How to Prepare for the IELTS

The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is an English language proficiency test accepted by universities and educational institutions across the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

This guide walks you through the key information you need to know about the IELTS and how you should prepare for the test. Our IELTS experts have helped students improve their English language skills and meet the ever-increasing entry requirements of top universities. If you’re in need of support with preparing for the IELTS or your wider university application, reach out to our team today.

What is included in the IELTS?

IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a language proficiency test that assesses your ability to listen, speak, read, and write in English. The test lasts for around 2 hours and 45 minutes in total. There are two versions of the test: IELTS Academic (necessary for study at degree level) and IELTS General Training (necessary for training or study below degree level).

There are four papers in both versions of the IELTS: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking. The table below gives more information about each of these sections.

Paper No. of questions Time Description
Listening 40 questions 30 minutes This section requires you to listen to four recordings of native English speakers before answering a series of questions.
One recording will be a conversation between two people set in an everyday social context. Another recording will be a monologue set in an everyday social context. The third recording will be a conversation between up to four people set in an educational or training context, and the final recording will be a monologue on an academic subject.
IELTS assessors will be assessing your ability to understand the main ideas and detailed factual information contained in the recordings, as well as the opinions and attitudes of speakers, and more.
Reading 40 questions 60 minutes This section is designed to assess a wide range of reading skills, including reading for gist, reading for main ideas, reading for detail, skimming, understanding logical arguments, and recognising the opinions, attitudes and purpose of writers.
The IELTS Academic test includes three long texts which may include descriptive, factual, discursive, and/or analytical writing. These texts will be taken from books, journals, magazines and newspapers.
Writing 2 tasks 60 minutes The two tasks in this section are designed to assess your written English abilities.
In task 1, you will be presented with a graph, table, chart or diagram and asked to describe, summarise or explain the information in your own words. You may be asked to describe and explain data, describe the stages of a process, or describe an object or event.
In task 2, you will be asked to write a formal essay in response to a point of view, argument or problem.
Speaking 3 parts 11-14 minutes This section assesses your use of spoken English. It is split into three parts and each part will be recorded for assessment.
In part 1, you will be asked general questions about yourself and a range of familiar topics, such as home, family, work, studies and interests. You will need to answer in spoken English and the section will last for around 4-5 minutes.
In part 2, you will be given a card which asks you to talk about a particular topic. You will have 1 minute to prepare before speaking on your given topic for up to 2 minutes. Your examiner will then ask one or two questions on the same topic.
In part 3, you will be asked additional questions about the topic in part 2. This section will last for around 4-5 minutes and will give you the opportunity to discuss more abstract ideas and issues.

Which universities accept the IELTS?

All universities and most education providers in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK accept the IELTS, including top UK universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, and LSE. Many institutions in Canada also accept it, as well as more than 3,000 institutions in the US (including Ivy League universities). IELTS is also accepted by Immigration authorities in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, as well as many Accounting, Engineering, Law, Medicine, and Nursing professional registration bodies worldwide.

You can see if your chosen university accepts the IELTS using the organisation’s simple search tool. Note that some universities have a preference for one particular language proficiency test – this may be the IELTS, TOEFL, or another standardised test. Make sure that you check which test is preferred by your chosen university in advance.

How is the IELTS scored?

For each of the four parts of the IELTS test, you will be given a score from 1 to 9. Your score can be whole (e.g. 5.0, 6.0, 7.0) or half (e.g. 5.5, 6.5, 7.5) for each part of the test. Your total score will then be given using the average of these four scores.

For example, if you were to score 6.5 in the Listening and Reading sections, 5.0 in Writing, and 7.0 in Speaking, your average score across the four components would be 6.25 and your final overall score would be 6.5.

You can work out what your overall IELTS score may be using the British Council’s IELTS score calculator.

What is a good IELTS score?

A ‘good’ IELTS score is relative depending on your current language ability and the minimum scores required by your chosen universities. The table below shows the bands that IELTS assessors grade scores by. Top UK universities typically require scores in band 6 or above.

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

The most helpful measure of what a ‘good’ IELTS score is is the entry requirements of your chosen universities. Always check directly on your chosen course page to find out what overall IELTS score and individual section scores are required. The table below shows the IELTS score requirements of some of the most competitive UK universities.

University IELTS score required
Oxford 7.0 (minimum 6.5 per component) for standard level courses or 7.5 (minimum 7.0 per component) for higher level courses.
Cambridge Typically a minimum overall grade of 7.5 (7.0 or above in each element).
Imperial College London Minimum score of 7.0 (6.5 or above in all elements).
LSE Minimum score of 7.0 (6.5 or above in all elements).
UCL Level 1: Overall score of 6.5 and a minimum of 6.0 in each component
Level 2: Overall score of 7.0 and a minimum of 6.5 in each component
Level 3: Overall score of 7.0 and a minimum of 7.0 in each component
Level 4: Overall score of 7.5 and a minimum of 7.0 in each component
Level 5: Overall score of 8.0 and a minimum of 8.0 in each component.
Warwick Minimum score of 6.5 (6.0 or above in all elements).
Durham Minimum score of 6.5 (6.0 or above in all elements).
Edinburgh Minimum score of 6.5 (5.5 or above in all elements).

Where is the IELTS taken?

You can take the IELTS in a registered test centre, either on-paper or online (in certain centres only). You can search for a local test centre and see where computer-based tests are available via the book a test page. You will sit your Listening, Reading and Writing tests either on paper or on a computer, while the Speaking test will be carried out face-to-face with a trained IELTS examiner.

You also have the option to take IELTS Online, an alternative way to take IELTS Academic. It has the same format, test content, timing and marking criteria as IELTS in a test centre, but you are able to take it from anywhere. The Speaking test will be conducted with a trained IELTS examiner and will happen via an online video call.

How much does the IELTS cost?

In the UK, the IELTS typically costs between £175-£195, depending on the location.

5 tips on preparing for the IELTS

1. Prepare for the specific sections you’ll encounter

There are two versions of the test: IELTS Academic (necessary for study at degree level) and IELTS General Training (necessary for training or study below degree level). For both the Academic and General Training tests, the Listening and Speaking sections remain the same, however the Reading and Writing tests are different. Make sure you know which version of the test you are required to take and prepare for the correct one.

You should also ensure that you prepare for each section individually. In both versions of the test, the Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing sections assess your individual English skills and have a unique format and style of questions. Make sure that you are able to perform strongly in every section and that you address any weaknesses in your skill set. For example, if you have lots of experience speaking and listening to English but less experience writing in English, ensure that you put extra time into improving your written ability.

2. Practise speaking, reading, listening and writing in English

One of the best ways to prepare for an English proficiency test like the IELTS is ultimately to immerse yourself in the English language. This includes reading and writing in English whenever you can, as well as listening and speaking to other English speakers.
You can practise your English skills by reading English literature and news, watching TV shows and films in English, and digesting other English media. However, the best way to improve your language skills is to engage and converse with English speakers in real life situations. This will help you to learn how to think on your feet and allow you to quickly identify any words or features of English that you could improve on.

Note that for most people, speaking is one of the most challenging aspects of learning another language, so it’s particularly important to make sure you are prepared for this aspect of the test.

3. Take practice tests under timed conditions

Like most tests, the IELTS is taken under timed conditions and it is crucial that you complete as much of the test as possible within the allotted time that you are given. Taking practice IELTS tests under timed conditions is the best way to simulate the environment you will be faced with in the real exam. It also allows you to identify areas that you may struggle with more under time pressure (e.g. the writing tasks) and try out strategies to help you stay calm and perform well.

Both IELTS and British Council provide a wealth of practice questions and tests that you can use in your preparation. However, it can be extremely helpful to have a professional work through these questions with you, identify your weaknesses, and objectively mark your practice tests and provide constructive feedback. That’s why when it comes to preparing for the IELTS, nothing compares to The Profs’ specialised IELTS tuition.

Over many years of successfully tutoring university applicants whose native language is not English, our tutors have developed a wealth of knowledge and resources to help you prepare for every element of the IELTS, from time management strategies to fast, simple ways to learn complex grammatical structures and vocabulary in English. Get in contact with our team today to find out how we can help you.

4. Know what score you’re aiming for

Each university has its own minimum IELTS score requirements (see the table in the section above for some examples). When researching your chosen universities, make sure you find out what IELTS score you’ll need in order to qualify for entry so that you can aim for this during your preparatory practice tests.

Most UK universities also specify individual component scores that you will need to meet. Knowing what these are will allow you to prioritise which sections to focus your preparation on. For example, if you are applying for UCL’s BSc Mathematics course, you will need to meet the university’s level 1 requirements of an overall score of 6.5 and a minimum of 6.0 in each component.

5. Work with an expert IELTS tutor

Preparing for the IELTS can be stressful, especially if there’s a lot of pressure to achieve a certain score in order to get into your dream university. Unlike school or even university exams, you won’t receive a structured learning plan that ensures you are prepared for all of the content in the IELTS, or teachers who understand the test specifications – that’s all down to you. The solution to this is to work with a qualified IELTS expert.

Working with a IELTS tutor will provide so many benefits to your preparation, including:

  • Identifying and focusing on areas in which you need extra support.
    It can be tricky to identify your own weaknesses when mastering the English language, especially if you don’t have regular contact with native English speakers and expert guidance on exactly what skills the IELTS requires. Our experienced IELTS specialists can help you tailor your preparation to areas where it’s most needed.
  • Offering insider knowledge on the test and what the assessors will be looking for.
    The Profs’ language test tutors have first-hand experience of the specific IELTS structure and content, as well as the wider admissions process for top universities, all of which will be invaluable to your preparation.
  • Making the preparation more fun and engaging.
    It can be difficult to stay self-motivated and engaged when you’re juggling learning a language, preparing for the specific IELTS test, and the rest of your university applications. Ensuring the language learning and preparation process is enjoyable will take some of the pressure off while still maximising your chances of success.

The level of English language proficiency required by top UK universities is ever-increasing. However, with the right support, you’ll be able to reach the high level of English needed to succeed in the IELTS, TOEFL and other language tests. In fact, thanks to our expert support, 95% of students who work with The Profs get into their first or second choice universities. To get started with your preparation, get in touch with our team today.


How long is IELTS valid?

Once you have taken the IELTS, your certificate will be valid for up to two years. If you are applying to university more than two years after last taking the IELTS, you may be required to retake the test to give the university an up-to-date picture of your English language ability.

How to check IELTS results online?

If you have taken IELTS Online, you will receive your Test Report Form electronically. It will be available 3–6 days after your test. Your results will also be available to view online for 28 days. If you have registered for the IELTS through the British Council, you will receive an email with a link to view your IELTS scores. If you registered through IDP: IELTS Australia, you can access your IELTS results via your IDP account. If you registered through IELTS USA, you will receive an email with a link to view your test scores on your IELTS USA account. To access your results online via any method, you will need your passport or ID number and your candidate number.

Which IELTS is required for UK work visa?

If you are applying for a UK work visa, you will either need to take the IELTS for UKVI or IELTS Life Skills test. The type of test you should take and the score you will need to achieve will depend on which specific tier of visa you are applying for. See the table provided by IELTS for more information on the different visa tiers and the IELTS requirements for each. You will also need to book your IELTS test via the specific IELTS for UKVI tab on the booking page.

Do I need IELTS if I have a UK degree?

Typically, if you have attended a UK university, your degree certificate will be proof enough of your English proficiency and you will not be required to take the IELTS. However, you should always check this directly with your chosen university before applying.

How long do I need to prepare for IELTS?

The length of time you will need to prepare for the IELTS will depend on your current level of English and your experience taking language proficiency tests. We recommend that you leave at least 6 months to prepare for the IELTS effectively.