As IELTS is the most widely used test for entry to UK universities, I will look at it in more detail in terms of the test format and strategies for success. Universities vary on the entrance requirements set in the four papers in relation to their courses; some will specify higher scores for reading and writing, especially for social science subjects and humanities compared to mathematics and the hard sciences. This usually reflects the amount of reading and writing required to pass the postgraduate course. A good knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar is only one area you will need to score highly in these tests. You will also need to be able to skim and scan texts for specific information, listen for specific and general information in the listening and be able to present your views on topics in a clear and logical way in the productive skills of writing and speaking. The main point to remember about the IELTS is that you need to prepare and know the strategies and techniques for doing the test. It is likely that you will have strong and weak areas in the 4 papers and also in the question types so preparation and knowing your strengths and weaknesses are the keys to success.
Listening – 30 minutes + 10 minutes to transfer answers
The listening has four sections based on conversational dialogues between 2 to 4 people and lecture style semi-academic monologues. There are 40 questions and the question types include the following: completing text or diagrams, choosing from a list such as multiple choice and matching or classifying.
It is important to familiarise yourself with all the types. Remember to read the instructions carefully as there are often clues in the questions. You must spell words correctly. You have some time at the end of the exam to transfer your answers on to the answer sheet.
Reading – 1 hour
The reading is generally thought to be the most difficult of the 4 papers because there is a lot to read – 3 articles of approximately 700 – 800 words each. Like the listening, there are 40 questions covering the same types; completion text and visual information, selecting from lists and matching or classifying.
The texts are taken from books, journals and magazines and will have a semi academic content, although no specialist knowledge is required. You are not expected to read the texts in detail (even a native English speaker would find this difficult in 60 minutes) so you need to develop your ability to skim the text for a general understanding and scan for specific information.
Note on the listening and reading:
Most of the IELTS listening and reading questions are based on synonyms and paraphrasing. For example, if the text says:
Anthropologists have proposed over one hundred different definitions of the term culture.
a typical IELTS short answer style question might be as follows:
Who have put forward a wide range of meanings of culture?
Here we can see the use of the following synonyms to test comprehension:
propose = put forward a wide range of = over one hundred different definitions = meanings.
Note: There is also a clue in the question with the word “have” which tells you that the answer needs to be plural. If the question said “Who has”, you would need a singular noun as the answer.
Writing – 1 hour
There are 2 tasks in the writing paper. Task 1 requires you to describe some visual information usually a graph or table in 150 words or more. For task 2 you must write an essay explaining your views on a general social topic, such as education or the environment, in 250 words or more. Task 2 is worth more marks so you should divide your time as follows: 20 minutes for task 1 and 40 minutes for task 2. For task 1 you should be able to present statistical or graphical information clearly using specific language. In task 2 make sure you know the structure of an academic essay in English and are able to present your ideas logically with examples and support to explain your views.
In the writing it is important that you answer the question and do not attempt to change the question in any way. You will be marked on four areas: task achievement, meaning did you answer the question, coherence and cohesion, lexical resource (vocabulary) and grammatical range and accuracy.
Speaking – 11 – 14 minutes
The speaking test has 3 sections and is between the candidate and one examiner. The first section is a general conversation about topics which are familiar to you such as your home town or family. The second section requires you to speak about a topic for 1 – 2 minutes and the third section is a discussion about the topic in a more abstract way.
It is important that you expand your answers and demonstrate a wide range of grammatical structures and vocabulary. Remember that the examiner can only grade you on what you say in those 11 – 14 minutes so make sure you have some high level grammatical structures ready such as conditionals, passives or modal verbs.
You will be marked on four areas: fluency and coherence, lexical resource (vocabulary), grammatical range and accuracy and pronunciation.
More information can be found on the official IELTS website: http://www.ielts.org