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STUDY ABROAD : Applying to University - Must read

IELTS test explained

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IELTS is an English language proficiency test for higher education application and migration purposes, recognised by more than 10,000 organisations worldwide. If you want to study abroad in an English-speaking environment, you will need to prove your English skills with a test such as IELTS. Even if you are a native-English speaker, you may still need to show official proof of your English language abilities.


The first point to note is that there are two types of IELTS tests, namely the IELTS academic and IELTS general training test. If you are looking to study for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree at a university in an English-speaking environment, you will need to take the IELTS academic test.


This will prepare you for understanding and using academic language during your studies. It will also give your prospective university an idea of your language level and if you would benefit from additional tuition.


Here, we’re going to explain each of the four components of the exam with sample questions and model answers to help you achieve the score you need for your place at university.


IELTS exam format


Duration: 30 minutes


This section of the IELTS test involves listening to four recordings of native English speakers and then you’ll need to answer questions based on what was said.


Recording 1: A conversation between two people in an everyday social context.


Recording 2: A monologue in an everyday social context e.g. a speech.


Recording 3: A conversation between up to four people in an educational or training context such as a university student and professor discussing an assignment.


Recording 4: A monologue on an academic subject e.g. university lecture.


Your success in this section will depend on how well you understood the main ideas, opinions and attitudes of the speakers.


Sample question (listening): A telephone conversation between a customer and a shipping company agent.





Instructions: For part one of the listening exam you need to complete the form below using the information you hear on the recording. Answers must not be longer than three words and/or a number. This is a ‘form completion’ type of test but there are other styles that might be used:


  • Multiple choice
  • Matching
  • Plan, map, diagram labelling
  • Form, note, table, flow-chart, summary completion
  • Sentence completion
  • Short answer questions



Model answers:

  1. Mkere
  2. Westall
  3. BS8 9PU
  4. 0.75m/metre(s)/meter(s) wide / three(-) quarter(s) (of) (a) metre/meter (wide) / ¾ m (wide) / 75cm(s) (wide)
  5. 0.5 m/metre(s)/meter(s) (high/deep) / (a) half (a) metre/meter (high/deep) / ½ m (high/deep) / 50 cm(s) (high/deep)


Words in brackets are correct but optional. These answers are all acceptable.


How is the listening component marked?

Each component of the IELTS exam is scored out of 40, as is the listening section. The scores are categorised using a band scoring system of 0-9, as shown below. One mark is awarded for each correct answer. Be aware that markers will penalise poor spelling and grammar even in the listening part of the exam.


Correct Answers

Band Scores
























When taking the test, you will note your answers on the question paper, but you then have a further ten minutes at the end to transfer them to an answer sheet.


What about the academic reading section?


Duration: 60 minutes


The purpose of the reading section is to test your ability to read for detail, the main ideas, attitudes, opinions, and logical arguments. Texts will usually be taken from magazines, books, journals and newspapers. They may also contain diagrams, graphs or illustrations.


In this part of the exam, you will be provided with a range of long descriptive, factual, discursive or analytical texts. You will then answer a total of 40 questions about the passages to show your comprehension of the writing.


You can find sample reading questions and answers on the IELTS website.

As with the listening test, you will receive a score out of 40 with each question receiving one mark. This score will then be slotted into the band scoring categories from 0-9.


Academic reading tests may also contain more difficult vocabulary and complex phrasing than the General Training Reading test. Again, there are several types of test styles including:

  • Multiple choice
  • Identifying information
  • Identifying writer’s claims/views
  • Matching information
  • Matching headings
  • Matching features
  • Matching sentence endings


Below is an example question where you are required to identify which paragraph contains the following descriptions.


No extra time is allowed for transferring answers in this section of the test. So, make sure you allow for this in the allotted 60 minutes.


The IELTS test writing section

Duration: 60 minutes


There are two writing tasks included in the writing section and both must be completed in this part of the exam.


Task 1: You will be asked to describe some visual information such as a graph or diagram in your own words. You will then have 20 minutes to write approximately 150 words. This could be a diagram of a machine, where you need to explain how it works. You will be penalised if your answer is too short, so try to write as close to 150 words as possible.


Task 2: Within 40 minutes, you will need to write 250 words in response to an argument, problem or point of view. This part of the exam counts for the most marks, so make sure you stick to the suggested timings. You will be given a particular topic to write about here so make sure you are specific as you will lose marks for being too general.


For each task, answers need to be written out in full instead of bullet points.


What types of questions do they ask in the IELTS writing section? 







Examiners use the following marking criteria and rubric to evaluate your test:

  • Task achievement (task 1)

How accurately and appropriately the task is answered.


  • Task response (task 2)

Ideas should be supported by evidence. You may use examples from your own experience.


  • Coherence and cohesion

The clarity and fluency of your writing such as the organisation of ideas.


  • Lexical resource

How accurately and appropriately a range of vocabulary is used.


  • Grammatical range and accuracy

Accurate use of grammar.

Find specific feedback in relation to the marking criteria for the above model answers.


The IELTS speaking test

Test duration: 11-14 minutes


As you might expect, the speaking section assesses your spoken English ability.


There are three parts to this test:


Part 1: An examiner will ask you questions on familiar topics such as work, studies, home, hobbies etc.


Part 2: Here, you need to answer questions about a particular topic presented to you on a card. You have one minute to prepare and then two minutes to speak. The examiner will then ask follow-up questions about this topic and your answers.


Part 3: Further questions will be asked on the topic covered in part two giving you the chance to talk in more detail. This part of the test takes four-five minutes.



Marking and assessment

Examiners use the following criteria to place students’ grades into the IELTS bands:


  • Fluency and coherence

Speaking with continuity and effort, linking ideas and language together to form coherent speech which involves logical sentence structure, narration or argument and linguistic devices such as pronouns and conjunctions.


  • Lexical resource

Using a range of vocabulary and precision in expressing ideas or attitudes. The variety of words used is key.


  • Grammatical range and accuracy

Length and complexity of spoken sentences and range of structures


  • Pronunciation

The ability to be understood when speaking without too much strain from the listener.


Feeling more prepared for the IELTS exam? Let our course matcher find you the perfect course and university for you. You can also stay up to date with IELTS updates and international student news on our latest news page.


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