If you’re anticipating sitting for the IELTS exam, you’re more than likely asking yourself: When is the best time to take this test? While it may seem the “right” time to take the IELTS is far out of reach as it involves months and hours of preparation, choosing when to do so factors into your performance and overall success. If the old adage is true and “timing is everything,” this most certainly applies to the IELTS.
Broadly speaking, the IELTS is an English proficiency exam administered by the British Council, IDP, as well as Cambridge Assessment English. The purposes for taking it are threefold: for work, study, or migration. Furthermore, the IELTS is more common in the U.K. and its territories of influence. It’s important to note that there are actually two different versions of the exam, and which one you select might impact your course of study, whether it’s through Manhattan Review or another academic services company.
The two forms of the IELTS are: academic and general. According to IELTS.org, the academic version “is for people applying to higher education or professional registration in an English-speaking environment.” The general IELTS, on the other hand, “is for those who are going to English-speaking countries for secondary education, work experience or training programs.” The general training exam is the one required for migration to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. Both versions of the test focus on speaking, reading, listening, and writing.
There are 40 questions on the IELTS listening section, broken down into four sections. Section one contains two speakers, usually a telephone conversation that asks to make note of specific information such as dates, times, etc. Section two involves one speaker, typically a talk from a guide of some sort lecturing about a company, charity, building or some other related subject. Section three involves three to four speakers and is an academic discussion. Finally, section four entails one speaker and is an academic lecture.
It should come as no surprise that section four is the most challenging, as the lecture is academic and involves wading through dense, heady material. Clearly, note-taking skills are paramount for the IELTS listening section; for many, these skills must be cultivated over time. It’s recommended to allow yourself several months of listening and note-taking practice to perform your best on this section. Getting a hold of IELTS sample listening exercises, but also practicing on your own with English-speaking podcasts, academic lectures, and YouTube videos will add variety to your skill-building process. Remember, the listening portion is 40 minutes and for most people, that is a long time to sit and listen to take notes while attempting to answer pertinent questions correctly. By allowing yourself several months of listening practice, you’re not only enhancing your listening skills, but also your endurance to sit and concentrate for 40 minutes at a time on that particular skill.
The reading portion of the IELTS comes directly after the listening section and it’s important to note there isn’t a break in time between the two. IELTS reading lasts an hour, entailing three reading passages total—and that’s for either the general or academic exam. These passages are taken from magazines, newspapers, or books and involve academic vocabulary and even diagrams and maps. There are 40 questions total in the IELTS reading portion of the exam.
The skills needed for a superior score on the reading section are primarily skimming and scanning, which enable you to move through dense reading material quickly while still retaining the most relevant and essential information. Some people call this “speed reading,” as it differs greatly from reading for leisure, which allows you to take much more time with each sentence, paragraph and word. Good grammar, an understanding of key words, as well as cultivating a more advanced vocabulary all play vital roles in this process. Garnering and implementing these skills may take a considerable amount of time, particularly when it comes to vocabulary-building.
For example, if you want to increase your English vocabulary by 2,000 words and you learn 40 new words a week by making flashcards, it will take you 50 weeks to reach that goal. Utilizing academic reading material outside of IELTS practice exams are also useful, as it offers some variety while still remaining relevant to what you’ll find on the exam.
The content for the speaking portion of the IELTS exam is the same for both the academic and general versions of the test. Made up of three sections, this is the shortest portion of the IELTS, as it only takes 11-14 minutes. It focuses primarily on communicating opinions about everyday topics, organizing ideas coherently, discussing issues, and speaking at length about a particular topic. Unlike the TOEFL or other English exams, the speaking section is face-to-face with an examiner in a room, not recorded and judged on another day. A score of 9 is the highest you can get on the speaking section.
Let’s face it, IELTS speaking is not the same as “normal speaking.” Although it’s testing your ability to speak “normally,” it’s judged under the scrutiny of an examiner and a stopwatch. Careful attention is placed on grammar and overall fluency, making this the most nerve-wracking and dreaded section of all. Integrating weekly speaking activities based on IELTS-related topics is the only way to become more accustomed to this portion of the test. Time heals everything—even your anxiety about IELTS speaking—so building enough time to finesse these prompts will go a long way.
IELTS Writing consists of two different essays: one that runs about 150 words and a second around 250 words. It’s recommended to spend 20 minutes on the former and 40 minutes on the latter. Both topics are academic in nature and are judged on coherency, correct grammar, effective vocabulary and overall ease with language.
Similar to the previous IELTS sections, this is timed writing on topics you may or may not be interested in. Naturally, writing under pressure can create brain freezes, so building up your “writing muscles” slowly over the course of time is a valuable way to perform your best. Giving yourself an essay or two to write each week for several months will certainly grow your endurance and impact you positively on test day. It also trains your mind to “go with the writing flow” and not get stuck just because you’re composing an essay under pressure.
The Benefit of Time
As you can see, a common thread in the breakdown of all four IELTS exam sections is the benefit of practice over time. Cramming is not an effective way to meaningfully improve your score, especially as it relates to enhancing your vocabulary and seeing tangible positive results. Cramming may work for tests that quiz you on statistics or data alone, but when it comes to displaying proficient English skills, you’ll inevitably fall short.
Frankly, in a perfect world, you should begin your IELTS study four months out from your scheduled test date. This would allow for a full diagnostic practice exam every month to track overall progress, as well as a heightened awareness of problem spots and areas of improvement. If four months isn’t a realistic time frame for you, the minimum amount of preparation is 2-3 months. It is not advised to prepare for the IELTS under a time frame of two months.
It takes 13 days to retrieve your final IELTS score from your test date and there isn’t a limit on how many times you can retake it, according to IELTS.org. However, retaking might be inhibited at specific test centers if there aren’t any available desks due to high demand. Therefore, banking on being able to retake the exam in the following weeks after your initial test date isn’t always guaranteed, so remembering this ahead of time is vital.
Studying Around Deadlines
Deadlines relating to migration status, higher education, or workplace entry can greatly affect your IELTS preparation trajectory. If your deadline for a graduate program in the U.K, for example, is early December, waiting until mid-November to sit for the IELTS is probably cutting it way too close. While in theory that would be the bare minimum to get all your paperwork in on time, when it comes to exams and their sometimes unexpected results—allowing another month might be a smart safeguard.
For example, if you have a frenzied morning getting to the examiner’s office for your speaking evaluation, your score could be greatly impacted due to being distracted or thrown off. (This example is pertinent because you can take the speaking evaluation a week before or after you sit for the other sections.) Giving yourself some leeway for a possible retake can relieve anxiety as well as increase your chances of admission to a school, a visa or migration opportunity, and even a job.
When choosing your test date, you want to keep in mind these important deadlines so you can best determine when to take the IELTS. Allowing for some wiggle room only takes a little careful planning and some foresight.
All in all, the good news is if you give yourself enough time, you can see optimal results on your IELTS exam. All of the skills required for this test are best cultivated over several months with weekly practice, not to be crammed haphazardly days before. Four months is, of course, the ideal time frame to prepare for this test with the minimum being two months. Wherever you turn for your preparation, be it Manhattan Prep or elsewhere, remember to incorporate several diagnostic practice exams along the way so you can track your improvement.
IELTS opens up opportunities, and opportunity is best served by careful preparation. As Robert H. Schuller once said, “Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.” Keep this in mind when finding an IELTS study plan that is right for you.