I get a lot of questions from students about how to study for the IELTS. Here are some of the top tips that I give them.
1) Start by taking a practice exam to figure out where you’re at. For the reading and listening parts, this is simple enough. Use the practice test available on the British Council’s IELTS site http://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/prepare-test/free-practice-tests
or you can choose one from http://www.ielts-exam.net/. Do them under real test conditions and then use an online converter (like this one: http://www.examenglish.com/IELTS/IELTS_Band_Score_Calculator.html) to get an idea of your band score. Then go back and see if there’s a common thread between the questions you got wrong. This will help you prioritize what you study. Try to find somebody who can assess your speaking and writing. If not, then do a practice and use Youtube to find model answers for speaking and http://www.ieltsbuddy.com/ to find model answers for the writing.
2) Come up with a study plan. Based on the results of your practice test and the amount of time you have to prepare, decide what you’ll practice, how you’ll practice it and when you’ll practice it. If you don’t plan it out, then you probably won’t do it. Once you’ve come up with your study plan, stick with it! Maybe you have a friend who is also studying for the exam. You can act as accountability partners. Look at the tips below for ideas on the how part.
3) Become familiar with common writing and speaking topics. They don’t repeat questions for Writing Task 2, but there are some common topics that come up in it and in the speaking section. It’s worth taking time to learn related vocabulary and practice speaking and writing about the subjects. If they come up on the exam, it won’t be as hard for you to come up with ideas to talk/write about. Here are some useful links to help: http://ieltsliz.com/100-ielts-essay-questions/
4) Listen to the news. It’ll serve as invaluable listening practice to help with that and give you the chance to get used to different accents. Plus, it’ll keep you up-to-date with topics that you might come across in the writing and speaking sections. When you have to give supporting examples in your essay, you might recall something you listened to. If you don’t like listening to the news, then that’s even more reason to practice with it. Chances are you won’t enjoy the listening sections of the exam, but you’ll still have to listen to them and stay focused. Set yourself tasks when you listen. You could get yourself to recall the headlines, write down numbers heard, try to summarize a news report, etc. Then use the internet to check if you got the facts right.
5) Read model essays. Writing lots of practice essays is great, but reading models is also a great way to practice. When you read model essays, take the time to notice the way the essay is structured and to notice its different components-what’s the thesis statement, what are the topic sentences, what supporting evidence is offered, where is the writer’s opinion etc. Pay attention to how all of those are connected. Then try to write your own response following the same structure. There’s no single way to write a good essay, but stick with tried and tested structures. There’s no reason to take risks. My students have had a lot of success reading essays on http://www.ieltsbuddy.com/. I have seen scores move up half a band in a very short period of time simply by students reading more model answers and gaining a better understanding of the structure they should follow.
6) Make sure you understand the types of questions. This applies to all parts of the exam. Don’t let yourself be surprised or confused by the questions. One of the best places to learn more about the types of questions you might see and to practice for those specific types is http://www.dcielts.com/. He offers solid advice. You don’t want to get a lower score just because you didn’t understand the question correctly. This is especially true with the writing section.
7) Read. Read. Read. I know this isn’t exactly novel advice (pun intended), but reading more will help build up your vocabulary and, with time, increase your reading speed. A lot of people struggle with time on the reading section, so becoming a faster reader can make a big difference. As for what to read, read things that you don’t like. That may sound like strange advice, but a lot of people complain that the readings on the exam are boring. Problem is, you still have to read them. That’s why you might as well get used to reading things that you find boring. Go to a news site and start regularly reading articles from sections you’d normally avoid.
8) Use Youtube videos for speaking practice. Youtube has lots of model speaking exams. Some of them come with a predicted score. Record yourself answering questions after the assessor. Then listen to the actual answers and compare them with your own. If they used some words you liked or ideas you didn’t think of, make a note of them. Then try it again. Using the same questions, record yourself again. Compare your first recording to the second one and then compare the latter to the one in the video. Do this with lots of different questions. You should start to notice an improvement in your speaking.
9) Practice describing graphs. This is more for those taking the Academic test. If you’re not used to describing graphs or haven’t really looked at graphs since high school math, then you need to spend some time on this. First off, you need to be able to easily identify the main trend(s) and turning points. Second, you need a range of vocabulary that you can use naturally. Check out all of the helpful worksheets and exercises at http://www.eslflow.com/describinggraphstables.html. Whatever you do though, don’t just memorize a bunch of new expressions. Take the time to go through the exercises and make sure you feel confident using them. Otherwise, you’re not really helping yourself.
10) Do timed practice exams. You have to practice under test-like conditions. That means no pausing, no replaying, no getting up for a coffee break, no stopping to check your Facebook. This should be one of your final steps in preparation, but it’s an important one. Print out practice exams and answer sheets from http://www.ielts-exam.net/ to use. Once you’ve finished, check your answers in the reading and listening sections and then go back and try to figure out why you made the mistakes you made. Don’t just take the exam and forget about it. Use it as a way of informing your next steps.
Let me know if you tried out a tip and found it useful (for you or your students) and feel free to add your own tips in the comments!