IELTS: How I got an 8.5 score

Honest advice and tips from my IELTS experience.

Last September, after more than a decade of trying to lose my accent, I decided that it was finally time. Time to…… PROVE THE WORLD I CAN SPEAK ENGLISH!

For a bit of context, I was born and raised in France, and started learning English at school from the age of 11, like every other French kid. I had no specific inclination for the language and was even struggling quite a bit in class, until my high school years when my interests outside of school led me to learn more English on my own.

I am now in my early thirties (yikes), and have been lucky to have the opportunity to live and work in several English-speaking countries these past few years. I even had a semi-successful attempt at becoming an English teacher a few years ago. Currently living in Canada, I’ve decided to undertake the IELTS General Training test for visa reasons, and to finally see where I stand as an English speaker!

I took the exam last September (2019), and am grateful to say I got a pretty good score (a little humble brag, please don’t judge me). Since then, I’ve been meeting a lot of other foreigners wanting to take the IELTS and asking me questions about it, so I figured I might as well give back to my fellow English learners and write a post about it, to share my experience and hopefully help some people in the process.

Now, to start things up straight off the bat, here are answers to general questions some people might have:

(The hidden part are probably unnecessary but I just listened to a podcast about privacy two hours ago and I’m very paranoid right now. Also don’t judge my picture ahah)

I will break this article in 3 parts: A general explanation of what IELTS is, a deep dive on the test format, including my personal experience and advice with each section, and finally a list of useful resources, study materials and links, along with a final word of advice to get you PUMPED.

Table of Contents

1- The Basics
2-
The Test
- Listening
- Reading
- Writing
- Speaking
3- Resources and final advice

LETS GET STUDYING!

1) The Basics

The IELTS, also known as the International English Language Testing System, is an international standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers.

Basically, it’s one of the major English-language tests in the world, and might come in handy if you want to live/study in an English-speaking country. As a matter of fact, they might even require it to assess your level of proficiency.

Good question! This is entirely based on why you want to take the IELTS in the first place. To enter university, a TOEFL score might be enough. To get an internship or to show your proficiency in your own country, a TOEIC score might also suffice. Both cases were true for me, hence why I only got around to take the IELTS now.

You don’t necessarily need IELTS, so look it up and see if you can get away with TOEIC or TOEFL, which are cheaper and might also be slightly easier (especially TOEIC). I’m just keeping it real with you.

There are two versions to the test, Academic and General Training, and the names say it all: If you’re taking IELTS because you’re applying to school in an English-speaking country, you have to take the Academic one, otherwise (in most cases) General Training will do.

I have personally taken the General Training exam, in person. So in this post I won’t be focusing on either the academic training, nor the online version.

We will go deeper into that topic further in the post, but there are 4 parts to the test: Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. Each section of the test is scored out of 9, averaging into an overall band score, also out of 9. There is no passing or failing grade, but it’s my understanding that you should try to get at least a 6.

The band scores match the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) which grades your language proficiency from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficient user):

Source: ielts.org

Well, it all depends on where you are… Ok those questions are getting way too specific.

No need to be so aggressive, wow… For everything IELTS, I would advise you to refer to IELTS.org which is the main website where you’ll be getting the detailed information you need about your local test centre etc, along with the British Council IELTS website.

British Council manages the IELTS along with IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English, so they’re a pretty valid source of information on the test, and have a lot of great content and video materials:

Terrible music, but you cannot be great at everything I guess.

I strongly encourage you to stay away from paid websites and online courses that are for the most part rubbish (I am *NOT* including this post in that category ahah), and to focus on these two websites as your base instead, at least for the beginning, along with the references I will provide at the end of the post.

Now on to the actual test.

2) The Test

The most important thing I want to insist on as much as possible is that the test format is -in my opinion- the single most important thing with IELTS, and with any test for that matter, so please pay close attention.

Even though IELTS is an English language exam, being good or “fluent” in English is not enough to get a good grade. It’s not even the most important factor. The biggest thing is to be as familiar as possible with the test format.

I can guarantee you that if a native speaker with zero knowledge about the test was to take it tomorrow, he/she would get a weaker result than an ESL student who has done his/her homework and prepared thoroughly. Most of the difficulty with IELTS comes from the fact that it goes by really fast when you are taking it, and that its structure can be confusing if you’re not familiar with it. This is what you have to keep in mind when preparing: IELTS is a fairly straightforward exam, and if you know what to expect and you drill the skills necessary over and over again ahead of time, you will succeed.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln

As I mentioned earlier, each section is scored out of 9 and they are all weighed the same, meaning that there isn’t a section that is worth more than the other. That being said, you know your own strength and weaknesses, and you should obviously plan your studying strategy based on that.

Let’s look at each section of the exam in detail by going over each format, my personal experience, and some advice for beginners that are not quite ready to take the test yet but are looking to improve each skill:

A) Listening

The listening section consists on four recordings and 40 questions in total, and is aimed at assessing your ability to understand main ideas and informations, recognise attitudes and opinions, and follow the development of an argument.

The difficulty goes up as you advance through the test and the recordings, which are structured as follow:

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

Recording 2: A monologue set in an everyday social context, for example a speech about school.

Recording 3: A group conversation in an educational or training context, for example a university tutor and a student discussing an assignment.

Recording 4: A monologue on an academic subject, for example a university lecture.

You will be asked different types of question types: multiple choice, matching, plan/map/diagram labelling, form/note/table/flow-chart/summary completion, sentence completion.

This, in my opinion, is the section in which you will benefit the most from steadily training and knowing the format in and out. The secret here is to stay ahead of the recordings. To do that, you need to read the questions ahead of each recording so you know what you’re going to listen for.

The big challenge here is that each recording is played only once, and if you stay hung up on a question or looking for an answer, you will miss out on the other ones. Reading the questions and possible answers ahead of the recording will give you the opportunity to be familiar with the context, and knowing what you’re supposed to catch will help tremendously.

As such, my personal strategy was, before every recording started, to read through the questions/answer options thoroughly (as much as possible because obviously it’s going pretty fast), scribble some notes if necessary, and then to focus on listening. Don’t get caught up if there’s an answer you didn’t catch listening to the recordings! If you missed it or didn’t hear what the recording said properly, move on to the next, it’s gone. It’s not going to wait for you, so don’t waste your time.

It sounds challenging, but I guarantee you that after a few practice runs online you will get the hang of it and will be able to approach the test on the day with confidence. During the test make sure to be focused, read fast, and don’t overthink it.

There is an array of things you can do to practice and to get better at listening in your daily life. Watching movies of course is a huge one, even if you use subtitles. Try to watch movies with English subtitles instead of your native language. This will familiarise you with different accents and force you to pay attention.

Podcasts are also a huge help, especially if you have a hobby and can find English-speaking podcasts about it. This will force you to practice active listening and ensure that you stick with it if you’re interested in the subject matter. Audiobooks are also great, but might be a bit challenging at first.

Finally, while passive listening won’t help you learn English (“Listen to a podcast when you sleep and wake up a fluent speaker!”), being around the language doesn’t hurt and in my opinion, listening to English music or radio can be a good way to be surrounded by the language even when you’re not in class or actively studying.

Listening practice tests from British council
Eight Ways to Improve Your IELTS Listening Score
IELTS.org sample test questions

B) Reading

The reading test is composed of 40 questions based on extracts from books, magazines, ads etc. Contents you might have to read every day in an English-speaking context.

The tasks are ranging from filling gaps in a written text to matching headings to sentences, giving short answers, or answering multiple-choice questions.

The goal here is to assess how well you can understand the main ideas of an extract, but also how you can read for details and identify the purpose or opinion of a writer.

This is another section where you can truly shine if you practice, depending on how much you like reading already, and how fast you can read.

My big advice here if you are a fast enough reader is to do as I did: Go over the test super fast once, without stopping too long on any single question and only highlighting the ones that you have trouble answering. Then once you’ve answered everything, go over the whole test again, this time reviewing each and every question and spending more time on the ones you’ve highlighted beforehand.

I chose to approach the test this way because I tend to second-guess all my answers and can get caught up in my doubts and hesitations, which eventually messes up my rhythm and takes too long. By sticking to my game plan of answering everything once, I was able to complete the entire test super fast, and then to review all my answers with a calmer mind, without stressing over how much time I have left and how hard the next question will be.

It’s kind of a bold strategy but it worked for me. I strongly recommend experimenting with it by practicing online and seeing how it works for you. Regardless of how you decide to attack this section, you want to avoid getting stuck, so working on your speed reading and how to spot key information will be very useful.

Reading is a muscle you have to exercise, and while I know it is hard to get into, especially in a foreign language, it’s one of the single best things you can do to improve your language skills and your life in general, in my humble opinion.

Now if you are a beginner you might not want to tackle The Lord of The Rings or Infinite Jest quite yet, but something as simple as reading the news every day or the newspaper (so ‘31-year-old’ of me) can have a massive impact over time.

Some websites such as News in Levels provide you with news articles in various levels of difficulty, along with vocabulary and explanations, and are a great way to ease yourself into reading on a daily basis. I personally started reading Harry Potter as a teenager and although it was hard, my curiosity and desire to know the rest of the story was strong enough to stick with it, and it was definitely a turning point in my English reading journey. Trust me, it’s worth it!

Listening practice tests from British council
News in English for ESL learners: News in Levels
IELTS.org sample test questions

C) Writing

The writing test consists of 2 tasks: first you will be presented with a situation about which you will have to write a letter (150 words), and then you will be asked to write an essay (250 words) on a topic related to the letter.

The second task is worth twice as much as the first one in terms of score, so you should ideally spend 20 minutes on Task 1 and 40 minutes on Task 2. The goal here is to assess how well you can organise your ideas, accurately use a wide range of vocabulary and grammar, and appropriately address a topic.

The writing test was a bit more challenging for me. First of all, this and the speaking test are a bit different from the two first sections because they are subjective: Someone will actually be correcting your copy and there are no right or wrong answers per se. Secondly, I found time management harder in this section. I spent way too much time working on Task 1, and as a result, ended up rushing Task 2.

One of the big questions is whether to start with a draft or not. You have the option to do it but your draft should be purely strategical and not too detailed: write down your main ideas, the vocabulary you want to use, and the structure you want to follow, and then go for the real thing.

For Task 1, my strategy was to keep it simple (150 words goes by quickly!) and to make it look like a real letter as much as possible, using a simple structure:

IELTS Writing Task 1 (Template)

For task 2, I also followed a proven structure that works with pretty much every topic imaginable. It’s not rocket science but remember: We’re not trying to write a master’s thesis here, the subject is merely a canvas for you to showcase your English, so don’t get caught up in the topic and keep it short and simple:

IELTS Writing Task 2 (Template)

I know it’s a bit of a simplification and it seems harder when you are actually trying to complete the task, but that’s one of the big trap a lot of people fall for when it comes to the writing section: You cannot overthink or overcomplicate it. Keep in mind that 60 minutes go by fast and that the examiner that will correct your copy doesn’t actually care about your opinion. You are not trying to change their mind or to write a groundbreaking novel. You want to show that you can organise your thoughts, write in a clear, structured way, and use appropriate vocabulary and grammar.

I did not prepare much for the writing section because it was a bit harder to practice, and I strongly recommend finding topics online and trying to complete both tasks under 60 minutes. The speed definitely caught me off guard during the test and given how focused everybody in the room was, writing fast and pacing all the way until the last minute, I believe this is the case for a lot of people.

Writing is hard to practice outside of a school setting because not everyone has access to a fluent English speaker willing to correct their mistakes and give feedback, and self-correcting can be misleading, reinforcing bias and mistakes. Ultimately, I believe that it goes hand-in-hand with reading and that the better you will get at reading English, the better you’ll get at writing it too.

Something that has helped me improve during my formative years was having penpals to exchange emails and even letters with. It was a fun activity that allowed me to make friends all over the world and practice English with other ESL learners, even though I’m not sure this is something a lot of people do anymore these days. Speaking with other English speakers in written form is a good way to practice writing, but of course:

1 — Never give your private information to strangers on the internet. If you are a young reader (who knows), please seek the guidance of your parent or guardian before you strike up a friendship with someone you’ve met online. Remember that who you are talking to online may not be who they say they are. If you are still in school, talk to your English teacher about organising a letter exchange program with students from another school for example. I also did that during High School and it was pretty cool.

2 — Emojis and Stickers are not your friends when it comes to communicating your feelings through proper language, so be mindful of texting, which could set you back instead of helping you improve. I was surprised to find myself struggling with this as I was writing my essay and was tempted to insert a “😂” emoji. Or was it a “(┛ಠ_ಠ)┛彡┻━┻”? I don’t remember, but either way, you can’t do that.

Finally and if you are really dedicated to improving your writing, take the plunge and start writing online! You could create a blog for free today, here on Medium for example, and even make money if you’re good at it (I have made about $0.65 through my writing in 2 years, but I’ve heard some people are making bank)! Quora is another great platform to ask questions, offer answers, and learn a ton about a variety of topics!

British Council Practice Writing Test
IELTS.org Writing Sample Test Questions
Quora: A Place to gain and share knowledge

D) Speaking

This is the big bad boy of IELTS, the one feared by all, and mastered by a few. The speaking section of the exam usually takes place in the afternoon of the test, hours after you’re finished with the other sections. You will be on your own, talking with an examiner in what is similar to a real-life conversation.

The idea is to assess your ability to give your opinion on a variety of topics and justify them, to organise your ideas and to speak clearly and coherently, and overall to be able to have a discussion. The test is split 3 parts:

Part 1: The examiner will ask you to introduce yourself and ask you general questions about where you’re from, your family, and so on. This is quite chill.

Part 2: The examiner will now give you a piece of paper with instructions on it, asking you to talk about a certain topic, including the points you should mention. You’ll have 1 to 2 minutes to speak, without interruption from the examiner, then he/she will ask you one or two follow-up questions.

Part 3: The examiner will continue on the topic from Part 2 and ask you questions about it.

The British council mentions that you will be evaluated on 4 criteria: fluency and coherence, lexical resource, grammatical range and accuracy, and pronunciation.

This was definitely the hardest one for me, even though I have been speaking and working in English daily for years.

I got assigned a time for my speaking test after completing the three other sections in the morning and had to wait about 4 hours in the exam centre. While it was a good opportunity to check some youtube videos about the test and to have some last-minute studying (and to watch Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Dustin Poirier live on my phone), pacing around definitely played a role in building up my nerves and stress.

Once I got to the test, my examiner kept a stone-cold, very neutral face, which was a bit intimidating. The structure was exactly as explained above, so no surprise there, except the speed which, much like during the writing section, caught me off guard. I talked way too fast during the second task and when I finished the examiner was staring at me silently, waiting for more. I stumbled upon my words and had a hard time getting back on track… several times. As I was struggling, the lady was just staring, waiting for me to continue, not saying anything.

That was definitely pretty nerve-racking.

Apart from this misstep, my biggest worry and the biggest obstacle to my English, in general, was my accent. I am originally from France as I’ve mentioned, and if you’ve ever encountered a French person speaking English, you know our accent is quite thick, and mine is no exception. Far from me to complain about an accent which I have been told is my best feature (not sure how I feel about that), but it can make me self-conscious at times in professional or academic settings, as it was the case that day.

My advice if you are in the same boat is simple: Articulate, take your time, and breathe. It’s basic, but it makes a world of difference. You don’t have to rush, you don’t have to squeeze as many words as possible, and you definitely don’t have to be perfect. Remember that the examiner is just another regular person and that ultimately it’s not in their interest to see you fail.

Finally, Task 3 went ok for me, as the lady and I discussed back and forth. This was quite informal and, maybe because of the sudden rush of stress I experienced with the second task, pretty relaxing.

To sum up: Task 1 will is quite generic and should be no problem for you. On the other hand, you want to prepare for Task 2 and what it entails, especially timing-wise. Squeezing all the information and vocabulary you want to showcase while staying within the time constraints, or on the other hand, saying enough about a fairly broad topic without being too superficial and not speaking enough, can be challenging.

Finally, task 3 is a short conversation, so come prepared with a lot of connecting words, transitions, and defaults sentences that you can insert whatever the topic is. They’ll come in handy!

Speaking is definitely the skill that took me the longest to master, as I was able to read, write, and understand English way before I was able to speak clearly. This partly comes from the way language is taught in France, but also because I didn’t know any English speakers growing up, and was too intimidated to approach them when I met any.

Finding people to speak English with is not always easy when you don’t live in a major city or don’t have access to specific networks. However, websites such as Meetups or Couchsurfing have been great resources for me to meet like-minded individuals to exchange with. Both platforms offer the possibility to join groups and are full of language exchange communities.

Same disclaimer as above of course: never provide your private information and always be wary of who you meet through an online platform. I did enjoy the fact that Meetup operates with medium to larger groups and has a bit of a structure/screening process which makes the whole thing less awkward.

If you are still in school/university, getting involved with international student communities is also an amazing way to meet English speakers. This is something I have done while attending university and has been an amazing experience and a game-changer in my English learning and my life in general.

RMIT University: Linking Words
IELTS.org Sample Practice tests
British Council Speaking Practice tests
Couchsurfing.com
Meetup.com

3) Resources and final advice

Wow, I know, that was a lot, thanks for sticking through! But we’re not done yet!

Before I let you go, I want to hook you up you with some useful links to dive deeper and get more examples, templates, and practice tests to prepare for your big day. When searching online you will run into a lot of resources and materials, but if you are already quite confident in your English, these two websites should be plenty enough:

They include test samples, information about what you need to succeed, further links, and really everything you need if you feel like your English is already pretty good and you just need to prep for the test. Additionally, they provide very good sample tests which you should definitely use to know what to expect ahead of time:

Of course, if you are a more intermediate speaker or want to mix it up a little bit, it might be worth looking at other sources. Beware, however, as I mentioned earlier in the article, of websites requesting money for basic advice. Two free sources that I’ve stumbled upon and that provide useful examples, templates, and practice tests are IELTS Simon and IELTS buddy (great names btw):

Youtube is of course also full of useful (free) content. I have used the platform especially to watch examples for the speaking section, and recommend you to browse around. A channel that stands out is IELTS Liz, with some thorough content:

Feel free to recommend more useful sources and channels if you know any! There are also plenty of books, CDs, online courses, apps, and podcasts available, but I don’t want to promote anything I haven’t personally used at least a little bit, so I’ll let you be the judge on that front.

That being said, if you are a beginner or an intermediate learner, there’s absolutely a lot of value in taking an actual class at a language school, especially abroad if you can afford it. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of ESL learners during my brief stint as an English teacher and was able to witness the huge progress students would make in a short amount of time, studying in immersion for a few weeks. This is also how I became a fluent speaker, to an extent.

To conclude this article, I want to really insist one last time on the fact that IELTS is a manageable exam, and that if you prepare with thorough, consistent studying, I truly believe you can succeed. I cannot stress enough how important knowing the format and preparing will be key in getting a great score.

Thank you for reading and best of luck in your IELTS journey! You got this!

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the post, drop some 👏👏👏 and feel free to ask any questions you might have in the comment! For more content, find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and of course here on Medium!

Jack of all trades, master of some. Vancouver-based, I write about tech, business, MMA and education. Mostly in English, but sometimes in French too.

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