English exams

What exactly is IELTS?

IELTS – the exam

IELTS is an acronym for International English Language Testing System. There are two types of IELTS exam, general or academic. These differ in the reading and writing sections. Listening and speaking are the same in both. General IELTS is geared towards students who would like to emigrate to an English-speaking country and are therefore required to show they gave a level of English in order to cope with issues they could encounter as a resident. Academic IELTS is generally for non-native speakers of English who wish to study a university course or master´s degree in English and their desired place of study will normally advise them on the mark they need in order to gain access to the course.

What’s in the exam ?

There are 4 sections – Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking. There is no Use of English but obviously a good grasp of grammar is necessary to score a higher mark. Candidates score from 0 to 9 based on their performance in the aforementioned sections. An overall mark of 6.5 or 7 is around a high B2 level of English.


This listening section consists of 40 questions which become progressively more difficult. The first section is a telephone conversation between two speakers and you will need to fill in the missing information. It’s a good idea to clearly understand numbers in English and the English alphabet for this exam. The answers in Section 2 and 3 are very much vocabulary based. Vocabulary is extremely important in IELTS, and understanding and using synonyms is an essential part of overall exam, not just in the listening paper. The last section will be a monologue on an academic or scientific subject. Don’t worry about the subject of the monologue itself, it’s not necessary to be an expert on say, ancient Greek archeology, to pinpoint the answers to the questions.


Unlike the Cambridge exams, the IELTS speaking exam is for an individual exam candidate with one speaking examiner only. The test consists of 3 parts – firstly, a Q and A session, secondly, a 1 to 2 minute monologue from the student on a given subject, and finally, opinion related questions. What the examiner wants to hear is that the candidate has fluid English and can express opinions clearly in a logical way using a range of suitable vocabulary.


General IELTS – 40 questions on 3 texts related to documents or topics you find in real life e.g. instructions from a manual or rules for a competition. There are a variety of different question types and it is crucial to understand and practice all the different question possibilities e.g. one or two word gap fills, matching ideas to paragraphs, multiple choice, matching headings, and more.

Academic IELTS – 40 questions which vary in type on 3 texts relating to academic/ scientific articles. There are usually some very specific words relating to the topic in question which most people (including teachers) would not understand unless they happen to have some expert knowledge on this subject themselves. However, these academic or scientific words will either be explained in the text, or you will not need to know the specific meaning of the word if it is used in a question.


General IELTS – Task 1 consists of writing a letter (minimum 150 words) which can be informal, semi-formal or formal, for example writing to your landlord, or bank manager, about a particular situation that will be outlined in the question. Task 2 is an essay, minimum 250 words.

Academic IELTS – Task 1 consists of comparing and contrasting data which can be in the form of line graphs, pie charts, bar charts, tables, flow charts, maps or diagrams. The minimum 150 word also applies here. Task 2 is an essay, also minimum 250 words.

Unlike other exams, there is no choice of writing tasks in either General or Academic IELTS. There will be one writing task 1 and one writing task 2 per exam. If you do not reach the minimum amount of words in both writing tasks, there is a penalty which will lower your score. This applies to both General and Academic IELTS.

An overview of the IELTS exam

My advice to new IELTS students

In particular, if you are not very technical or scientifically-minded, Academic IELTS can look scary at first glance– it has a different approach from the Cambridge exams, it has questions on diagrams and flow charts which are often unfamiliar territory, and a lot of the material is highly scientific or academic. But like any other English Language exam, it’s just a question of having the necessary level of English plus practising with exam questions until it is clear there is a high possibility of achieving the score you need.  With regards to the speaking and writing sections, the examiner’s criteria for these parts of the IELTS exam are easily accessible on Internet, and understanding what the examiner wants you to do will help you get the score you are aiming for.

For a look at IELTS in more detail, go to

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

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