What is IELTS? A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re asking, “What is IELTS?” that means you’re new to the test and are likely overwhelmed by all the information available.

In this lesson, I’ll answer the most common questions that beginners have so that you understand what steps to take next.

If you don't understand what the IELTS exam is, the information in this lesson will give you a good foundation to begin with.


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Why you Shouldn’t do the IELTS test

I would strongly recommend that you don’t do the IELTS test unless you really need to.

It takes a lot of time and effort, so don’t do the test unless you have a specific use for an IELTS certificate.

The following are the most common reasons why I tell students not to do the test.

My initial question for IELTS beginners is why they need the test as it might not be a good use if their time or energy.

“I want to improve my English.”

That is a great goal, and I have a lot of admiration for anyone who can communicate in a second language.

The problem here is that studying for the IELTS test will only improve your ability to do the test.

To improve your English, you need to study English.

If this is the reason you want to do the IELTS test, you can follow my Vocabulary Improvement Strategy, my Grammar Improvement Strategy and my Speaking Lesson, which covers how to improve your fluency and pronunciation.

“I might need the IELTS test in the future.”

Firstly, the certificate is only valid for two years, so you might need to do it a second time if you’re unsure when you’ll need it.

Secondly, there are different versions of the IELTS test, so you might need to do the test again if you take the wrong one the first time.

The possibility of needing an IELTS certificate in the future is not a good reason to do the test.

Finally, it’s much easier to prepare for the test when you know what score you need.

If this is why you wanted to do the IELTS test, focus on improving your English for now, and that will make the test easier if you ever do need it.

“It’s a personal goal.”

If you get enjoyment out of studying for the IELTS test, then there’s no reason for me to stop you.

However, my concern is that there must be something else that would benefit you more. For example, why not use that time and energy to do a master’s?

An Overview of the IELTS Test

The IELTS test has four components; Writing, Reading, Listening and Speaking.

The first three are done at a test centre in one sitting, whereas the Speaking test is sometimes done on a different day.

In Writing, you need to answer two questions referred to as Task 1 and Task 2.

To understand what the IELTS test is, it's good to see what it entails first.

You’re given a score for Task Achievement, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy for each writing task.

In IELTS Reading, you have 1 hour to answer 40 questions based on 3 passages.

For the IELTS Listening test, a recording will be played 1 time only, and the recording is divided into 4 parts, with each part containing 10 questions.

The IELTS Speaking test has 3 parts and takes 15 minutes. You’re scored on Fluency and Coherence, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range and Accuracy and Pronunciation.

What is a Good IELTS Score?

Whether an IELTS score is considered to be good or bad depends on what score the candidate needs.

If they need band 5, then band 5 is a good score.

If they need band 8, then band 7.5 is a bad score.

What is considered to be a good score in the IELTS test is completely dependent on a candidate's requirements.

So, what’s important is that you contact the institute that will accept your IELTS certificate and ask them what score they need you to get.

General Training vs Academic

There are two versions of the IELTS test; General Training and Academic.

Which one do you need?

The one you need to do depends on the institute where you’ll submit your scores.

It’s essential that you contact the university, immigration office or other relevant institute and find out exactly which version of the IELTS test they require.

If you don't know whether you need General Training or Academic IELTS, you should make sure to find out before you waste time studying the wrong materials.

What’s the difference between General Training and Academic?

In both versions, IELTS Listening, Speaking and Writing Task 2 are the exact same.

The Academic Reading test uses academic texts, but the General Training one uses texts from non-academic sources.

However, the question formats are the same in both versions of the reading test, so test strategies are the same, but different practice tests are required.

Finally, in Writing Task 1, Academic candidates must write a comparative essay, whereas General Training candidates need to write a letter.


Some candidates are required to do the UKVI IELTS test.

The UKVI test is more expensive than the standard test, and the speaking test is recorded with a camera instead of a voice recorder.

Besides those differences to the candidate, the UKVI IELTS test has some extra security measures in how the administration handles it.

What you need to do during the UKVI IELTS test is not different to the normal version of the IELTS test.

Computer-Based and Paper-Based

When you book your test, you’ll be given the option to do the IELTS Listening, Reading and Writing tests on a computer or with pen and paper.

Regardless of your choice, you will need to go to a test centre to complete the test.

In the paper-based test, it’s easier to make annotations if you get a graph question in Academic IELTS Writing Task 1.

Besides that, there isn’t really much difference between the two.

When your deciding which one to do, the primary consideration is whether you’re faster at writing by hand or with a keyboard.

IELTS Online

From early 2022, it’s possible to do the IELTS test from your home as long as you have a stable internet connection.

My prediction is that most candidates won’t have the required internet capability and will still need to go to test centres.

We are all asking, "What is IELTS online?" but Cambridge assures us that it will be the exact same format as the offline version of the test.

The format of IELTS Online and the computer-based test at a test centre will be the same for reading, writing and listening.

The Speaking test will be delivered through video conferencing by an examiner.

IDP or British Council?

There are two organisations that have test centres where you can do the IELTS test; IDP and British Council.

Many students wonder which one is better.

The truth is that neither is better than the other.

Cambridge produces the tests, and then they are distributed by IDP and British Council.

Therefore, the tests you do and the scores you get will not differ.

You shouldn't expect a higher score by choosing IDP over British Council or vice versa.

The only considerations are the facilities they have.

If a test centre uses an exam room that’s too hot or too cold, this might affect your concentration and performance.

Also, in the IELTS Listening test, some centres provide headphones, whereas others use speakers. You can take this into account if you have a preference.

IELTS Skills

To get a high score on the test, you need to know the test format, and you need to understand what to do in each part of the test.

These things are referred to as IELTS skills.

To improve your skills, you can complete the various sections at the top of this website.

Without the appropriate ability in the required IELTS skills, you're not going to get a high score, regardless of your English proficiency.

What Books Do I Need?

You’ll need to purchase at least two Cambridge IELTS books because you’ll need practice reading and listening tests, and these are the most reliable.

Everything else you need to know can be found on this website.

These are the most reliable source of practice listening and reading tests so are essential to your IELTS preparation.

Candidates with Special Requirements

You must state if you have any special requirements on your application when booking the test so that the test centre can make the appropriate arrangements.

If you don’t state this information while booking the test, there’s nothing that the exam staff can do for you on the day of the test.

What is the situation with IELTS candidates that have special requirements? As long as they declare this fact while booking their test, accommodations will be made.

The most common accommodation I’ve encountered is when a candidate gets additional time in the Speaking test because of a speech impediment.

However, I also had a student who needed to have his reading test printed in Braille and arranging this took the test centre a few months.

When Should I Do The IELTS Test?

You shouldn’t do the IELTS test until you’re capable of getting the scores you need.

It’s best to have an expert determine if you’re ready, as this support will save you the time, effort and expense of doing the test many times.

If you’d like my support with this, you can join my free Live Feedback Lessons.

IELTS Indicator

IELTS Indicator is an online version of the test that was created during the coronavirus pandemic when test centres were closed.

It is not as secure as the standard test, so it is only accepted by some universities and no immigration offices.

IELTS Life Skills

In this lesson, we’ve been discussing the standard version of the test.

However, Cambridge has another test called ‘IELTS Life Skills’, which is entirely different.

If you’re doing this test, none of the information in this lesson is relevant to you.

What next?

Next, you need to make yourself familiar with the different parts of the test.

I would advise you not to do everything at once as you’ll likely get overwhelmed.

Instead, choose one or two areas to focus on first and move on to the next area once you’re ready to do so.

You can use these links to fully understand what is IELTS Speaking, Reading, Listening, Writing Task 2, General Task 1 and Academic Task 1.