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The IELTS Exam: Everything You Need to Know


Do you have to take the IELTS to prove your English proficiency to qualify for school or work? Then you'll want to know what the exam is and how to succeed at it.

In this guide, we cover everything there is to know about the IELTS exam: who needs to take it, what the IELTS text format it, what IELTS score you'll need, and how the IELTS compares to other tests.


What Is the IELTS Exam?

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. The IELTS exam measures the English comprehension of people who are trying to work or study in an English-speaking country.

The IELTS test is similar to the TOEFL, which is another common English comprehension exam. The IELTS tests your proficiency in four main areas:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening

There are two versions of the IELTS:

IELTS Academic is for people applying to admission at a college or university in an English-speaking country.

IELTS General Training is for individuals moving to an English-speaking country (usually the UK, Australia, or Canada) and/or applying to training programs or jobs in said countries.


Who Needs to Take the IELTS Test?

People of all ages and backgrounds take the IELTS exam. That being said, there are two main reasons people sit for the IELTS:

They're searching for a job. If you're applying for a job in an English-speaking country, but speak another language as your native tongue, you may need to take an English-language comprehension exam like the IELTS to prove that you have the proficiency to work effectively

They're applying to university. If you're applying to study at an English-speaking college or university, you may need to take the IELTS to prove your English-language comprehension. Your IELTS score will show whether or not you'll be able to complete the coursework in English. At certain institutions, your acceptance is contingent on your ability to achieve a certain IELTS score.


IELTS Exam Format

There are four distinct parts of the IELTS exam. The total test time is 2 hours and 45 minutes. Three of the sections (Listening, Reading, and Writing) are completed in one sitting. The final section, Speaking, may be completed on the same day or up to seven days before or after the other sections.

All test takers take the same Listening and Speaking tests. The Reading and Writing sections differ depending on whether the test taker is taking the Academic or General IELTS exam.

Let's look at the four modules in more detail.



The Listening module has four sections with ten questions in each.

Sections 1 and 2 are typical social situations. Sections 3 and 4 are education and training situations (such as a discussion between two university students).

During this section, test takers listen to a recording and then must answer questions based on what they've heard.



The Reading module has three sections. Test takers will read three texts, which may come from books, journals, magazines, newspapers, or other forms of media. After reading the text, test takers must answer multiple-choice and short answer questions.



The Writing module is comprised of two tasks. For the first task, test takers must write at least 150 words in 20 minutes. For the second task, test takers must write at least 250 words in 40 minutes. The tasks and topics vary depending on whether the test taker is taking the Academic or General Training Exam.



The Speaking module is a face-to-face interview during which the test taker sits with an examiner and has a conversation. The module has three different sections:

Introduction: The test taker answers about his or her home, family, work, studies, hobbies, interests, reasons for taking IELTS exam as well as other general topics.

Long Turn: The test taker is given a task card about a particular topic. The test taker has one minute to prepare to talk about the topic, then they must give a two-minute speech about the topic.

Discussions: The examiner and test taker engage in a more in-depth discussion about the topics covered during the long turn section.




How Is the IELTS Test Scored?

You'll receive an individual score for each module of the IELTS test, as well as an overall IELTS score.

All IELTS scores are between 0 and 9. You can get .5 scores, as well (such as a 5.5 or 6.5). Your overall score is based on the average of your four module scores.

Each score number (e.g., 0, 1, 2, 9) corresponds to a particular skill level. You can find the skill level table below:

Band score Skill level Description
Band 9
Expert user
You have a full operational command of the language. Your use of English is appropriate, accurate and fluent, and you show complete understanding.
Band 8
Very good user
You have a fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriate usage. You may misunderstand some things in unfamiliar situations. You handle complex detailed argumentation well.
Band 7
Good user
You have an operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally you handle complex language well and understand detailed reasoning.
Band 6
Competent user
Generally you have an effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings. You can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.
Band 5
Modest user
You have a partial command of the language, and cope with overall meaning in most situations, although you are likely to make many mistakes. You should be able to handle basic communication in your own field.
Band 4
Limited user
Your basic competence is limited to familiar situations. You frequently show problems in understanding and expression. You are not able to use complex language.
Band 3
Extremely limited user
You convey and understand only general meaning in very familiar situations. There are frequent breakdowns in communication.
Band 2
Intermittent user
You have great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.
Band 1
You have no ability to use the language except a few isolated words.
Band 0
Did not attempt the test
You did not answer the questions.


Sample Question for Reading IELTS Test

Read the excerpt from The Economist then answer the question that follows.

The general assumption is that older workers are paid more in spite of, rather than because of, their productivity. That might partly explain why, when employers are under pressure to cut costs, they persuade a 55-year old to take early retirement. Take away seniority-based pay scales, and older workers may become a much more attractive employment proposition. But most employers and many workers are uncomfortable with the idea of reducing someone's pay in later life – although manual workers on piece-rates often earn less as they get older. So retaining the services of older workers may mean employing them in different ways.

In paragraph one, the writer suggests that companies could consider

A: abolishing pay schemes that are based on age.

B: avoiding pay that is based on piece-rates.

C: increasing pay for older workers.

D: equipping older workers with new skills.

Answer: A


Sample Questions for Speaking IELTS Test

Here are some sample questions you'll have to answer for the speaking test:

Let's talk about your home town or village.

  • What kind of place is it?

  • What's the most interesting part of your town/village?

  • What kind of jobs do the people in your town/village do?

  • Would you say it's a good place to live? (Why?)


Sample Question for Writing IELTS Test

The chart below shows the number of men and women in further education in Britain in three periods and whether they were studying full-time or part-time.


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



Sample Question for Listening IELTS Test

For the listening IELTS you'll have to listen to a recording and answer questions based on that. Here's a transcript from a sample recording and a question that comes after.

Tapescript for IELTS Listening Recording 2

(A customer has been arranging with a shipping agent to send a large box overseas. This is the last part of the conversation.)


  • A: OK right. Now obviously insurance is an important thing to consider, and our companies are able to offer very good rates in a number of different all-inclusive packages.

  • B: Sorry, could you explain a bit more?

  • A: Yes, sorry, um. There are really three rates according to quality of insurance cover – there's the highest comprehensive cover which is Premium rate, then there's standard rate, and then there's economy rate. That one will only cover the cost of the contents second hand.

  • B: Oh, I've been stung before with economy insurance so I'll go for the highest.

  • A: Mh'hm and can I just check would you want home delivery or to a local depot or would you want to pick it up at the nearest port?

  • B: The port'd be fine – I've got transport that end.

  • A: Fine, and will you be paying by credit card?

  • B: Can I pay by cheque?

What type of insurance was chosen?

A: Economy

B: Standard

C: Premium

Answer: C


IELTS Test: How to Register

There are more than 50 IELTS test centers in the United States and hundreds aboard. In order to register, you'll first need to find the test center nearest you using the search engine on the official IELTS website.

Once you've found your test center, you'll decide whether you want to take a paper or computer version of the test. Next, you'll fill in your application details (including name, contact information, first language, passport number). Finally, you'll choose where to send your IELTS scores to.

For a step-by-step guide to registering for the IELTS, check out our in-depth article.


What Score Do You Need for the IELTS Exam?

There is no specific score you need for the IELTS exam: what constitutes a good score will depend on what you need to accomplish. If you're applying to higher education, for instance, the university may have specific standards for the score you need. The same goes if you're applying for a job. It's best to check with the institution you're applying at to see what score you'll need. Taking an IELTS practice test can help you raise your score if you're struggling with your IELTS preparation.


How Does the IELTS Test Compare to Other Tests?

The IELTS and the TOEFL are the two most widely-accepted tests used to prove your English proficiency. That being said, the tests are very different.

For starters, IELTS is mainly used in the UK, Australia, and Canada. TOEFL, on the other hand, is primarily used in the United States. The TOEFL exam is more than an hour longer than the IELTS exam, clocking in at 4 hours to IELTS' 2 hours and 45 minutes.

There is only one format of the TOEFL exam: academic English. The IELTS exam, as we have learned, has two versions: academic and general.

On the TOEFL exam, the speaking section is done via recording. On the IELTS exam, you'll be face-to-face with an examiner.

Ultimately, the test you take will depend on what you need to do and where you need to do it. If you're applying to school or work in the United States, you'll likely take the TOEFL. If you're doing something in the UK, Australia, or Canada, you'll probably take the IELTS test.


IELTS Preparation: Final Thoughts

The IELTS exam is an English-language proficiency test. People take the IELTS as they prepare to attend university or get a job in an English-speaking country.

You'll likely take the IELTS if you are moving to the UK, Canada, or Australia. You may take a different exam if you are moving to the United States.


What's Next?

We've compiled a post that walks you through how to sign up for the IELTS exam step-by-step. Check out our guide to IELTS registration here!

Planning to take the TOEFL? Then you'll definitely want to read our expert tips on how to prepare for this tricky English test.

Need English-vocabulary words to study? Take a look at our list of 300+ high-frequency TOEFL words today!



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Hayley Milliman
About the Author

Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.

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