What is IELTS?

By StudyLink

The GRE Test Explained

The International English Language Testing System – otherwise known as IELTS – is one of the most popular standardised tests of English language proficiency. Some of the most popular uses of IELTS include:

  • Academic use. Many reputable universities and colleges require prospective students to be fluent in English. Language proficiency is important in an academic setting because universities need to know that you will be able to understand lectures, write papers, sit exams and perform research.

  • Business use. English language proficiency is crucial in corporate and professional settings too. Employers want candidates who are fluent in English and who are able to communicate with clients in the most professional manner. Also, English language proficiency is required for registration in many fields, such as pharmacy, nursing, law, accounting, engineering, teaching, and more.

  • Permanent residency. Some governments require that all people applying for permanent residency speak fluent English.

Whilst it’s used in many different areas of life, from academic applications to professional registration, this article focusses on its use for gaining entrance into your chosen study abroad university.

IELTS was established in 1989 and it’s jointly managed by University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations, the British Council and IDP Education Pty Ltd. Statistics show that over a million candidates from over 130 countries take the IELTS each year, though that number is rapidly growing, and is approaching two million candidates per year, showing how popular and relevant the IELTS test is. IELTS is carefully developed with a significant input from experts from all around the world. There are expert teams located in all English-speaking nations (Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.)

IELTS is accepted in academic institutions throughout the world; most British, Australian, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions require prospective candidates to take IELTS and it is also a requirement for immigration to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Different Versions of IELTS

There are two standardised versions of the test: Academic Version and General Training Version. The version of the test required will depend on the intended use and the area in which you wish to show your English language proficiency. It’s worth noting that even as a student, you may have to sit the General Training Version, either as well as, or instead of the Academic Version.

  • The Academic Version is made for candidates who wish to study at universities, colleges and other institutions of higher education. It is also required for professionals (medical doctors, nurses, etc.) who wish to study and practice in English-speaking countries.

  • The General Training Version is made for people who wish to gain work experience or who wish to undertake non-academic training. This version of the test is also made for immigration purposes.

Due to the two versions, and their slightly different purposes, depending on where you are studying, you may have to sit and pass both tests, although this does depend on the institution you are applying to study at.

IELTS has 48 fixed test dates per year. The schedule is made to ensure there is a high level of security and quality. Typically, the Academic Version of the test is available on all 48 dates whilst the General Training Version is available on just 24 dates.

IELTS Test Structure

IELTS consists of 4 modules that candidates need to complete: listening, reading, writing and speaking. Listening and speaking modules are the same for both versions of IELTS whilst reading and writing modules differ between Academic and General Training versions. All modules need to be completed in order to obtain a band score. This score is shown on the IELTS Test Report Forum (TRF).



This module comprises of 4 sections of increasing difficulty. All sections begin with a short introduction about the situation and the speakers. Both monologues and dialogues are used. After a brief introduction, candidates have some time to look through questions. After this, the recorded sections are played with each section being heard only once. The first three sections have a break in the middle to allow candidates to look at the remaining questions. Test materials use a variety of writing styles and accents in order to minimise any linguistic bias.


This module has 3 sections. In the Academic module, there are 3 texts typically followed by 13 or 14 questions. The General test has shorter texts so there can be up to 5 texts to read.


This module comprises of 2 tasks that are different for the Academic and General Training versions of the test. In the Academic Version, the first task requires candidates to describe a chart, diagram, graph or process. In the second task, candidates respond to an argument. In the General Training Version, the first task asks candidates to write a letter explaining a situation. In the second task candidates write an essay.


IELTS has a unique speaking module, which is different than other English language proficiency tests. It is conducted in the form of a one-to-one interview with a certified examiner. This test module has 3 sections. The first one is taken in a form of an interview where an examiner asks candidates about their hobbies, interests and other general topics such as free time, family, clothing, etc. In the second section candidates are given a specific topic to talk about. Candidates have about 1 minute to prepare. The third section is taken in a form of a discussion between the examiner and the candidate, typically related to the topic set in the second section. While the examiner assesses the candidate during the conversation, the speaking session is also recorded for monitoring (and for re-marking in case of an appeal).

Test Duration

The total test duration is around 2 hours and 50 minutes for listening, reading and writing modules. Listening takes about 40 minutes. Candidates listen to a recording for 30 minutes and they have 10 minutes to transfer their answers onto the answer sheet. Reading and writing take 60 minutes each. The speaking module takes additional 11 to 14 minutes.

The first three modules are completed in one day without breaks in between. The speaking module may be taken in the period of seven days before or after the other modules.

Scoring and Band Scale

IELTS is scored on a 9-band scale, each one corresponding to a specified competence in English. Band scores are reported to the nearest half band.

IELTS describes the bands in very specific terms:


Expert User

Has full operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding.


Very Good User

Has full operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriacies. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well.


Good User

Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriateness and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.


Competent User

Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.


Modest user

Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own field.


Limited User

Basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in using complex language.


Extremely Limited User

Conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations.


Intermittent User

No real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs.


Non User

Essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.


Did not attempt the test

No assessable information provided at all.

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