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I Passed My IELTS on the Second Attempt

In 2019, I was taking my first IELTS to get into a master's program in counseling psychology at Adler University Vancouver. I only had a few months to prepare. I happened to fall short by half a point in Writing, so I had to retake the test.
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In this article, I will tell you about my experience of preparing for IELTS, what challenges I had to face on my first try, and how I passed the exam on the second attempt.

Preparation

English has always been an essential part of my life as my second degree is in translation. It came in handy when I studied psychology as it was important for me to read foreign research in the original and to follow the work of my colleagues abroad.

After completing my first degree, I did not give up the language. I translated movies and TV series, including for Netflix as a freelance translator. Besides, I watched, read, and listened to a lot of English for my own pleasure. So, when it came to preparing for IELTS, I needed to figure out the structure of the exam rather than work on any specific skills.

It is vital to understand the difference between knowing the language and the logic of the exam. Even if your English skills are not excellent, but you know exactly how each part is structured and what is expected of you, things will be easier. I hear that even some native speakers pass the test with a 6 out of 9 the first time because they lose points for not following the structure.

I realized pretty quickly that I didn't want to go all the way by myself. So I found a tutor who had already passed the IELTS with a high score. We would meet on weekends, and she would give me an extensive assignment for the upcoming week, which we would go over during our next class. One week we would practice writing an essay, and the next week we would listen to audios and try to highlight the logic of how the test is structured.

I had no trouble with Reading and Listening. By that time, I had gained a lot of practice in reading and listening, so it didn’t take me long to understand what I should expect from the exam. Writing was more of a challenge for me. I found it very difficult to distinguish between different types of essays and I always answered the wrong questions. I didn't keep track of how many words my essays included and made mistakes because I was used to typing on the computer and not writing by hand.

First Failure: What Did I Do Wrong and What Did I Learn?

I took the first exam in a certified IELTS test center.

I did not like the atmosphere at the exam. The air is filled with discipline, tension, and stress. The first three parts — Listening, Reading, Writing — are held in a single classroom. There is no break. The room is huge. There are over 150 people there.

I needed to get 6.5 points in each of the parts and an overall score of at least 7.0 to meet the requirements of my university. Eventually, I lacked half a point in Writing, a part that most of my concerns had been about. I think the fact that I was nervous and that I was not accustomed to writing by hand prevented me from doing better. My natural handwriting is very uneven, and I had to spend a lot of time trying to make it more readable.

In the end, my IELTS Academic score was 8.5 for Listening, 7.5 for Reading, 6.0 for Writing, and 7.5 for Speaking. The Overall Band Score was 7.5.

Second Attempt

I had about a month and a half to prepare. From the very beginning, we focused on Writing and Speaking, the parts that were most difficult for me. As for Listening and Reading, I practiced these by myself at home.

I knew straight away that I would take the computer-based test for the second attempt. The exam cost me 290 $. It was totally worth it. Here are the advantages of the computer-delivered IELTS test:

  1. Unlike during the paper-based IELTS, there is a maximum of 20 people in the room instead of 150-200.
  2. For the Listening section, headphones are used, so there are no noise distractions. I wore them during the other parts too not to hear other people.
  3. An interface is more convenient to work with than paper forms. It offers a lot of useful features like word count for essays and highlighting text in Reading.

Overall, the general atmosphere of the exam was more relaxed and encouraging.

On my second try, I got 9.0 for Listening, 7.5 for Reading, 6.5 for Writing, and 7.0 for Speaking. My Overall Band Score was 7.5. With IELTS, you cannot see your answer sheet after the exam, so I can only guess where I did well and where I made a mistake. I think the computer format helped me improve my result. In Speaking, I did a little worse because I was not very excited about the topic I got.

That score was enough for my university, so I got admitted. Eventually, though, I didn't go to study there, because I was rejected for a student visa twice. At the end of the year, I'm probably going to take the IELTS again because I want to go to university in Europe. The results are valid for two years, but my latest ones will expire soon: the last time I took the test was on October 20, 2019.

How To Choose the Right Tutor?

Set a clear goal and a rough timeline for achieving it. To get a certain score, one needs to understand the requirements. A good tutor will assess your current level and develop a plan to achieve the goal based on it. Without a clear plan, people often try to squeeze too much learning material into a limited period.

Think about which way of teaching is right for you. Some prefer to learn through communication, some need the rigid framework of grammar books, and some appreciate game formats. A teacher should understand what’s best for the student and adjust the learning process based on it.

Seek out a teacher that you connect with. For example, my French teacher had a subtle sense of humor, and she knew well when was the right time for a joke with me and what jokes I appreciated. She also had a keen sense of how I felt. When she saw I was too tired, she would suggest that we make our class shorter this time. In fact, she deserves a lot of credit for my good score in DELF.

Pay attention to how much of a perfectionist you and your potential tutor are and what’s their tolerance towards mistakes. In post-Soviet culture, mistakes are synonymous with failure. However, the truth is that mistakes are an indicator of work being in progress. I still vividly remember my essays in French, which I would beaver away at during my evenings, all covered with red ink. One of my French teachers was extremely strict. He used to come down on me pretty hard for making mistakes. Things changed when I found another tutor. She kept telling me that I should be proud of myself because most French people would make even more mistakes in their writing, adding that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Accept the fact that you might want to change a tutor at some point. It's hardly possible to understand right away whether you'll enjoy working with a particular person. So, before you even start, ask yourself a couple of questions. Would it be difficult for you to have this kind of conversation? Can you say no to others at all or is it easier for you to leave things as they are, just so you don't offend the person? What’s your priority? Is it your result and your comfort during the classes or the fact that you may affect someone else’s feelings?

Useful Resources To Prepare for IELTS

IELTS LIZ is a well-structured and useful website where you can find lots of tips on all parts of the exam, recent Writing topics, or sample charts to practice writing task 1.

A good website to practice Reading and Listening is Mini IELTS that boasts a user-friendly interface and offers a lot of recent examples from real tests.

Apart from training platforms, I like listening to podcasts to get used to various accents and pace of speech. My favorites now are Yoga Girl, a podcast by one of the most famous yoga instructors, Rachel Brathen, and Dear Sugars by The New York Times columnists with real-life stories on different issues.

Practicing Speaking on your own doesn’t make much sense, so I worked on this part with teachers.

Even if you prepare on your own, you’d better get some feedback on the Writing part. There are services where you can have someone else look through your work, correct the mistakes, and make suggestions for improvement. I've used this one.

Brushing up on grammar is a good thing too. I like the Murphy textbook. I’m still at daggers drawn with articles.

What To Keep in Mind

Passing IELTS with a good score does not mean you know the language well. For me, IELTS is more about how well you understand the structure and logic of the exam. 99% of those who take it will never need to analyze charts and match headings to paragraphs. Last year, for example, 200 students who got a good score on the test were expelled from Niagara College in Canada, because they were completely unable to apply the skills in real life. 

You won’t pass the test without preparation. Even a native speaker can get a 5.5 out of 9 if they don’t know the methodology. It is best to prepare with a tutor who understands the specifics of the exam. If you don’t have such an opportunity, don’t get upset. You can prepare on your own. However, I would still recommend you to consult an expert when working on the Writing part.

Focus on your weaknesses. I had the least trouble with Listening. When I was preparing for the test, I produced a consistently good result with this part and, of course, enjoyed working on it the most. However, it would make much more sense to pay special attention to the parts in which you are not so confident. In my case, it was Writing. 

Don't torture yourself with preparation right up to the exam. I had a massive overdose of practicing my language skills both before the first and the second tests. Since IELTS is a popular exam, you will always come across some articles on how to improve the Writing part, what other idioms you should learn for Speaking, and so on. Remember that your brain needs time to build new neural connections. So the best thing you can do to help your brain is to have some rest and get enough sleep, especially the night before the exam.

Don't take failures personally. Among other things, your final result depends on ordinary luck. For example, you might happen to get a familiar topic or a text that you have already read. The Speaking examiner might be in a good mood or right the opposite, which will negatively affect your score. All these factors in no way characterize your skills and the effort you have invested in the preparation.

By Evgeniya Petrova

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