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What is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)?

There are many different tests that you’ll hear about during the college admissions process, such as the SAT or the ACT. However, there may be one test that you might’ve overlooked which is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). 

Now, you might be asking what the IELTS is, and do I have to take it? Fortunately, this guide can answer all the questions that you might have about this exam.

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Before jumping into what the IELTS is, be aware that there is another popular test called the Test of English as a Foreign Language (better known as “TOEFL”). Both the IELTS and the TOEFL test non-native English speakers’ reading, listening, speaking, and writing proficiency. Both of these tests are taken by students hoping to be accepted by universities all around the world. Perhaps one of the most prominent differences between the exams, however, is that the TOEFL is taken only for academic purposes. Meanwhile, the IELTS has a more “general” exam that is taken for non-students as well. Keep reading to learn all about the IELTS.

Related: IELTS vs TOEFL: The differences to know

What is IELTS?

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS)  is a test that’s designed to evaluate your understanding of English, including your ability to speak, write, read, and listen. Students must complete the 80-question exam within 2 hours and 45 minutes. 

There are also two types of IELTS exams, which are the IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Keep reading to choose which test is required for what you hope to achieve.

IELTS Academic

This form of the IELTS exam is suited for students that hope to attend a school in an English-speaking country. It’s more focused on academic language and is often a requirement for international students during the college application process. Students can take the exam in-person at a testing center or online from the comfort of their home.

IELTS General Training 

The IELTS General Training exam should be taken for job experience and migration. It’s one of the requirements to migrate to countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and many other countries. The exam focuses more on everyday social interactions that you might encounter at work or out in the world. This version of the IELTS can only be taken at a testing center.

See also: Guide for international students to studying in the U.S.A.

What is the format of the IELTS?

There are four sections of the IELTS: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The Listening and Speaking portions of the test are the same for both exams, but the other parts will be different. However, all the sections are graded on a 9-band scale and are averaged at the end to give you your overall score. 

Listening – 30 minutes

During this section of the test, you’ll be asked to listen to recordings and answer about 40 questions. The recordings can only be played once with varied accents, so be sure to pay attention. Also, there will be different types of questions throughout such as multiple choice, short answer, sentence completion, and more. 

Reading – 60 minutes 

Since this part is different on the Academic and General Training versions of the exam, there will be different types of texts to read from. The Academic test will feature three long texts that are factual and analytical in nature while the General Training will use multiple different excerpts that you might encounter on a daily basis. 

The texts on the Academic test can even be diagrams and charts because you’ll likely encounter them in an educational context. There will be 40 questions that can range from multiple choice, matching, sentence or summary completion, and more. 

Writing – 60 minutes

The writing section is also different on the Academic and General Training exams. The Academic portion has two tasks: explaining a graph or diagram in your own words and writing an essay. On the other hand, the General Training test asks you to write a letter explaining a given situation and writing an essay.

Speaking – 11-14 minutes

This portion of the exam is split into three parts and will be done with an examiner. The first part will cover general questions while the second and third parts will ask you to discuss a specific topic. It’s relatively short and graded on pronunciation, grammar, fluency, and vocabulary. 

How do I prepare for the IELTS? 

Since the IELTS is an exam that can impact college admission or job performance, it’s important to start studying as soon as possible. However, you might be confused on where to start. 

For starters, check out the IELTS website to check out sample test questions. These questions are a good place to begin studying before you attempt a practice test. While IELTS has a practice test on their website, you’ll have to pay to check your progress, so try to find online resources first. 

There are also books available at libraries and bookstores that can help you study as well. Some could be workbooks while others provide strategies and tips to use for your test. 

What score do I need to pass  the IELTS?

The IELTS grades you on a scale of 1-9 that’s averaged from your scores on each section of the exam. There is not a set minimum score to pass the IELTS exam. However, your institution will likely require a certain score to fulfill the requirement. Check out the chart below for an explanation of what each score means.

Overall ScoreDescription
9Test taker’s understanding of English is complete and accurate. Expert proficiency. 
8Test taker experienced infrequent mistakes with usage and understanding, but can handle complex discussions. 
7Test taker had occasional misunderstandings but maintained operational knowledge of English. 
6Test taker is familiar with the language despite inaccuracies. Competent proficiency.
5Test taker has medium proficiency and often makes mistakes but can hold basic discussions. 
4Test taker exhibits basic understanding but have difficulty in complex situations. Limited proficiency. 
3Test taker experiences mistakes in communication and can only understand English in familiar settings.. 
2Test taker struggles with speaking and writing English. 
1Test taker can only understand a few words but is otherwise unfamiliar with the language. 
0Test taker did not attempt the test. 

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • IELTS is an 80-question exam that tests your English proficiency by evaluating your skills in writing, speaking, reading and listening 
  • The IELTS Academic exam is different from the IELTS General Training exam because it prepares you for educational environments rather than social or workplace ones 
  • There are four sections of the IELTS: listening, reading, writing and speaking. 
  • The listening and reading sections each ask 40 questions while the writing section assigns two tasks for you to complete 
  • The speaking portion of the exam will be done with an examiner that will provide prompts for you to respond to
  • Try to start studying early on, and take practice tests along the way to track your progress
  • There are many resources available to help you study, such as IELTS workbooks that you can find in bookstores or libraries. 
  • There is no minimum score to pass the IELTS exam, but a certain score might be required depending on your institution
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions about the IELTS

How do I register for the test?

The IELTS can be taken in-person or virtually, but first you’ll need to register. You can do this by submitting your information and paying online or filling out the application form and taking it to your local testing center. Be sure to have valid identification when you register and when you take the test. 

Do I have to take the IELTS?

Not necessarily. The IELTS is only a requirement for students hoping to attend a higher learning institution in an English-speaking country and for people hoping to immigrate to certain countries. The test can also widen your job opportunities since it demonstrates clear knowledge and understanding of English.

Does the IELTS cost money?

Yes, but how much taking the IELTS costs depends on your location. In the U.S., the IELTS is about $255, but it may be more or less expensive in a different country.

Can I take the IELTS more than once?

  Yes, but taking the IELTS multiple times can turn into a big expense. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to study hard and do your absolute best. If your scores still aren’t up to your standards, use your experience and new strategies before trying again.