier for you to produce. It’s closer to how people talk in everyday life.
IELTS is a test of your ability to communicate. It doesn’t matter what your ideas or opinions are. It matters that you can express your ideas and opinions clearly and in detail.
That sounds so easy, but many IELTS students tell us, “I don’t have any ideas for most of these topics. I just don’t have anything to say.”
IELTS questions and topics are designed to be international. They’re not about UK culture or US culture, or any single country.
However, that also means they’re not based in your culture. There might be topics which people don’t talk about in your country. There might be topics which aren’t very relevant to where you live.
The IELTS exam is about your ability to communicate in an English-speaking environment. That includes talking about things you may not have thought about before.
Plus, sometimes, IELTS questions are just plain weird. “Have you ever planted a tree?”
It’s a weird question, but it was in a real IELTS speaking exam in the past. You need to be ready for anything when you go into the IELTS test.
So, what can you do?
Preparing for IELTS isn’t just about your English. You should also read, write and speak about many different topics, and work out your own ideas about them.
For example, should children always obey their parents? Should the government put taxes on fast food? Is it better to choose a course at university that will lead to a good job, or is it better to study something you love learning about?
To be a strong IELTS candidate, you should have clear, detailed opinions about all these topics, and many, many more.
You should also try to be aware of other people’s ideas. Maybe, in your country, people choose a subject at university that will lead to a good job. Maybe you never even thought about the idea of studying something just because you’re interested in it.
Fine, no problem. We’re not here to tell you what to think! But, in some parts of the world, people have different ideas. You’ll be a better IELTS candidate if you realise that.
So, read widely, write about different things, and talk to as many people as possible about as many topics as possible. You can do this in your own language, but of course it’s smarter to do it in English if you can.
Don’t have anything to say about a topic? Ask your friends, relatives, colleagues and anyone else for their opinions. Decide if you agree or disagree with what other people say. That way, you’ll start to form your own opinion.
Again, this is a long-term process. Preparing for IELTS isn’t just about going to a class and studying from a textbook. It’s about becoming a more effective communicator.
Let’s review the five things you need to do to avoid the common IELTS mistakes you saw in this lesson.
One: don’t leave your preparation too late. Two: don’t look for ‘secret techniques’ or short cuts. You’ll waste your time and money. Three: read the scoring system, and understand how scoring works. Four: focus on expressing your own ideas, not on what you think the examiners want you to say. Five: read, talk and learn about a wide range of ideas and topics, so that you have well-developed opinions of your own.
Thanks for watching, and good luck if you have an IELTS exam coming up soon!