What is the format of the IELTS test?

If you have decided to register for the IELTS exam, you will need to prepare for this important assessment. You should be familiar with the structure and format of the test, and keep some key rules in mind. You can sign up at language centres, and choose specific IELTS exam preparation courses, but may also find online resources helpful. IELTS learning materials and resources provide very good practice for understanding the exact format of the tests.

There are three versions of the IELTS test - Academic, General Training and Life Skills. The first two tests, Academic and General Training, are divided into four sections: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. All candidates are required to take the same Listening and Speaking tests, but there are different requirements for the Reading and Writing sections. The Academic Reading and Writing questions will be more abstract than those in the General Training version. IELTS Life Skills includes only the Listening and Speaking sections, and it take less time to complete than the other options.

Listening section

The Listening section takes approximately 30 minutes to complete (plus 10 minutes to transfer your answers). At the beginning, you will hear the instructions and a sample question. You read the questions in section 1, listen to section 1, and give your answers. The same procedure follows for sections 2, 3 and 4. You then transfer your answers onto the answer sheet.

There are 40 questions in a variety of formats: multiple choice, matching, plan/map/diagram labelling; note, flow-chart, summary or sentence completion; short-answers.

The Listening test has four parts:

  1. First, you will hear a conversation between two people set in an everyday social context. The dialogue is easy to follow and you simply need to understand the speakers’ main ideas, attitude and intentions.
  2. The second section involves listening to a monologue set in an everyday social context. You must pay attention to every detail and you may even be required to recognise a person’s feelings and emotions from the tone of his or her voice.
  3. In the third part, there is a conversation between up to four people set in an educational or training context. This may include a group of students discussing a project, or planning their work with a teacher or tutor.
  4. Finally, you will listen to a monologue on an academic subject. You should expect to hear more specialised terms specific to an education environment. 
    Each conversation or monologue is played only once and may include different voices and native-speaker accents. Make sure you write your answers on the question paper while you are listening so you do not miss any information.
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Speaking section

The Speaking test takes 11-14 minutes and is divided into three parts:

  1. The introduction and interview last about 4-5 minutes, during which the examiner introduces himself/herself and asks you to introduce yourself. He or she will ask you general questions on familiar topics such as your home, family, work, studies and personal interests. This is so that you can warm up and feel more comfortable with the examination.
  2. The second part lasts no longer than 3-4 minutes. You will receive a task card and the examiner will ask you to talk about a particular topic. You will have recommended key points which you can include in your discussion. You will have one minute to prepare. You will talk for 1-2 minutes and the examiner may ask you a couple of additional questions.
  3. The last part of the Speaking section is a 4-5 minute discussion. The examiner will ask you in more detail about the topic from part 2. You will discuss more abstract issues and ideas. It is a good idea to avoid short replies; give detailed, relevant answers to the examiner's questions whenever you can.

Reading section

The time limit for the Reading section is 60 minutes. The Reading test includes three passages, with a total text length of between 2,150 and 2,750 words.

Like the Listening section, the Reading section features 40 questions organised in different ways: multiple choice, identifying information (true/false/not mentioned), or a writer’s views/claims. You may also have to match information or complete sentences, summaries, tables and flow-charts. The Reading section features some questions that require only a short answer. You will be expected to write words taken directly from the Reading text on the answer paper, without changing their form.

Academic Reading

Each of the three parts of the Academic Reading contains one long text. The texts are taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers. They have been written for a non-specialist audience and are on academic topics of general interest, accessible to candidates entering undergraduate or postgraduate courses or seeking professional registration. Texts range from a descriptive and factual style to more discursive and analytical content. They may include materials such as diagrams, graphs or illustrations. A simple glossary may be provided for any technical terms.

General Training Reading

Section 1 contains two or three short factual texts, one of which may consist of between six and eight short texts related by topic. Topics are generally relevant to everyday life in an English-speaking country. Section 2 contains two short factual texts focusing on work related issues like applying for jobs, training, and more. Section 3 contains one longer, more complex text on a topic of general interest.

Writing section

There are two tasks in the Writing section. Whether you choose the Academic Writing or the General Training Writing Test, the total time permitted for both tasks is 60 minutes. Part 1 requires you to write at least 150 words, and part 2 at least 250 words. Your answers should not include separate notes or bullet points, as this will decrease your overall mark.

Academic Writing

In task 1, you are presented with a graph, table, chart or diagram and are asked to describe, summarise or explain the information in your own words. You may have to explain some data, as well as the stages of a given process. In some cases, you may also write about how something works, about the qualities of an object or, how a certain event takes place.

Task 2 requires a written essay in response to a point of view, argument or problem.
The issues raised are of general interest and are designed to be easily understood by candidates entering a Bachelor’s or Master’s programme abroad, or planning to work for employees in specialised fields such as medicine, nursing, law or accounting. Responses for the Academic Writing test should be written in a semi-formal, more neutral style.

General Training Writing

Task 1 introduces a real-life situation, and you will be asked to write a letter requesting information or explaining the situation. You may write the letter in either a personal or semi-formal style. The second writing assignment requires you to write an essay related to a point of view, argument or problem. The essay can be slightly more personal in style than the Academic Writing task 2 essay.

IELTS Life Skills

The IELTS Life Skills is a new English Language test designed to meet UK Visa and Immigration requirements for certain visa categories and other immigration purposes. This test assesses your speaking and listening skills only, at level A1 and B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The tasks in IELTS Life Skills are designed to reflect the everyday experience of communicating in an English-speaking environment.

IELTS Life Skills A1 takes 16 to 18 minutes and requires you to demonstrate your English speaking and listening skills as part of your application to UK Visas and Immigration for ‘family of a settled person’ visas. You will listen and respond to spoken language, communicate basic information, feelings and opinions, and engage in conversation with another person about familiar everyday topics (family, work, education, etc.)

IELTS Life Skills B1 may last up to 22 minutes. As well as the tasks under A1, it involves more complex knowledge of the English language, including using formality, comparing, and making relevant points and responding to what one or more people say.

Receiving your results

You will receive your IELTS test result 13 days after taking the test, and the result will be recorded on a test report form. You can also check your results online, and some centres may even give you a preview by phone.

If you are unhappy with your results, you may ask for one or more sections of the test to be re-graded. This incurs a fee, which is refunded if the results are revised. You must apply for a re-mark within six weeks of the test date.

There are no band scores for the IELTS Life Skills test, just a pass/fail result. Test results are normally available within seven days of your test, and you will receive one copy of the IELTS Life Skills test report form. If you pass the IELTS Life Skills A1 or IELTS Life Skills B1, you cannot re-take the test at the same level for a period of two years. If you do not pass, there are no restrictions on re-taking the exam.

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