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Taking the IELTS exam

Grace Yew

Wed Jan 23 2013

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IF you’re an international student in Australia – or are looking to be one –  you’ll probably encounter the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) at some point. Grace Yew speaks to those in the know for tips to help you get through the exam. 

Australian visas can be difficult for international entrants to obtain, and the process is oftentimes made all the more stressful by the requirement for good scores in the compulsory IELTS examinations.

Operated locally by IDP Australia, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is recognised in 135 countries and used by more than 7,000 organisations – including educational institutions, employers, professional associations and government agencies.

Candidates intending to work in Australia take the General Training test, while prospective international students sit the Academic IELTS. Both tests contain four parts or “bands” to assess language proficiency: speaking, reading, listening and writing.

Preparing and excelling

For many students, the prospect of taking an IELTS exam is intimidating, But fortunately, a good IELTS score is not out of reach if you put in the appropriate effort.

And contrary to rumours, sitting the IELTS exam in one’s home country will not make for an easier experience, says John Belleville, IELTS Director for IDP: IELTS Australia.

“All IELTS tests are graded using the same criteria, and have the same level of difficulty wherever you sit the test around the world. Each individual is scored on their own performance. There is no relationship between your score and the performance of other people taking the test with you,” Mr Belleville says.

A spokesperson from IELTS: IDP Australia directed test takers to IELTS Essentials, where they can familiarise themselves with the test format, assessment criteria and sample papers. Those aiming to achieve a band score of 6 or above also have the option to attend a free IELTS Masterclass.

Aside from perusing vocabulary lists, sample papers and websites, students are advised to use English regularly in order to eventually attain a higher IELTS score.

Former international student and IELTS candidate Zhungyi Chan agrees, saying students should have a good grasp on spoken English.

“Don’t focus just on reading and writing…but also on the verbal side of the language. The easiest way to do that would be to actively speak English whenever possible, with as many different people as possible,” he says.

“Read newspapers and digest every article. If you don’t understand a word or phrase, ask someone with a good command of English to explain it to you.”

Mistakes to avoid

When it comes to sitting the paper, former IELTS candidates agree that efficiency is paramount.

Felix Tanandika, who recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, encourages candidates to read the instructions and questions carefully.

“[When answering], think as simply as you can and do not attempt to be smarter than you need to be,” he says.

“Spelling is important. I see a lot of ‘their, there, they’re’ or ‘you’re, your’ mistakes nowadays. Maybe try to be more alert about this by either proofreading or knowing the difference!” he says.

For the listening component, students are advised to stay focused and take note of the time.

“Start answering the questions as you hear them,” says Zhungyi.

“Skim the question before the tape begins, that way you know what to listen for.”

Regardless of the test component, he says, a thorough answer is always best.

“It’s more important to answer the question fully than to try and cram the answer into 45 seconds,” he says.

What it’s worth

While it remains a hurdle requirement for students looking to obtain a visa to stay on in Australia after graduation, a number of criticisms have been levelled against the effectiveness of IELTS to gauge candidates’ proficiency in the language in recent years.

In 2011, Crikey revealed local journalism schools admitted students with English skills that didn’t meet the appropriate IELTS standards. When the University of Canberra became embroiled in a soft marking scandal, it sparked national debate about entry requirements for international students.

Just this month, AsiaOne recently reported an Australian university with campuses in Singapore had turned away international students after arrival because their English was below par.

The 16 students, most of whom were from China, were rejected from James Cook University Singapore – with some students admitting they had cheated in the IELTS exam.

In the same report, Curtin Singapore’s head of marketing and admissions Simon Phillips told AsiaOne some students struggled with their English, despite meeting the IELTS hurdle requirement.

“More often it is because the student had used rote learning to pass the English test,” he told AsiaOne.

Former IELTS candidate Trudy Guo from Singapore isn’t surprised.

“The sample questions remind me of the ones I have in other exams…With the right amount of bombastic words and connectors, candidates are able to score,” she says.

Future of IELTS

But no matter what its flaws, the IELTS isn’t changing any time soon.

“The IELTS test format has remained consistent since 1989,” says a spokesman for IDP: IELTS Australia.

“It is constantly reviewed for relevance and content to ensure that it can meet the requirements of recognising organisations.

“The format of IELTS test questions doesn’t change because it’s important that people know beforehand how the test will be structured. However, the test questions are unique and this means they require unique responses.”

Zhungyi, for one, isn’t too bothered.

“I think that the exam is a pretty good measure of a person’s grasp of English. It may not be perfect, but it does assess every aspect of the language,” he says.

More information about the IELTS is available via the official IELTS website and Facebook page.