How to prepare for the IELTS

(The below article might be a bit overwhelming for those new to the IELTS. If you need personalised help, send a description of your IELTS situation to:

Whether you are a first-time IELTS taker or someone that needs to resit the exam, this document can provide some direction  regarding how to prepare effectively.

Before we begin, it is important to remember that the IELTS is a language proficiency exam, and thus preparing for it goes beyond simply reading a few textbooks and watching a few YouTube videos. You will see the word “actively” on this page several times. This word is used to highlight the importance of taking initiative in your studies and documenting your progression as your language improves. Be sure not to let yourself confuse passive study approaches (i.e. half-listening to a BBC podcast episode while gazing out a bus window) with active study approaches (i.e. listening to a BBC podcast episode more than once and noting/mimicking/reviewing all new language items you hear).

To arrive at an effective IELTS preparation strategy, complete the following 4 steps and consult the attached appendixes. The expected completion time for this list is several days:

Step 1 -Establish a thorough understanding of what the IELTS is and how it operates.

Step 2 – Develop a feeling for what your current band is for each IELTS skill (L, R, W, S).

Step 3 -Declare a realistic goal for each IELTS skill (L, R, W, S) and a study timeline.

Step 4 -Build a study plan using exercises tailored to your individual needs.

Appendix A – Resources that can be used to populate your study plan

Appendix B – Detailed example of a three month study plan tailored to a student weak in only IELTS Writing

My advice is to not rush any of this process. Working gradually through these steps is not wasted time. Doing so will expose you to valuable English patterns that you can adopt and exercise in your own language.

Step 1 – Establish a thorough understanding of what the IELTS is and how it operates.

The first thing any candidate should do after deciding to take the IELTS is familiarize themselves with what the exam is and how it is administered. has a couple of very thorough overviews you can use to learn about the exam and the task types and question formats used to assess your abilities:

Information for candidates booklet (answers most basic questions about the exam) Frequently Asked Questions

You should also become familiar with what kinds of topics appear on the IELTS. Simone’s work with ( is the best record of former exam topics and questions on the net. Look through this backlog of questions to get a feel for what topics that are trending this year. Chris Green’s topic lists for Speaking Part 1 ( and Part 2 and 3 ( are a thorough collection of speaking topics.

In addition to knowing what topics are currently trending in IELTS, you should be familiar with how each section of the exam is graded. Your Listening and Reading levels are established by converting the number of questions you get correct on each exam into an IELTS band. To see how this is done, visit:

Your writing and speaking are assessed using detailed rubrics. The authoritative powers within IELTS keep these rubrics strictly confidential but have released public versions which are very similar to the real thing. Be sure to read through these documents very carefully, as understanding the manner in which you will be assessed allows you to differentiate effective IELTS writing and speaking from mediocre:

Speaking band descriptors chart (public version)

Writing Task 1 band descriptors chart (public version)

Writing Task 2 band descriptors chart (public version)

To reinforce what you have just read in the above charts, here are a couple of quick video overviews:

Speaking bands explained

Writing bands explained

Step 2 – Develop a feeling for what your current band is for each IELTS skill (L, R, W, S).

When you feel you have an understanding of how the IELTS works, your next step is to gauge your current band. For listening and reading, this can be carried out by engaging one or two mock exams. The British Council publishes a few sample exams from its website that you can use to carry out this self-assessment:


Reading (General)

Reading (Academic)

To get a feeling for your current writing band, you will need to have your skills assessed by someone that understands IELTS writing. I suggest going with either an IELTS instructor or a candidate that has achieved band 8 or higher in the writing exam. Keep in mind that native English speakers who lack experience with the IELTS may not be able to accurately gauge your band writing in an IELTS context. Also of note is that any IELTS assessment you receive from a non-examiner should be taken as only a suggestion. No one besides qualified IELTS examiners have the training nor the authority to assign band placement to your language.

If you do not have access to the advice of an IELTS instructor or a band 8+ writing candidate, consider posting your sample to The IELTS Network ( or purchasing 1 correction with me.

A similar approach can be taken to gauge your current speaking band. For those without access to the advice of IELTS instructors or successful candidates, post an MP3 to The IELTS Network ( However, please keep in mind that doing so may not elicit feedback that is 100% accurate, as your recorded monologue represents only Part 2 of the speaking exam.

Step 3 – Declare a realistic goal for each IELTS skill (L, R, W, S) and a study timeline.

For most candidates, the target band has already been established (i.e. a band 7 to apply towards Australian immigration or a band 8 to attend the University of Warwick). If you are unsure of what band you require, find out by contacting the body that would know. Having a clear goal is a critical part of your planning process.

Establishing a realistic timeline for study requires some thought. Keep in mind that your progress will depend on several factors, mainly how much time you put towards actively preparing for the IELTS. Although the British Council discourages instructors from estimating the amount of time it takes to grow a candidate’s IELTS performance (click here for reference), I’d nevertheless like to share a few general observations from my experience that candidates might find helpful. Please keep in mind that these broad remarks are only based on my personal experiences and may not apply to your individual case:

Observation 1

Growth speeds for individual skills tend to vary. Listening and reading abilities typically improve faster than speaking and writing. One theory for this is that speaking and writing skills are modeled after listening and reading in language development (i.e. we learn to speak by mimicking what we hear; we learn to write by mimicking what we read). (←If anyone has a link to research that could respond to this theory, please share.) In addition to this, candidates do not need the input of another individual to receive feedback on their listening and reading skills. This is seen in action when a candidate carries out a mock exam and checks their performance using an answer key. Instantly, they are illuminated to any shortcomings in listening and reading ability. This sort of self-assessment is not possible when preparing independently for speaking and writing and may also be behind the lag in improvement for these skills.

Observation 2

Speaking and writing band growth tends to decelerate. In other words, a candidate often spends less time getting from band 4 to 5 than they do getting from band 7 to 8. This may in part be because of a conflict between (1) the near flawless language requirements of bands 8, 8.5 and 9 and (2) the failure of the student to correct long-term language habits that are forgivable at the band 7 level but not higher (i.e. pronunciation issues that cause mild difficulties for the listener, inaccurate grammatical patterns, misused colloquialisms, lexical awkwardness, etc). Students that reach the 7 level have typically been studying the English language for years, and thus the development of deeply engrained language weaknesses is regularly seen. As these weaknesses are often quite subtle, identifying and correcting them is a tedious and time-consuming process.

The deceleration of band growth has been documented here:

“The research revealed that around 300 hours of full-time study (18 hours or more a week) is needed to lift the average candidate’s overall band score from 5.5 to 6.0. Surprisingly, longer than 300 hours of full-time study is needed to move from 6.0 to 6.5, or from 6.5 to 7.0.”


David Park shares similar findings in his article published to the IDP Australia website:

Another source (Brough was acting director of studies at IDP Australia in 2003 when he shared this; the info is a little dated, but I would argue these figures still hold true):

“According to Brough, moving up even a single band on the IELTS scale takes considerable effort. ‘It varies, but the main figure I’ve heard is 200 or 300 (class) hours. But I think 200 hours refers to studying intensively in a country where English is spoken. So for students coming in here, it’s probably more like 300 hours.’ “


My conversation with a band 8 student, Toby, also reveals a similar timeframe. Toby prepared independently 20+ hours per week for a period of several months. Unfortunately, his bands at the beginning of this study period are not available for comparison: Tony’s interview with Ryan

As I’ve mentioned, the above may or may not reflect your study experience, and this should be kept in mind while compiling a study plan in step 4 of this tutorial.

Step 4 – Build a study plan using exercises tailored to your individual needs.

Now that you know your current band, your forecasted band and a very rough idea of how long you will need to improve, you are ready to put together a comprehensive IELTS study plan.

Targeting weak points while maintaining strengths is an important part of any study strategy. It is also important to receive assessment periodically to ensure your study strategy is having a positive effect on your abilities.

There are two things you must do as you exercise your study plan. Firstly, you must keep a journal to chronicle any insightful bits of information you come across as you work (i.e. testing strategies that work for you, weaknesses you discover, language patterns you want to remember, mock test results, pronunciation tips suggested to you by an instructor, etc, etc). The second thing you must do, and this is especially true during the times when you are preparing alone, is hold yourself accountable to your study plan. If you tend to get lazy, arrange a study partner that can keep you on track. You may also post your study plan to this thread if you feel the publicity would help you remain motivated.

Below is an example of a week-long plan that could be a part of a healthy IELTS routine that aims to grow overall band by 0.5 in 3 months (specific lessons and resources you could use to fill each exercise block will be suggested later in this document). This plan balances preparation time across the four skills; however, you may find advantage in weighing certain skills more heavily than others. You may also need to add or subtract study hours from this plan; however, this will, of course, affect the total time it will take you to grow your score. Customizing your IELTS study plan to your specific situation can accelerate improvement. Please also note how the word “actively” qualifies each exercise in the table. This means you should be using your journal to note and review all new parts of language you encounter as you progress through your studies.


Appendix A – Resources that can be used to populate your study plan

The following section is a list of exercises and resources that could be plugged into a study plan like the one above. The themes you choose for each exercise should be taken predominantly from IELTS exams seen over the past year. These exercises are just suggestions and do not represent a definitive list of resources that guarantee any IELTS band.


Actively listen to podcasts (ideally delivered in accents akin to those on the IELTS) that broadcast several topics per episode, such as (don’t limit yourself to this short list):

BBC Daily Commute (

BBC Learn English Professionals (

University of Oxford podcasts (

Australia Network Business English (

IELTS Podcast (

Train for accents by listening to the audio from your favourite English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or Australian movies. You can rip audio from film using a free tool like Pazera (

Engage mock exams:

Mock listening exam-style exercises (

Ryan’s Mock Listening Test 1 (

Ryan’s Mock Listening Test 2 (

British Council mock test (


Actively read academic articles on themes seen in recently IELTS exams. Some publications to get you started:

History Today (

National Geographic (

The Economist (

Engage mock exams:

General reading and writing mock test (

Mock General reading from the British Council website (

Mock Academic reading from the British Council website (

Practice your abilities to skim and scan using Tony Buzan’s work (


Ryan’s videos on essay structure (

Ryan’s model essay demonstration videos (

Ryan’s lexical resource videos (

Engage mock writing exams:

Mock General Task 1 and 2 Writing exam with model answer form the British Council


Mock Academic Task 1 Writing exam with model answer from the British Council


Mock Academic Task 1 and 2 Writing exam with model answer form the British Council


Post your writing to The IELTS Network to receive feedback (

Work with Ryan direct through email by purchasing one of his courses

Here are the links for ONE correction:


$25 USD

¥168 CNY

¥168 CNY (Scan the above QR to pay using WeChat. Email to receive the course file.)


Find a speaking partner at The IELTS Network (

Find a speaking partner in the comments section of this video (

Practice speaking at lengths longer than 2 minutes in response to sample cue cards.

Post your speaking MP3 to The IELTS Network to receive feedback (

Review model tests:

Model Speaking test with sample answers published by the British Council (

Ryan’s model speaking answer

Testing Strategies

Listen to IELTSCast to hear successful candidates explain how they scored well (

IELTS-Simon’s daily lessons reveal several skills when engaging the exam (

Appendix B – Detailed example of a three month study plan tailored to a student weak in only IELTS Writing

If engaged actively, the following approach would likely improve a student’s IELTS Writing score by at least half a band:

Weeks 1 – 2

-Watch all of the videos in my playlist on Task 1 and 2 structure and write several Task 1 and 2 responses on your own time using the questions provided in the writing examples on this site. Compare your responses to my example responses and note differences in lexical resource, example usage, grammatical structures and cohesive phrases. Commit correct usage of these elements to memory and actively try to reproduce them in your own writing. Consider committing entire model band 9 essays to memory and producing/adapting their linguistic elements to your own writing.

-Post a writing example to to feedback from other IELTS enthusiasts. (I provide feedback there from time to time, too.)

-Do not concern yourself with training to write under IELTS time constraint yet. At this point, focus entirely on improving the quality of your writing.

Weeks 3-4

-Establish a habit of writing at least one complete Task 1 or 2 response every day under exam-like conditions.

-Watch my videos on analyzing IELTS writing questions and the Task 1 and 2 writing process. Try to include the phrasing you see in your own writing.

-Watch my videos on building lexical and grammatical skills and enhancing coherence. Regularly review your personal dictionary of words, phrases and cohesive devices and actively push yourself to use these resources in your writing.

Weeks 5-6

-Continue with your daily writing routine. At this point, your confidence should be increasing and you should see significant improvement in your writing when compared to the month prior.

-Have an IELTS Writing coach (either me or someone else you know to be versed in the exam) gauge your writing performance. In addition to commenting on overall structure, cohesiveness and lexical resource, be sure this person does a thorough grammatical cleanup of your writing. When you receive this information, pay very close attention to the mistakes you have made. Note exactly what your weaknesses are (awkwardness? plurals? articles? parallelism? fitting examples? …). Actively work to stop making these mistakes in your practice essays.

Weeks 7-8

-Maintain your daily writing routine and continue to experiment with new wording structures and vocabulary.

-At this time, you should start being strict with yourself about timing. Do not allow more than 18 minutes to perform Task 1 and 36 minutes to perform Task 2 (the remaining minutes in each allotted to review).

-Have your writing periodically evaluated by an IELTS Writing coach to ensure you are on the right track.

Weeks 9-10

-Maintain your daily writing routine. You should now be concluding what writing structures you feel confident using. Experimentation is still encouraged at this point, but you should definitely start to narrow what writing patterns you can exercise with grammatical accuracy.

-With your IELTS coach, start to form a strategy for the exam. Your goal is to score well in all four breadths of the writing mark (Task Achievement, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resources and Grammar). Much of your performance in these four areas hinges on grammar, so be sure to choose a writing strategy that plays to this, even if this means cutting back the length of your sentences. An essay that employs short sentences but is grammatically accurate and completely coherent will score better than an essay employing incoherent and grammatically inaccurate complex sentences.

Weeks 11-12

-These final two weeks are all about polishing your exam strategy. You should no longer be experimenting with new writing forms. Instead, work to fortify the skills you have practiced over the past 2.5 months.

-Pinpoint your exact weaknesses (elicit the help of your IELTS coach) and aim to write in a manner that minimizes exposure to these areas. You want to present your best face to your examiner. The ultimate goal here is to maximize your score.

In the days before the exam…

-In the few days before the exam, you should have a well prepared strategy regarding how you are going to tackle Tasks 1 and 2. Practice only this strategy during this period. Do not experiment with new writing forms (your experimentation period is over). NEVER attempt new writing patterns on your exam. Remember Sun Tzu’s advice: “Every battle is won before it is ever fought.”

-The night before your exam should be a relaxing one. Reflect on the progress you’ve made and remind yourself of how confident this makes you feel.

On exam day…

Go and kill your IELTS! (And two weeks later send me a nice email describing your beautiful band score.) 🙂