IELTS – Top Study Tips for all candidates




* * * * *

Plan your study time when you know the time frame you have available before the test.

It might sound obvious, but most students don't bother to plan their attack on the test. This is a mistake. It doesn't have to be complicated.

Let us assume you have 3 months before you intend or need to take the IELTS test. And let us further assume you can afford to devote 2 hours a day to study. According to the IELTS authorities, this is more than enough to increase your Overall Band Score by at least one band – they recommend 100 hours – but, actually, we think this is way too little time.

That is 2 hours x 6 days a week (give yourself one day of rest) x 13 weeks =  156 hours.

If you have similar abilities in each of the 4 macro skills – listening, reading, writing and speaking – this translates to approximately 156/4 = 39 hours, let's say that is about 40 hours of practice per skill. You can adjust accordingly if you are stronger in some areas than others.

Now, 12 hours a week for the 4 skills is... 3 hours per skill per week.

So try this timetable, or something similar:

Each tick is 1 hour of study...

You do not have to be rigid about your study, but you DO have to be dependable – to yourself. Don't let yourself down! If you miss a session, try to make it up later. But hey! Don't beat yourself up if you cannot.

Steady practice gradually improves you better than anything else.



* *

Don't drink too much before the test. No we don't mean alcohol, although that would be true too!  We mean too much liquid: coffee, tea or whatever.

Sure, coffee and tea can stimulate the brain and keep you awake (you mean you need to be kept awake during this important test?), but such substances can easily require you to need a toilet break.

We have known students who just had to leave the room, when they needed every extra second on the test.



* * * *

Go to bed early – get up early and eat well before the test. Simple advice, but our past surveys prove that most candidates don't do this. Haven't they heard of blood sugar levels? Of the benefits of being more awake than asleep?

Any student who thinks that staying up all night before this test will assist his or her performance is... simply crazy. It just isn't that kind of test. The IELTS test is not a factual knowledge test in the way that, say, a biology test is a 'cram exam'.

If you haven't done the work long before taking the IELTS test, then no amount of last minute 'cramming' will fix the problem.

Get your sleep – and eat yourself a solid breakfast. No excuses.



* * * * *

Many students ask about how their results in various practice tests correlate to a possible score in the actual IELTS test.

Others ask about how the IELTS test itself is scored.

Both questions are complex. We have discussed the importance of half Band scores in our IELTS 101 forum:

IELTS scoring – half scores 1   Terry 19/05/2008 10:14 PM

The quick answer to the question about what practice test answers mean in terms of a student's possible IELTS score is that it depends on the difficulty of the practice test in question. A consistent score of around 30 in many practice tests usually means around 6.5 – 7 but there is no way of being certain. Only the actual IELTS test can tell you for sure.

You might like to take our English assessment tests:

(These tests are made available through the courtesy of Churchill House English Language School, Ramsgate, England.)


First, according to our survey, around 92% of the students who have taken our Pre-IELTS tests (in Basic Hints Lesson 1) seem to think they are useful and/or give a reasonable indication of their present English level. (See the conversion charts to pre-IELTS scores – which are indicators only, and do not pretend to be probable IELTS scores.)


We are told that the Band Scores range from 0 to 9 for all four Sub-tests (listening, reading, writing and speaking). We are also told that ALL the Sub-tests (including Writing and Speaking from July 2007 onwards) include the possibility of half Band Scores. So, it is now possible to score, say, 5.5 or 6.5 etc. in all the Sub-tests.

It is well to remember that the Writing and Speaking Sub-tests are subjectively scored. That is, the score given is absolutely the opinion of the examiner (and only one examiner too). Of course, these assessments are made carefully, with reference to a detailed "list" of requirements for a particular score. But they are, nonetheless, opinions only.

The Listening and Reading Sub-tests, however, are objectively scored. We are now told (but only recently) that the 40 questions for each Listening or Reading test carry equal weight. That is, one question does not have more "marks" than another. So, one would expect that, mathematically speaking, 20 questions out of 40 correct should be...a band score of 9 divided by 40/20 = 4.5. However, this is not actually the case.

Does a Band Score of 5 in the Listening and Reading Sub-tests mean a score that is twice as good as a score of 2.5? Is a score of 4.5 only half as good as a score of 9? It would seem logical, since the Listening and Reading tests are objectively scored tests with 40 questions each. But mathematical observations are not really so useful here.

The first thing to mention is that after the test you only receive the IELTS Band Score you are given for a Sub-test and NOT the number of correct answers achieved. And IELTS Band Scores are not always mathematically derived. Some Listening or Reading Sub-tests might be deemed (after careful trialling) to be more or less difficult than others, and so the Band Scores are scientifically adjusted up or down to account for this. Such adjustments have been calculated and published for entire annual periods of time. For example, according to the IELTS website, the mean raw score for candidates given a Band Score of 6 for both Listening and Academic Reading in 2004 was just 23 correct questions out of 40 (instead of the expected 25).

So, 25 out of 40 questions could indicate a Band Score of 6, or it could mean:

25/40 * 9 = 5.625 which is a score of 6.0 (after rounding up) PLUS an adjustment = 6.5

The facts are that candidates are not told the number of correct questions achieved, nor how these relate to a final Band Score. But this should not be looked upon as a problem or cause for concern. The general trend is to push scores UP not down. 


What can be said about the scores achieved in practice tests published in books? Not much.

Students do practice tests from published materials in books and get a finite score out of the number of questions in the practice test. They then, quite naturally, ask their teacher how this score converts into a Band Score. Answer? It doesn't.

Why? Because most of the practice tests used in class have not been put through the official IELTS testing process and the scores cannot be relied upon to mean anything more than a possible display of skills.

The best we can say is that when you consistently score around 30 questions out of 40 in a variety of practice tests (many of which are less difficult than the actual test), and if this is supported by good speaking and writing input, then you should be looking at a score of around 6.5.

One last point to think about: the IELTS test authorities now suggest that it takes a minimum of 100 hours of intensive English study to improve an overall score in IELTS by one Band Score. They used to suggest that it took at least 3 months, by preventing anyone from taking the test again before three months had passed*. Even if we use the conservative figure of three months (which seems more likely than just 100 hours), the implication is that, theoretically, it would take the best totally non-English-speaking student in the world:

3 * 9 = 27 months

... to become completely fluent in every one of the four major English skills.

I want to meet this guy / gal (!)

[An excerpt from a topic written by Terry Peck © 2002 – updated 2008]

* The new rule since May 2006 allows the test to be taken as often as required.





* * * *

You CAN score well in the IELTS test!  We have known many many students who have almost given up hope after failing to get their desired result, but have taken the test again and succeeded. Even after taking the test 5 times, it is possible to score enough on the 6th try. We know students who have done this. And why not? The extra study is what was needed to boost their score.

Please, do believe in yourself enough to know that YOU can score well.

Here is the tip:

If you are unsuccessful the first or second time, find someone who will give you the energy and courage to continue. You cannot always do this by yourself. A teacher, family member or other motivator is essential in these circumstances.

You can always write to us here at Adams and Austen Press:


We have already helped many students who had otherwise given up hope, but, of course, we cannot work miracles. You have to put in the hard work.



* * * *

The way you dress is a personal matter, but IELTS examiners do notice these things. Not that it makes any difference to the way your test is marked. But it is true that some students 'dress' for the occasion of their examination and some don't. That is, some candidates take pride in their appearance on the day, and others look as if they have just fallen out of bed.

Does it matter? Well, it's certainly a personal thing. But if you credit the IELTS test with having some importance, you should dress accordingly. Maybe dressing for the occasion means putting on your best suit and tie, your snazziest dress, your most colourful tee-shirt, or your craziest, hippest outfit – well, it doesn't matter what the choice is. The point is to make YOU feel good. It can also help to dress in something different to what you wear every day – provided you feel comfortable in what you have chosen.

It's undeniably true that we all feel at our best when we take some pride in our appearance. And it prepares us psychologically for the challenge to come. In fact, if you want to take this mental trick further, you could dress up as you will on the day for your final practice test taken at home. A full dress rehearsal – an old actor's trick that works!



* *

Some students need extra help to boost their confidence. We feel very sorry for those candidates who are a 'bundle of nerves' on the day. Some sail through the test with never a worry. Or so it seems. Perhaps they are just better at 'putting on a brave face'.

Maybe those students who don't get so nervous have simply done the practice and can confidently expect results from their hard work. Maybe those students who are very stressed have just not worked long or hard enough... and deep inside they know it. Practice will solve everything eventually.

This tip is for those who are hard workers but who know that when they sit for an exam they tend to 'fall to pieces'.

If it is true in your case that on the day of the test you do worse than you usually do in a mock (trial) test, try this mental trick:

Tell yourself – your inner self – that the test is already over, that you now receive your results and you succeed – you score well. And really believe it. Actually visualise yourself receiving the result of the test, opening the letter and seeing the results you want. Do this several times, preferably while you are lying awake at night before you fall asleep or at some other quiet moments during the day. Do it repeatedly, not just once or twice. Strongly evoke the image of yourself receiving the successful letter. See it. Believe it. Dream it. Act out the moment again and again in your imagination – see it as clearly as you can in coloured pictures. Remember that these pictures, these strongly focussed images, are the keys you use to open the doors to your subconscious.

If you visualise enough times and do enough English practice, when the time comes to take the actual test you can confidently announce to yourself a major truth: that the test itself is of secondary importance – the most important work has already taken place in your mind. And it will be true. Not a trick at all. Got that? You have completed the most important part of the work. Now it will simply be impossible to get so stressed about the test because the visualisation will not allow it. Your subconscious will say, "how can I not do well? I have already received my results and they were more than satisfactory".

Your subconscious knows nothing of time or whether something you tell it has occurred or not. It believes everything you say.

Soon, you will have conquered your fear and the test will have no power over you at all. You can and will be able to do your best.



* * * *

Many students who respond to IELTS forums on the 'web' ask if the IELTS test is easy or difficult. Or having taken the test, they tell the world that the test was either 'so-ooo' easy or 'so-ooo' difficult – depending on their individual experience.

Easy or difficult? The IELTS test, of course, is neither. It is just an English test. If your level of English is low you will find the test difficult; if your English level is high you will find the test comparatively easy.

These student comments, while interesting to read and welcome as feedback, tell us nothing about the difficulty of the test – after all, the test is designed to assess at all levels. It is really amazing that some students we have spoken to in the past have criticised teachers who warn of the challenges that the IELTS test poses: ("unnecessarily scaring students" etc.) If you take the test and find the challenges easy to overcome, this says a great deal about your talent, but it should not deny the reality of the very real difficulties that another less capable student must face. Some students can be as arrogant as some teachers sometimes. 

At a conference some years ago we remember being informed that approximately 22% of students achieve the band score they require first time round. This is a low figure until you realize that thousands upon thousands of students take IELTS worldwide every month. Most are unprepared. Most will need extensive help to get where they need to go.

We feel it is just as unhelpful to tell students that the test is easy as it is to "scare" them by telling them the test is difficult, because, of course, neither is the truth. Every week we receive many desperate emails from students who have failed the test again and again. Are they bad students? We don't think so. It's just that their current level of English isn't good enough, and we know how hard it is for some students to increase their level. Not all students are naturally good at languages.

So, here's a tip: if you are fortunate in the IELTS test, be considerate of others enough that when you tell the world online the test was 'so-ooo' easy – you remember to add "because I studied very hard for 5 years!"