Whether you are a first-timer or an IELTS veteran, you will need time to prepare for IELTS. All too often, people find this out too late. We really wish nobody would fall into this trap. It’s easier to just get it right from the get-go, but if you are approaching the test for the first time, or you need to improve your skills for a second attempt, you’re in the right place. In this article we will be explaining why you need to give yourself adequate time. We will also look at how much time you will need. Like almost every question we deal with on this blog, this question does not permit a simple, generic answer. However, there are a few basic points that are applicable to everyone:
- Give yourself at least month to prepare
- Make sure you prepare for all four areas of the test
- Seek guidance on where your skills currently are, in relation to specific test requirements
- Challenge yourself
- Keep track of your results on practice tests, so you can measure improvement
Time to Prepare for IELTS: Everyone is Different
One of the best things about working with IELTS is the endless variety. At Highway IELTS we deal with people from every walk of life. Their individual stories, as well as their hopes for the future, make every day different and unique. This also happens to be the most challenging aspect of our work, because it means that no two customers take exactly the same journey. This pushes our whole team – academic and management alike – to innovate and frequently devise bespoke solutions to unique and complex problems.
However, there is one factor whose effects it is virtually impossible to mitigate – and that is time. We’ve discussed the importance of preparing for the IELTS exam many times and we’ve also explained common misconceptions and pitfalls. We haven’t yet answered the question of exactly how much time IELTS exam candidates should set aside for preparation. To answer this very broad question in the most meaningful way possible, let’s discuss what kind of test-taker you are.
It’s my First Time Taking IELTS
So, you’ve recently found out that you need to take IELTS and you don’t know what to expect. You know that you need to earmark the funds for booking the exam and you’ve heard that it’s no walk in the park. You are in a good position, so don’t squander your advantage. Do some research on how people from your region tend to do. What band score do you need? Remember, IELTS does not have a pass/fail grade. You need to ask your agent or institution what score they will accept, and work towards that.
Think seriously about your language skills, and try to be objective. Has it been a long time since you wrote an essay? Would you consider yourself a proficient reader? How much do you know about the speaking and listening exams? Remember, you only get one bite at the apple, and if you fall short in any of these, you will probably have to book the entire exam suite again.
Answering all of these questions takes time. To complicate matters, it’s a bit of a wilderness out there. If you are a working person, undertaking all this research on your own, sifting the good from the bad, will take you a few full evenings of reading, at the very least.
What if I’m a First Language Speaker?
Speaking English as a first language is no guarantee, in itself, that you will succeed in getting the score you need. To get a high band score, you will have to meet the stringent requirements of the test in each of the four sub-domains of speaking, listening, reading and writing. This requires a detailed knowledge of each test and the requisite skills to tackle each element. You may be lacking in one or more of these. Some areas where first language speakers often need development are:
- grammar (rectifying common errors that sneak in to written language)
- public speaking techniques such as how to keep going, or how to plan a monologue
- reading and its sub-skills: skimming, scanning, discriminating between close meanings
For first language speakers of English, regardless of whether they are taking the General Training or the Academic IELTS, we usually recommend no less than one month between the beginning of the preparation process and the actual exam date. Add to this if you need a very high score, such as four 8-bands.
English is not my First Language
If English is not your first language, you are probably less likely to approach the test without preparation, which is a good thing. However, you may have some work to do in preparing for the exam. Remember, IELTS is a test of communicative ability. It does not measure your knowledge of any specific topic, or test your ability to reason or think critically. While world knowledge and critical thinking skills might help you to read, listen, speak and write more effectively, English language ability is the fundamental element you need to bring all of this to life in your IELTS test.
Your priority should be to ensure that you are communicating effectively English. If you are in doubt about your English language proficiency, ask yourselves these questions:
- Can people understand you when you speak English?
- Do you write letters or emails in English regularly?
- Do you have your mobile device set to English?
- How much English-language media do you consume?
We generally recommend that speakers of English as an additional language give themselves a longer preparation period. Ideally, three months at the very least. This is because IELTS will test your abilities in many areas, and building skills takes time. If we accept one popular metric, most people can realistically aim to learn the fundamentals of a new skill in about twenty hours. For IELTS preparation, there are many skills that a person might need to learn. Here is a non-exhaustive list:
Time for IELTS Preparation: Important Sub-Skills
- paraphrase a sentence (writing, speaking)
- listen for contextual cues for agreement or disagreement (listen)
- discriminate between closely related meanings (reading)
- use appropriate vocal tone to indicate sentence opening and closure (speaking)
- master the use of punctuation such as commas and apostrophes (writing)
- follow the gist of a dialogue (listening)
- use a range of connective devices (writing)
Addressing any one of these will take time. However, most people need to do some work in a combination of these (and many others) in order to achieve a high band score in IELTS. Of course, it’s essential that you know which skills to invest time in developing. Because IELTS is probably part of a complex life plan involving many other processes, you don’t have much time to waste. Identify your needs at the beginning to save time.
I’ve Already Taken IELTS
A large number of people fail to achieve the scores they need on IELTS. There are many causes of this. A failure to prepare in advance is the biggest culprit. A secondary reason for making an additional attempt at IELTS is incorrect information about visa regulations or immigration requirements. People who don’t use reputable and qualified agencies to assist them sometimes overlook important details such as the difference between Academic and General Training IELTS.
However it happened, if you have arrived in this unfortunate position, you can turn things around. If you take the appropriate steps, your next IELTS attempt can be a successful one. The good thing is that your unsatisfactory first attempt will reveal exactly which one of the four tests you need to work on. While your IELTS report will not address the particular weaknesses in your individual performance, it will give you generic comments that describe a person at your band score level. Combining this information with an expert’s insight into your skills will furnish you with a good starting point. Let’s consider various profiles and see which one fits you the best.
I Fell Short in One Test, by Half a Point
Some candidates manage to secure an adequate band score in all but one of the four tests. Their band profile might look something like this:
- Speaking: 8
- Listening: 7
- Reading: 7
- Writing 6.5
If your agency or institution requires a minimum of 7 on all four tests, a result like this would be inadequate. This is an incredibly frustrating position to be in, because the gap is so small and the candidate was so near to success. This can be a very disheartening experience. The good news is that a score of 6.5 is often very easy to profile. There is a set of features of a 6.5 writing script, for example, that an expert can readily identify. These features could be language-related, or connected to more general aspects of writing. If this has happened to you, our academic team has all the expertise and resources to diagnose your problem and devise a work plan for you to improve. Our Writing Development Course is designed for completion in a two-week time frame. This is less than optimal, as many of the sub-skills and habits require time to develop, but we also understand the pressure under which many test-takers operate.
Reading, Listening and Speaking
If the shortfall is in reading or listening, it’s a little more straightforward to diagnose, but usually less quick to remedy. The band score comes directly from a raw score out of 40. So, you can easily work backwards and figure out what you scored out of 40, based on your band score. However, this information on its own has limited value. It’s useful to know which question types caused you to fall short. A person who struggles with the True/False/Not Given question type will require a very different study plan to someone who is losing points in section 1 of the listening test. Unfortunately, weaknesses in reading and listening skills can sometimes take much longer to develop than other skills. If your weakness lies in either of these areas, you should ideally give yourself at least two months to make a meaningful improvement in your IELTS band score.
The same is true of speaking. The IELTS speaking test gauges your ability to communicate in spoken English. Therefore, a score of 6.5 or below indicates that there is significant room for improvement in communicative ability. Unlike in writing, where technicalities in structure can diminish your score, the speaking test really just comes down to how well you talk in English. It’s imperative that you get started as soon as possible, and you’re in the right place.
I Need to Improve in More than One Test, and by More than One Point
This is a more complex scenario and it’s the one that will take the longest time to resolve. If your performance was inadequate in two or more of the four IELTS tests (speaking, listening, reading and writing), you might need to make changes to your short-term plans. Moving up one band might sound like a small difference, but it’s not. For example, the difference between a 6.5 and a 7 occupies the border between “independent” and “proficient”. You can see a schematic of this here. Moving between these categories will take a substantial effort on your part. If you are in this position, we generally advise a period of at least three months.
This holds true regardless of which test you decide to take, whether IELTS or one of its competitors. As we discussed here, IELTS has two significant advantages that none of its competitors can replicate. Firstly, it enjoys universal recognition as the gold standard in English language proficiency. Secondly, its straightforward, compartmentalized reporting system makes it easy for you to see which area you need to work on.
If you have failed to secure the band score you need in more than one of the four tests, you probably aren’t ready for IELTS. Simply booking the test again is not advisable. You should set aside a six-month period to address each of your weaknesses in turn.
Planning your IELTS Journey
As you can see, the questions of how much time is enough to prepare for IELTS, is not a simple one. A meaningful answer should take account of your goals, your skills and your history with IELTS. To summarize what we’ve said about the various types of test-taker under consideration:
- First time, mother tongue: one month
- First time, second language: six months
- Shortfall in writing: one month
- Fell short in reading or listening: two months
- Fell short in speaking: three months
- Failure in multiple tests: six months
No matter which of these categories describes you best, Highway IELTS has the resources and expertise to meet you where you are. Get in touch today and start learning with us, so that you can move ahead with pursuing your plans and dreams.