I’ve been teaching and examining IELTS for more than 7 years and sometimes I feel like I’m in a movie that keeps repeating itself over and over with students making the same mistakes.
Here are the 10 most common that I’ve come across again and again (and again and again).
Comment below any questions that you have!
Related to this you can read about how to make the examiner like you here and about how long you need to study for IELTS here.
#10 Talking Too Much During the Speaking Test / Showing Off
Some students walk into the test like a secret agent on a serious mission.
They are going to talk as much as possible and show off at every opportunity.
I have had candidates where it was almost impossible to ask the next question because they wanted to tell me their life story when all I asked was ‘What’s your name?’
The problem is that this annoys the examiner (who has a job to do and must try to get through all the questions or get in trouble).
It can also really hurt your fluency. If you keep talking by adding ‘uh’ ‘um’ and ‘er’ onto the end of every sentence your fluency score will start dropping faster than a Task 1 line chart!
#9 Talking Too Little in the IELTS Speaking Test
Even worse than talking too much and showing off is sticking your head inside your shell because you’re shy and talking too little!
I have had candidates who answered with simple words or a single sentence for every question. The examiner has to keep asking more and more questions and has a tough time hearing enough to give you an accurate score.
Don’t be shy on IELTS!
It will hurt your fluency of course because you are unable to maintain ‘long turns’ or ‘speak at length.’ You also won’t use enough vocabulary, grammar or examples of good pronunciation for the examiner to give you a good score above 6.
#8 Focusing Too Much on IELTS Trivia
Some of the most common questions I get about IELTS include ‘Can I write T/F instead of True/False?’ ‘How many people will check my writing test?’ ‘Will the examiner listen to my recording again after I leave the room?’ ‘Can I write Y instead of Yes in listening and reading?’ Can I write in all caps? How is my score averaged?’
These questions are not important. Don’t stress about trivia. Write the full word – it doesn’t take any extra time!
I meet a lot of students who ask these trivia questions instead of more important questions like: how to improve their grammar, how to make a study plan, what their level is, how to improve their listening or reading, etc.
#7 Studying Hard (but Not Improving)
There are so, so many students who spend year after year (and dollar after dollar) studying IELTS but seem to stay at the same level.
They are studying hard but not improving. Why not?
There are two reasons. The first one is that they are focusing on test strategy, not on improving their English.
Those are two very different things and you can read more about it here.
The second reason is that once you reach the intermediate level, your English will plateau (it will not increase as quickly).
It is still getting better – but more slowly so it looks like you are not improving. You become demotivated and then stop improving.
#6 Not Learning the Band Descriptors in IELTS Writing and Speaking
If you’re not sure about whether or not to trust what someone is telling you about IELTS, there is an easy way to check.
Is it in the band descriptors? If yes, then it is true!
And that’s all the information you really need.
So print them out, put them on the wall, study them all the time and they will be your guide!
Everything else is just rumour and you shouldn’t waste your time with it!
#5 Leaving out Data in IELTS Writing Task 1
This is such a simple, silly mistake!
If you leave out important data (for example, the leading demographic or a really big change) your score will be limited to a 5 for task achievement. Maximum!
If you leave out some less important information (a less important demographic, smaller changes) you can still get up to band 6 for task achievement.
Make sure you include all the data in the graph (don’t describe is mechanically – you can group it together and that still counts as including it)!
Simple, simple, simple way to save you from slipping on a banana and looking silly!
#4 Too Many Main Ideas in IELTS Writing Task 2
Here is my nightmare of an IELTS paragraph:
There are many reasons that banning smoking is a good idea. The first one is that it is harmful to people’s health. Moreover, it is also harmful to other people who may inhale second hand smoke. Another reason is that it costs a lot of money that could be better spend on other things. The final reason is that it is has a negative impact on the environment.
This paragraph includes a new main idea for every sentence. 4 sentences, 4 main ideas = band 5 for task achievement!
None of them are well-developed. Stick to 1 main idea per paragraph. Develop it well with a good example = band 7+.
#3 Not Improving Their Pronunciation Enough
A lot of students are wasting a lot of time improving their grammar and vocabulary while they really need to be working almost 100% exclusively on pronunciation.
It doesn’t matter if your grammar and vocabulary are perfect if no one can understand you! You could have the best ideas in the world, but if your handwriting was too messy no one would be able to read them!
The reason that this happens is that pronunciation is not exactly like other skills. You can improve your grammar and vocabulary because those are muscles inside your mind.
The muscles in your mouth become fixed like statues (for some people) and it is much harder to change.
#2 Unclear Overviews for IELTS Writing Task 1
The biggest problem for all students who take IELTS: the general overview for Task 1.
It’s not your fault! It’s a very, odd and specific sentence that only exists on IELTS and has way too much of an impact on your score.
So, so, so many students get 6s for grammar, vocabulary and cohesion/coherence and 5 for task achievement just because of the overview.
That student should be getting a 6 overall but they get a 5.5. It’s not fair. But crying about it won’t help.
The only way to help yourself is to improve your overviews. Start here!
Careful on your IELTS writing!
#1 Misunderstanding the Question for IELTS Writing Task 2
Just like the biggest problem for Writing Task 1 is overviews, the biggest problem for Task 2 writing is misunderstanding the question.
Students in my class don’t really like practicing this because it isn’t technically writing. It’s a reading skill (and kind of a writing skill).
But students should be focused on this more than anything else. If you misunderstand the question, depending on how badly you do it, you will get a band 3, 4, 5 or maybe 6 for task achievement. Guaranteed!
Examiners love/hate it!
Now you know don’t make the same mistakes over and over again! Be more like Vic Mensa:
I want to tell you a story about how I learned how to decide if students should be studying IELTS or just improving their English based on what score they need and when.
Dave, your friendly, neighborhood former IELTS examiner!
As a teacher at British Council we test student’s level in order to put them in the correct class. It’s very important and one of the most important questions is: should this student be studying IELTS or improving their English first?
That sounds obvious but few students understand that IELTS is a test made to measure English language ability and it will do just that – measure your ability.
I was lucky when I first started level testing because I had an amazing and experienced teacher who showed me, like a doctor, exactly how to diagnose students.
What she showed me was basically this: after you know their English level, find out what score they need and when they need it. If they are far away from their goal – put them in general English. If they are close to their goal – an IELTS class.
These are general rules and there are exceptions depending on your ability and determination (Leo Tolstoy became fluent in Ancient Greek in just six months for a challenge, but he’s probably a lot smarter than you are).
Take a look at the chart on the left to get an idea of how long it will take.
I want to point out 2 things about this chart.
First, this is based on the official IELTS and CEFR website. Most examiners would say that the link between level and band score is not totally accurate. An intermediate student could easily get around a 6 and and upper-intermediate could get around a 7.
Second, the jumps between levels get larger. It takes longer to go from band 6 to 7 than it does from band 5 to 6.
It is always possible to get a score that is better than what you deserve (though it is more likely to get one that is lower than what you deserve).
Very few students understand this. They think if they moved up a point in a year they can expect to keep doing that until they get to band 9.
That’s not how it works. Read below for some examples of how long it will take you to move up to the next band score or level.
Example #1: Elementary Level (A1)
This is a really low level of English and students at this level should only expect to get around a 3 to 4 on IELTS.
Many students at this level come in asking for a 6.5 – that isn’t a realistic goal.
If an elementary student wants a 6.5 in a few months, I tell them the truth: it is impossible.
In these cases, I always put students into general English.
What this means for you: If you are an elementary level student you should not be studying IELTS unless if you need below a 4. You should be improving your English.
Let me repeat myself: at this level you should not be studying IELTS – you should be improving your English in general.
Maybe you think you can study IELTS to improve your English. You’re wrong and you can read about why here: Why you Shouldn’t Study IELTS to Improve your English.
The good news for you elementary students is that moving from elementary to pre-intermediate won’t take that long. It’s simply a matter of learning new vocabulary and practicing using it with some different types of grammar and you’ll be there in under a year!
In summary: to get up to 6+ will take you at minimum of 2 years of study and likely longer. Under 6 is possible inside of 1 or 2 years.
Example #2: Pre-Intermediate Level (A2)
As your English level increases, it will begin to take longer and longer to improve and reach the next level. Think of it like a staircase where the next step gets bigger and bigger.
A pre-intermediate student can expect a score in the 4 range, possibly up to 5.
This means if you are pre-intermediate and you want a 6.5 you are very far from your score and should not be studying IELTS (for more information read why here).
If you need a 5.5, possibly even a 6, you can try studying IELTS but there is a very low chance you will reach your desired score.
This might depend on your time frame. If you want a 6.5 or 7 in 3 months it is not possible. But if you have a full year to prepare you will have a better chance of getting a 6.
For these students, unless if they need a score below a 6, I always recommend improving their English, not studying IELTS.
The good news is that going from pre-intermediate to intermediate level is very possible. It is not as easy as going from elementary to pre-intermediate, but most students can do it by working hard within 1-2 years.
Example #3: Intermediate (B1)
If you want are at the intermediate level you should expect a score in the 5 range, possibly up to band 6.
This means that 6.5 is a possibility, but very rare.
If a student is Intermediate level and needs a 6.5 in a few months then I would recommend they study IELTS because this score is possible.
If they want a 6.5, there is a slight chance they could get there, especially if they are good in reading in listening. Many students get 6 for speaking and writing and 7 for reading and listening and end up with a 6.5 overall.
Students who want to get a 6.5 need to spend some time (at least 6 months to a year) improving their English in order to have a good chance of getting that score.
Moving from intermediate level to upper-intermediate is a huge jump up.
Upper-intermediate is where you English becomes more natural; it is sometimes known as the ‘dinner party’ level. I could have a good conversation at a dinner party with an upper-intermediate student.
To move from intermediate to upper-intermediate you should plan to spend at least 1 – 2 years. For many students, you are more likely to need 3 – 4 years of intensive study to reach upper-intermediate level.
Example #4: Upper-Intermediate (B2)
At Upper-Intermediate you should expect a band score in the 6 range, but possibly up to a 7.
Getting to this level is a huge accomplishment and you should be really proud of your level. It can take many years to get here!
Students at this level are usually ready to study IELTS rather than just improve their English.
The only situations where I would recommend someone continue to improve their English rather than study IELTS is if they need above a 7.
In that case, you probably need at least another couple of years of study in order to get that band score.
But, many students are able to get 7 overall (or even higher) because of the difference between skills. Most students have stronger listening and reading skills so it is very common for students to get 6s for speaking and writing and 8s for listening and reading, which averages out to a band 7 overall.
If you are at the upper-intermediate level and you need an 7 – it is possible, but only if you are a very strong upper-intermediate and you can get great scores for listening and reading.
Example #5: Advanced (C1)
At the advanced level you should expect a band score around band 7, including 7, 7.5, and 8.
This level means that your English is becoming very natural and similar to a native speaker.
The best way of thinking of this level is thinking about your native language. Now think about being slightly worse in English than your native language.
How long do you think that will take you?
For many people, this level is unattainable. Some study their whole lives and never reach it.
If you want to get to this level you need to practice all the time and show real dedication or go live abroad and immerse yourself in English every day.
It’s hard to give a realistic time frame for this level, and these IELTS bands, because it takes a lot of time and hard work but varies by learner more than the other levels.
Keep your head down, work hard, and enjoy the journey without focusing too much on the finish line because it is probably years away!
The more you think about getting band 8, rather than just getting better at English, the less likely you will be to ever get band 8.
Example #6: Master (C2)
Once you have your black belt in English you are looking at an 8, 8.5 or 9.
You are essentially a native speaker though you might make some mistakes. Obviously at this level you don’t really need to study IELTS.
You can just take the test and you’ll probably get a score that’s good enough.
However, there is 1 reason why you might want to study IELTS.
There are a lot of tricky little elements to IELTS, especially in the writing test, that can even cause native English speakers to get lower scores than what they deserve.
You might want to take a short course or review some key elements of test strategy just to be safe. Some students are at band 8 but they don’t know how to do the test so they get a 7 or 6. That means with just a little bit of study they could move up 1 or 2 full band scores!
Overall or at Least in Every Band?
Another factor that has a huge impact on how long it takes to get your score is whether you need an overall band score or a minimum in each category or a combination of both.
It is very common for schools to ask for a 6.5 overall and nothing lower than a 6 in every category.
This means your skills have to be well-rounded. You won’t be able to get away with really good listening and reading scores and poor speaking or writing scores. If one of your skills is weaker than the others, it might take you longer to make sure every skill is good enough.
Generally, if you need to get at least 6 or 6.5 or 7 in every category, it will take you longer to prepare and you might have to take the test multiple times. This means it is even more important that you figure out your current scores and come up with a good study plan.
On the other hand, if you only need an overall score you have a better chance of getting the score you want.
You should check with the school, company or immigration office to find out if you just need an overall score or a minimum in each skill.
There Are Levels Above Master
Not a lot of people know this because the new CEFR levels have not been released yet and are still being worked on.
I have talked personally with one of the researchers and was interested to learn that the next CEFR will detail levels above Master (C2).
Don’t worry – these are not going to be part of IELTS. There won’t be a band 10 and 11!
But if you are interested the other levels are called ‘G’ and include Translator (G1), Bilingual (G2) and Confident User (G3).
Let’s hope these don’t become part of IELTS anytime soon…
Comment below: How long until you need your IELTS score?
Here’s some help getting started with your comments:
I really need it by …
If I don’t have my score around … then I will have to …
It’s important for me to get my score by …
It’s flexible for me. Anytime in the next … months/years.
Before you make your IELTS study plan you need to know 2 things.
Those are just estimates, of course. But now you have some idea of where you are and the realistic timeframe for reaching your goal.
The best way to reach your goal quickly is to put in more hours every day, every week and every month – all under a yearly plan.
A day is made up of various units just like the human body is made of body parts, muscles, tissues and cells. Each day breaks down into parts of the day, hours, minutes and seconds. Focus on each individual second and the boundaries of ‘day’ expand dramatically and you will have more time than you originally thought.
This is more important than signing up for an IELTS class at a school. Self-study is better than taking a class because you will be responsible for your own learning and take a more active (rather than passive) role in your improvement.
So let’s go through a sample plan together. I recommend that you buy a new notebook and start now!
Sample Study Plan
Here’s my new notebook and I’m going to put my current level and goal on the cover and the date when I am starting.
You can include an end date for your goal – but it must be realistic or it will be demotivating. Again, check out the links at the top if you’re not sure about your current level and time frame.
On the first page I’m putting a daily and monthly overview of what I’ll be doing. I don’t expect to keep to this exactly, but it will still be helpful. You might want to add a weekly one as well.
Here comes the important part – all the days and hours! The above plans will help you stay organized but this is the engine to your car.
If you don’t put in the daily work the car won’t go anywhere!
Here I write down first what I plan to do for the day. Then later in the day I tick the things that I did and make an X for the things I didn’t do. Don’t feel bad about what you didn’t do. Your attitude to your mistakes will determine your IELTS success.
The most important part of your plan is that you update it consistently. Even if you did nothing – write it down.
Here is the full video process and some advice from me:
A Better Way
The above method is very traditional and suits a lot of people. Most people like to plan things out in advance of doing them. But I think there’s a better way. I think it’s a bad habit to plan things out so I don’t use checklists that often.
A better habit, in my opinion, is to keep track of your work after you do it rather than making a checklist before. This way you won’t get the feeling of accomplishment, peace, and satisfaction that comes with making a checklist.
Instead, briefly sketch out in your head some of the things you want to get done. Maybe jot them down – it’s not a problem to make some notes. But get started doing them right away!
At the end of the day, write down all the things that you did.
This way, you will always be focused on getting things done, not on planning things out.
Don’t stress too much when your plans don’t work out – laugh about it and get back to work!
Take some inspiration from my favorite cartoonist, Chris Hallbeck:
You’ll soon get into the habit of getting more done because otherwise you’ll be facing a disappointed, accusatory blank page at the end of the day. That angry blank page will be the reason you don’t get the score you want.
But if you can fill up that page with accomplishments by the end of everyday and make that page happy, that will be the reason that you do reach your goal!
Best of luck!
Comment below – what score do you need to get on IELTS?
You can use these phrases to help write your comments:
I really need a …
I’d like to get …
If I don’t get … I won’t be able to …
In the next … months, I have to have a band …