How to prepare for the IELTS UK university English test

Student taking an exam

As an international student, you may need to pass an English language test before starting a UK university course. Here’s what you need to know about the most common, IELTS

All UK universities will have specific English language requirements for their students. For instance, UK students are generally required to have a GCSE in English language at grade 4 or above.

For international students whose first language is not English, various tests are accepted as proof of your level of English. As well as enabling your entry into a UK university, passing one of these English language tests is also necessary for gaining a student visa.

Widely accepted tests include Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) and Cambridge English Language Assessment. But the most commonly used test is the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam.

There are two versions of the IELTS test. If you need to take one (not every international student does – check with your chosen universities to be certain), then for university entrance you will be expected to take IELTS Academic. This test is for people planning to study at undergraduate or postgraduate level.

There is also an IELTS for UKVI (Academic) option, which is the same as regular IELTS tests but taken under secure conditions to satisfy the requirements of the UK’s visa and immigration system. Talk to the staff at your chosen universities before going any further with any tests – they will be able to advise on exactly what they require.

What to expect

IELTS must be taken in specific test centres; there are 1,200 test centres located in more than 140 countries. Security is taken very seriously. You will need a photocopy of your passport or a national identity card just to book the test, and you’ll then need to bring the document itself on test day. Biometric scanning will capture test-taker identity on the day and all participants are required to have their photograph taken by IELTS administrative staff.

The British Council, which administers the test in the UK, advises that you should plan to take the test around 12 to 14 months before you enrol on your course. The test is split into listening, reading and writing parts, which you will take in the same two-and-a-half-hour sitting. The speaking part will be held within seven days either side of your main test. A detailed breakdown of the test structure can be found on the British Council website, along with practice papers and exercises.

Among the challenges you will face are questions about a recorded monologue, as well as questions about a series of long passages taken from books, journals and newspapers. Rounding off the test are a couple of writing tasks – likely to derive from questions about a table, graph, chart or diagram. The style and tone of the language can vary, from the conversational to the academic, as can accents, which might be from any English-speaking country.

Papers are then graded according to a nine-band score, from non-user (band score one) through to expert (band score nine). A person who achieves an IELTS 6.0 band score is classed as being able to use and understand fairly complex language; but the band you need to achieve will depend upon the university and course for which you are applying.

How to prepare

There are plenty of people on The Student Room forums with experience of taking the IELTS test. TSR member MariaKaehne says she found the reading part of the test the most difficult. “I was given [articles] written by different scientists on the same subject, but they hold different opinions,” she says. “Your answer sheet is on the back of those and the answers (multiple choice) you must give are NOT written the same way as in the articles, so you must concentrate!”

FormerlyHistoryStudent adds: “I've taught a little bit of academic IELTS prep. With the listening, make the most of the first couple of sections as they are easier, but each question is worth the same as the later ones. In the writing, finding different ways to describe the same thing (eg trends from a graph) and avoiding repetition of words is good because the examiner will be looking for variety of language.”

The best way to prepare for your test is to practise as much as you can. There are plenty of official IELTS sample papers available for free, and TSR’s International Lounge forum is a great place to ask any questions about IELTS. You’ll find lots of students there who have already taken the test.

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