July 19


Exams and Tests: IELTS Preparation Guide and Tips

By Gordon Gaffney

July 19, 2018

Exams and Tests: IELTS Preparation Guide and Tips

This guide helps students to prepare for the IELTS exam. I have taught the IELTS test to students since 2014 and concentrate on teaching speaking and writing. Here are my tips and strategies that I use to help my students prepare.

IELTS Scoring

The IELTS scoring metrics are available here but they can be hard to understand, even for the teacher. Usually, a score of 6.5 is required to study abroad but you must check each course yourself.

As I say here in part one of this TOEFL/IELTS guide on the differences between IELTS and TOEFL, I am not an expert on the listening or reading parts of the IELTS exam.

To study and prepare for the IELTS test the best thing is to complete as many previous actual IELTS exams as possible, using these:


You can buy them online from retailers such as Amazon here.

As of December 2021 they are now up to IELTS 16 which appears to have been launched in July 2021 and it is best to start off with the most recent ones.

Tips and Strategies for IELTS Exam Reading and Listening

IELTS Test: Reading

The tips I have heard from students are:

  • That you should not read the articles in the reading, they are very long and you are wasting time.
  • Instead, focus on answering the questions. Luckily, as far as I know, all the questions are in the order that they appear in the article. So, for example, the answer for question 2 will be between the answer for question 1 and question 3.

But it all comes from practice, maybe you feel comfortable reading the whole article and that’s fine too. That’s why practising as many exams as you can is so important.

IELTS Test: Listening

  • The listening is very similar to what you do in school.
  • You have to write things like phone numbers, prices, or one-word answers.
  • You listen to the audio, you hear the answer, you write it down. Simple isn’t it?

The TOEFL test listening is completely different as you can see here in my TOEFL guide.

Tips and Strategies for IELTS Writing Exam

This is usually the most difficult of the 4 parts and requires the most study and practise.

In the IELTS test there are two options, there is the IELTS general exam and the IELTS academic exam. The IELTS general exam is a little easier but I usually taught students the academic exam as most students were applying to study abroad, so that is what we will look at here.

The IELTS academic exam writing has 2 parts.

Part one is either:

  • Interpreting data in the form of graphs and charts.
  • Or describing a process, usually an industrial process, for example, the production of concrete.

You need to write 150 words in 20 minutes.

This means you must write a minimum of 150 words, do not write less than 150. Around 150-170 is the best, don’t write any more than around 170.

I recommend practising at least 6 IELTS writing exam questions in total.

DON’T write 6 answers in the 72 hours before the exam.

This is a terrible thing to do but I have seen students do this.

What you need to do is write your first answer around 12 weeks before the exam, then get your teacher to correct it.

They should show you strategies like I have in this article, correct your English, but very importantly make sure the structure of your answer is correct.

Then you have a couple of days break, and all these new ideas can be working away in your subconscious. Then you can write another answer 11 weeks before the exam, then repeat the process for 10 weeks before the exam etc.

You should notice a big improvement in the quality of your answers. When you do this and then you get closer to the exam, then you can start working on getting quicker and closer to the 20 minutes required in the exam.

For data:

Let’s look at IELTS Exam papers 8 test 2


The three pie charts below show the changes in annual spending by a particular UK school in 1981, 1991 and 2001.

Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant.


DON’T just state the amounts, for example, “insurance is 2% in 1981 but in 1991 it is 3%”. This is not good.

DO group the data together. For example:

I am immediately attracted to “Other Workers’ Salaries”, it is 28% in 1981 and 15% in 2001.

DON’T say “‘Other Workers’ Salaries are 28% in 1981 and 15% in 2001”, it is not good to just state numbers, you will not get a good score.

Instead, read these amazing series of lessons here. What we are trying to do is use comparing and contrasting language and to group data together.

DO say something like: “Other workers’ salaries almost halves over the 20 year period from 1981 to 2001.” Here we are grouping the data, interpreting it for the reader, and then we are expressing it in an interesting way to the reader.

In the general exam, an example is writing a letter to a hotel owner, like you did in language exams in school.

This is why the academic writing is different to the general exam, as often in university we will have to write reports and interpreting data is a very important part of this.

The IELTS exam is testing us on what we will do if we study abroad. The TOEFL exam does this as well and actually does it even more, it’s not just in the writing section but in the speaking part as well and even listening and reading. You can read my guide to the TOEFL exam here.

Getting back to our answer, what is even better is if you could add in:

“….spending on furniture falls by two thirds from 1981 to 1991 before recovering to being almost a quarter of all spending in 2001.”

Here we are grouping lots of pieces of data together while comparing them and using good comparative language and vocabulary.

So putting it all together:

“Other workers’ salaries almost halves over the 20 year period from 1981 to 2001, while spending on furniture falls by two thirds from 1981 to 1991 before recovering to being almost a quarter of all spending in 2001.”

DON’T speculate on why.

For example:

“this indicates that furniture might need to be replaced through use after 20 years.”

Do not do this. Just compare, contrast and group the data and nothing else. This is very important, never speculate, but it is a natural thing to do when presented with data and students often do this.

That’s why practice and preparation are so important.

DON’T worry about time at the start. If it takes you 1 hour or even 90 minutes then that’s fine for your first few attempts.

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The important things are:

  1. That you answer the question correctly using the correct structure.
  2. Then focus on correcting your English mistakes.
  3. Finally, you can focus on finishing your answer in the time permitted.

Speed is not important until maybe 2 weeks before the exam, that’s why I recommend you start at least 8 and preferably 12 weeks before the exam.

So you can see that question 1 will probably require more practice, as you probably have not done anything like this before. I recommend doing at least 3 of each type of question in part 1, that is 3 of the interpretation of data questions and 3 of the process questions. Of course, it would be better if you can do more.

IELTS Test Writing – Describing a Process

DON’T say “this happens, then this happens, then this happens”. You must use a variety of language. This will make it more engaging to the reader and get you a higher score.

You can read this article here for more ideas.

I am available to teach classes via Skype/FaceTime etc and when I teach IELTS or TOEFL exams I prefer to do 2 classes a week starting about 12 weeks before the exam.

  • We do 1 class of speaking and 1 class of writing.
  • You do the writing at home, then email me your answer before class, the day before is the best so that I can read it and think about it.
  • You do 1 full writing paper, that is question 1 and question 2.
  • We correct both answers in a 60-minute class.
  • I email you your corrected version showing my revisions so that it is easier to see your mistakes, for example, see this image.

Then you have a few days break, which is very important. You need to let the ideas sit in your subconscious, you will hopefully internalise the tips and structure and then try a writing paper again. Writing 4 or 5 questions 24 hours before the exam is a very bad idea.

IELTS Test Writing Task 2

Question 2 is a traditional essay of around 300 words.

For writing task 2 there are 3 different types of essay:

  1. Opinion or argument essay
  2. Two question essay
  3. Both sides and opinion essay

Let’s look at actual examples of each from Cambridge IELTS 8 and 9.

1. Opinion or Argument Essay

Book 9, Test 4, question 2

Every year several languages die out. Some people think this is not important because life will be easier f there are fewer languages in the world.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with this opinion?

2. Two Question Essay

Book 8, test 2, question 2

Nowadays the way many people interact with each other has changed because of technology.

In what ways has technology affected the types of relationships people make?

Has this become a positive or negative development?

3. Both Sides and Opinion Essay

Book 9 Test 1, question 2

Some experts believe that it is better for children to begin learning a foreign language at primary school rather than secondary school.

Do the advantages of this outweigh the disadvantages?

Answering the question

As you can see there are 3 types of question, you need to:

  • Decide which of the 3 questions it is.
  • Structure your answer correctly.
  • Answer the question correctly.
  • If you miss out a section, for example not giving your opinion when you are asked to, then you will get a poor score even if your English is perfect.

Use this table to help you to decide which type of question it is.

Question Words

1. Opinion/Argument 2. Two Questions 3. Both sides and opinion
Do you agree or disagree? Problem and solution Discuss both points of view and give your opinion
To what extent do you agree or disagree? Cause and Solution Discuss the advantages and disadvantages and give your own opinion
What is your opinion? Opinion and solution Discuss the advantages and disadvantages
Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

Then structure and answer the question using this format.

1. Opinion/Argument 2. Two Questions 3. Both sides and opinion
Intro rephrase question rephrase question. This essay discusses… rephrase question. This essay discusses…
state position
(how much you agree/disagree)
Body of Essay reason 1 Problems Positive side
reason 2 Solutions negative side
reason 3 concession
Final paragraph summary summary of problems
opinion/recommendation opinion/recommendation

This question is like a traditional exam in school so students should be more familiar with the structure.

Again when preparing for the exam the same strategies as question 1 apply:

  • Don’t worry about your time at first, you have 40 minutes but even if it takes 2 hours that’s fine.
  • Spend time getting the structure of your answer correct.
  • Then write it, then spend time correcting your mistakes.
  • If possible take a look at your answer for 10 minutes the following day as you will spot mistakes easier.

As always you need to practice, you want to do at least 2 of each type of question, so that’s 6 in total, but if you could do 3 of each giving a total of 9 that would be better. That’s why having 12 weeks to study is the best, you should not feel stressed that way.

Tips and Strategies for IELTS Exam Speaking

One important difference between speaking and writing preparation is that if you do a lot of speaking in the 24 or 48 hours before the exam you WILL be better.

A good option is if you can schedule a class with your teacher right before the exam, perhaps just before you walk into the exam reception area.

However, you should also prepare and practise the speaking exam a lot beforehand. The IELTS test is similar to a normal conversation, and you will do your exam with one person in the room with you, the examiner. Going in to meet another person can make students nervous, this is natural, and your examiner is accustomed to this. They make a lot of effort to help you relax, they want you to do well.

The speaking exam lasts about 10 to 12 minutes in total.

IELTS Speaking Exam Structure

There are 3 parts to it.

Part 1:

They will ask you about ‘something’. What can this ‘something’ be about? Absolutely anything! I have had students asked about their shoes, about working with family etc. It really can be anything. If you practise lots of previous exams from the books of previous exams you will see the wide variety of possible questions.

The important things are:

  • That you are fluent.
  • That you can express yourself well.
  • That you make the fewest mistakes possible.
  • It should be a natural conversation, so you don’t have to rush and speak very quickly.
  • You can pause and think about your answer for a moment, like people do naturally in normal conversation.
  • But you can’t sit in silence where it is unnatural.
  • You want to avoid short answers, but don’t talk like a machine gun either where it is hard for the examiner to stop you.

The best preparation is to do previous exams with your teacher.

When I do speaking exam classes, I ask my students questions from a book of previous exams as above. You can find these papers online, on such stores as Amazon or perhaps in a local bookshop. Then I make notes on my laptop as the student is speaking, as I always do in all my classes, which you can read about here.

Here is an example from Cambridge 9 test 1

Giving gifts

  • When do people give gifts or presents in your country?
  • Do you ever take a gift when you visit someone in their home [why/why not?]
  • When did you last receive a gift? [what was it?]
  • Do you enjoy looking for gifts for people? [why/why not?]

The [why/why not?] questions are there to help a quiet or shy student to talk more.

Parts 2 and 3 are always related.

Part 2

After the short conversation finishes in part 1 the examiner will say the following to you:

“You will have to talk about the topic for one to two minutes. You have one minute to think about what you are going to say.

You can make some notes to help you if you wish.”

They will then give you a card with your topic and instructions on it.

You will have exactly 60 seconds, no more no less, the examiner will time this, to prepare something, then you speak.

Here is Cambridge IELTS Exam Papers 9 test 2:

Describe something you did that was new or exciting.

You should say:

What you did

Where and when you did this

Who you shared the activity with and explain why this activity was new or exciting for you.

Again you need to remember:

  • To talk enough.
  • Ideally, you should continue speaking naturally until the examiner stops you. And they will stop you. They probably have another 15 students to see that day so they need to keep their schedule.
  • You need to speak for between 1 and 2 minutes.
  • Think of 3 keywords or key ideas to talk about.
  • You must answer all 3 points in the question, if you miss one out you will get a lower score.

When they stop you, then they will move onto part 3.

Part 3

Things to remember about part 3 are:

  • Part 3 ALWAYS continues from part 2.
  • It is a deeper conversation about the same topic in part 2.
  • The examiner will have about 4-6 questions they can ask you.
  • They don’t have to ask you all of them, what they want is for you to speak for an extra 5 minutes or so.
  • This is a deeper conversation about the topic in part 2, it is more philosophical and so you want to show the examiner how well you can express complicated ideas, your thoughts, beliefs, feelings etc.
  • This is an opportunity to show your sophisticated vocabulary, verbal tense structures, conditionals, fluency etc.

Here is part 3 from the IELTS Cambridge book 9 test 2:

Doing new things

Examples questions

  • Why do you think some people like doing new things?
  • What problems can people have when they try new activities for the first time?
  • Do you think it’s best to do new things on your own or with other people? Why

Learning new things

Example questions:

  • What kinds of things do children learn to do when they are very young? How important are these things?
  • Do you think children and adults learn to do new things in the same way? How is their learning style different?
  • Some people say that it is more important to be able to learn new things now than it was in the past. Do you agree or disagree with that? Why?

And that is my advice on the IELTS exam.


You can also read here my reviews of the IELTS Exams material and discover how to put your English level on your CV/Resume in here.

I hope this guide helps you, please feel free to share with your friends or anyone taking the IELTS exam.

Do you have any tips?  You can leave them in a comment below.

Gordon Gaffney

About the author

Gordon is The Irish English Teacher, creator of this blog and many products to help all students learning English as a second language, but with a focus on Portuguese speakers.

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