Insider tips on how to totally ace your IELTS

Miuccia Chan

The IELTS can be your ticket to studying abroad, so here are some experts' secrets to getting the scores you want

Miuccia Chan |

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Thinking of studying abroad? The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is the world’s most widely recognised English language proficiency test, and is an accepted form of accreditation for local and overseas education.

Kelly Mok, an IELTS tutor at King’s Glory Education, and Melody Tam Lok-man, 19, a top IELTS scorer who achieved straight 9s, share tips below on how to score high marks in the writing and speaking papers.

Mok says the IELTS can be seen as insurance for students who are worried about messing up their DSE English language paper. Candidates have the option of retaking the IELTS as many times as needed. A score of 7.5 in IELTS is equivalent to level 5** in DSE English. The IELTS marking scheme means that it is easier for candidates to gain points than in the DSE, Mok says.

On of the major differences between DSE and IELTS lies in the writing paper.

“It is similar to the DSE, in that students write two pieces, but the content can be very different,” says Mok. “The general rule for both tasks is to read the question and answer only what you are asked.”

There are two writing tasks in the IELTS. Task two is worth twice as much as task one, so it’s worth completing task two first. You should aim for 160-180 words in task one and 260-280 words for task two.

In the first task, students are asked to write a scientific report in 150 words in which candidates must describe the trend of the data given.

“In task one, all the information that you’ll need is in the data, so make sure to identify the key points before you start writing,” Mok says. Impress the examiners with your wide range of vocabulary by learning different synonyms for words.

The second task is to write an essay on a global issue, testing your knowledge of current affairs, and the coherence of your writing.

“Under pressure, examples are easier to write than explanations. It’s harder if candidates focus too much on ‘why’, as some of the ideas are very complex, and it may be difficult to reason them out in such a short time. Make sure to relate your examples to the main idea, and to not drag out your sentences too much,” says Mok. Although it is important to have examples to back up your point, a little reasoning should be included, and that is what most candidates have most trouble with. “Try to start with a general sentence, and elaborate from there. Point out the current state of affairs, and contrast it with the past, illustrate how the situation has changed, and sum up the cause,” adds Mok.

Tam says that she didn’t focus on drilling past papers, and instead spent more time on developing a standardised structure for her writing paper to impress the markers. “No matter what question type appears, it’s always a good idea to write four paragraphs in total,” says Tam.

The speaking test is where a lot of students struggle. There is an introduction and interview in part one, a short speech on a topic given by the examiner in part two, and a discussion in the final part.

“In the speaking test, candidates have 11-14 minutes to demonstrate the best of their English vocabulary. Try to be formal rather than colloquial, and use higher-level vocabulary synonyms,” advises Mok. “It is difficult and unnecessary to change your accent in such limited time, as the enunciation is what candidates are graded on. What’s vital is to watch your pace and tone. Make sure the examiner knows what you’re trying to convey.”

Answers are expected to be spontaneous, but if candidates need more time to think about their answers, buy time with phrases such as “that’s a really controversial question” or “I’ve never thought about that before; that’s interesting”.

“In part two, use your one-minute preparation time wisely, and structure your speech around the question,” says Mok. “Start off with an imaginative introduction to make a good impression. Make sure to include a detailed explanation, and elaborate as much as you can. Try not to leave more than three seconds of silence as points will be deducted. Remember that you don’t need to be honest, and you are allowed to lie for a more intellectual response.”

Candidates may refer to the British Council’s and IDP Education’s websites for available test dates. 

Tips on the IELTS writing paper

Answer the question
Rule number one is to answer the question. Read the question carefully and highlight any key words.

In task one, all the information you need to include is in the chart/graph.

In task two, you will find background information from the question. Make sure you respond to the question – do not write generally about the topic.

Don’t write too much
The more words you write, the more mistakes you are likely to make and the less efficient you become. The ideal to aim for is between 260 – 280 words in task two and 160-180 words in task one.

Don’t copy whole sections of the question
The examiner will not include the parts of your answer that are copied from the question in your word count, so your 260 word answer might become 230 words.

Keep a watch on how much time you have left
It is important to make and stick to a plan. Don’t be tempted to spend more than 40 minutes on your essay because you will need 20 minutes to answer task one.

Task one or task two first?
The essay is worth twice as much as the report. Ensure you get the most marks out of your answers by completing task two before task one. At least then, if you run out of time on the report, you have a finished essay. Having said that, try to leave at least 20 minutes for task one.

Don’t use slang or informal language
Find a way to convey your ideas without resorting to slang. Avoid using “kids” when you mean “children”, don’t use “guys” or “gals”, and instead use “men” or “women”.

Don’t use contractions in the academic writing tasks
In English, contractions are deemed informal, and the academic tasks require a formal writing style.

For task two, examples are easier to write than explanations
Focus on examples, rather than explanations.

Make sure your examples are relevant to the main ideas or arguments of the question.

Use extensive vocabulary
Learn synonyms and use them accurately in your task one to show you have a broad range of vocabulary. Use synonyms correctly, avoid repeating words from the exam question, try not to use the same phrase over and over again. when describing statistics, try to use “exponential growth”, ”reach a plateau” or “plummet” when you describe a graph or trend.


Tips on the IELTS speaking test

Give a comprehensive answer
Don’t give one word answers. For instance, when asked where you’re from, your answer should include the name, the location, and how long you’ve been there. This shows the examiner you are confident of using English.

Speak clearly and don’t worry about your accent
Everyone has an accent when they speak English. Just enunciate as best as you can so that the examiner can understand you. If you make a mistake, don’t worry, just correct yourself and carry on. Keep a steady pace. Don’t speak too fast or too slow.

Use descriptive words
Don’t use common and simple words like “good”, “bad”, “nice”, or “okay”. There are numerous words to convey your feelings. Practise using more advanced and complex words for every simple word you know – such as “thrilled” instead of “happy”, or “depressed” instead of “sad”.

Speak up
Sometimes, students mumble and speak very softly because they are nervous. Use simple, correct language rather than complicated vocabulary if you aren’t confident, and speak loudly and clearly.

Choose to be formal rather than informal
Use your 11-14 minutes wisely and show off your wide ranging English vocabulary.

Don’t try to memorise answers to sample subjects
The examiners are will recognise whether you are speaking spontaneously or not. You will lose points if you give a scripted answer.

Explain names or words which are in another language
If you are asked to speak about a festival, which involves using words in your language, use the words clearly and explain, so the examiners can follow and understand your answer.

Avoid monotony
Nothing is more yawn inducing than a low, monotonous tone. Even if you speak perfectly, a bland tone can make you sound less fluent than you are. Adding range to your tones will make you sound more interesting and accomplished.

Use your time wisely
Although in part two of your speaking exam, you have time to take notes and therefore no excuse to buy yourself more time, there are a few tactics you can employ to buy time in part one and three.

The examiner might ask, “What was your favourite part of growing up in Paris?”. Give yourself thinking time by responding with “I’ve never considered that before, but it’s an interesting question.”

You may not understand what the examiners say. If the examiner uses a word or phrase you don’t understand, be honest. “I’m not acquainted with that expression, could you please elaborate?” or “I never came across that word before, would you mind clarifying?” or even “I’m sorry, but could you please explain what you mean?”

Acing part two of the speaking test
Part two of the IELTS speaking test lasts between 3-4 minutes (which includes a one minute preparation time). The examiner gives you a task card and you have to speak about the subject without interruption for 1-2 minutes.

Example: Describe your favourite personal possession.

Talk about what this possession is, when you first got it, when you use it, and why it’s so important to you. Use your one minute preparation time wisely and make notes of the points you’d like to make. The introduction can refer to the item, with maybe a brief description. The main part of your presentation could describe the situation in which you acquired the object, and when you use it. You can then end with an explanation of why the object is so important to you. Try to avoid giving a very dry introduction such as “The object I’m going to describe is...”. Use: “If I was about to lose everything and could only save one thing it would be my...”, or “I’ve got several things that mean a lot to me but the one that really stands out is my...”.