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IELTS: What to Expect

By Sabrina Collier

Updated February 15, 2021 Updated February 15, 2021

Taking the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam? Read our quick guide to find out what to expect from this popular English language test.

What is the format?

The IELTS exam is taken with pencil and paper, and takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete. It is divided into four sections:

Listening (30 minutes): You will hear voice recordings of four texts, monologues and conversations, on different topics and in a range of accents from native speakers. These recordings get more difficult as the test goes on. You will then have time to answer questions on the recordings to demonstrate how well you have understood them.

Reading (60 minutes): You will be given three long texts which range from the descriptive and factual to the discursive and analytical. The texts are authentic and are taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers. You will then answer 40 questions testing your comprehension of each passage.

Writing (60 minutes): This section consists of two tasks. First, you will be given data in the form of a chart, graph, diagram or table, and will be asked to write a 150 word summary demonstrating your ability to understand the information and describe the main features. You may be asked to describe and explain data, describe the stages of a process or how something works, or describe an object or event. In the second section, you will write a short essay of around 250 words, in response to a statement or question, demonstrating your ability to construct and articulate a brief argument. Responses to both tasks must be in a formal style.

Speaking (11-14 minutes): You will have a face-to-face interview with an examiner, during which you will be assessed on your ability to answer questions, interact with the examiner and talk at length about familiar topics. In the first task the examiner will ask you general questions about yourself and a range of topics, such as home, family, work, studies and interests. In the second task you will be given a card which asks you to talk about a particular topic. You will have one minute to prepare before speaking for up to two minutes. The examiner will then ask one or two questions on the same topic to finish this part of the test. In the final part you will be asked further questions connected to the topic in Part 2, with a more abstract approach this time. Each part lasts between four and five minutes.

Your Speaking test will either be after a break on the same day as the other three tests, or up to seven days before or after. This will depend on your test center.

All candidates take the same Listening and Speaking tests, but there are different Reading and Writing sections for the IELTS Academic and General Training versions. If you are taking the test as part of a university application, you will need to take the IELTS Academic. You should bear this in mind when registering to take the IELTS exam, and also inform the administrator before the test begins.

How do I register?

Contact your nearest test center to make a reservation for the nearest convenient test date. You can then download a registration form at the official website, which will give you more detailed instructions on fees and requirements. Through IELTS Worldwide Search, you can also see the test dates, the deadline for registration and the test fee in your local currency.

How is the test graded?

The IELTS exam is graded on a sliding scale from one to nine, with each number corresponding to a classification category (‘non user’ [1] to ‘expert user’ [9]). There is no specific pass or fail grade. Each university that recognizes the test sets its own grade requirement.

The grade you need may vary depending on the degree course you are applying to study. Many universities require a grade of between six (‘competent user’) and seven (‘good user’), though this is a rough guide only. Contact the institutions to which you intend to apply to check their exact requirements.

How can I prepare?

The official website offers a range of materials to help you prepare for the test. Begin by downloading the free official ‘information for candidates’ booklet.

You may want to purchase the IELTS Official Practise Materials, consisting of two volumes which offer samples of the Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking sections with an accompanying CD and DVD. You can order these online if you’re in Australia or the UK, or via your local test center. Some IELTS centers have workshops to help you prepare for your test. Talk to your local test center for details. You can also access free sample questions on the IELTS website.

What should I take with me on the day?

You’ll need a set of pens, pencils and erasers, and remember to bring along your passport or national identity card for identification.

This article was originally published in February 2010. It was updated in August 2015.

This article was originally published in August 2015 . It was last updated in February 2021

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Written by

The former Assistant Editor of TopUniversities.com, Sabrina wrote and edited articles to guide students from around the world on a wide range of topics. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University and grew up in Staffordshire, UK. 

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