When should you take the IELTS exam? (And how to prepare)

Here is a line graph with data from the IELTS.org site which shows the results for academic test takers in Vietnam in 2017. The figures show that the majority of candidates last year (63%) failed to achieve their target band score. Most of my students tell me their target score is 6.5-7.0 – so only 37% achieved 6.5 or more. In addition, the mean (average) band score for academic test takers in Vietnam was 5.92

This tells us a few things. Firstly, many students are taking the test a little too early – perhaps 3 to 6 months – and have not done sufficient preparation to be sure of their score. Perhaps academic deadlines, such as applications to study abroad, or graduation, are also a factor here.

Secondly, a majority of students (60%) who are seriously intending to take the IELTS test (serious would be above Pre-IELTS, so 4.5-6.0) were not prepared and perhaps were over-confident about their current ability level. This sounds like the same thing but the pressure of deadlines and ability levels are different. If you are currently around band score 5.5-6.0 and can take some extra time to prepare for the real exam, it is a probably a good decision.

So what should candidates do?

  • Study at your current level – IELTS course books are often graded, so choose materials which are suitable for your current band score.
  • Become an independent learner – you can only achieve a high band score if you take responsibility for your own learning. For example, looking for an online course which promises to deliver band score 7.0 in a few months is unrealistic. Sites like this will show you lists of words and idioms which are often “difficult” rather than “less common” and are presented out of context. Band score 7 candidates should show a range of vocabulary with an awareness of style.
  • Use deliberate practice for learning vocabulary – in your IELTS reading and listening passages, make lists of vocabulary, collocations and idiomatic phrases and learn how to use them in a natural way (in context). Also, try and study topic-based vocabulary, since this is a common theme in the IELTS exam.
  • Don’t waste time learning very informal (for example, slang) or technical words.
  • Make sure you can pronounce and spell the vocabulary you are learning.
  • Study regularly, every day.
  • Avoid practice tests until a few weeks before the exam. Practice tests do not improve your English proficiency, just your ability to take the test.
  • Use authentic materials. Many students are using free or cheap practice materials which do not reflect the real test and often contain many mistakes. Similarly, don’t pay attention to “tips and tricks” which promise to boost your band score in a short time – students who do this often retake the test and remain stuck at the same level.

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