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.
If you want to both improve your English and feel comfortable, I now offer online lessons complete with feedback, videos, workbooks and more – you can learn more here!
You can also learn about my new Patreon here and my writing service 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!
Try to show off a little and add detail – but not too much! Read more about how much you should talk here.
#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.
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.
The reasons are usually that students are shy. If this is your problem, try reading this post about what will happen on your test and watching some practice tests so that you feel more comfortable.
#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.
Learning English is a marathon and you are at the most difficult stage – running slowly uphill – keep working hard and you will be successful. Read more about the difference between successful and unsuccessful students here.
#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.
It is possible though: check out this post to learn how to improve your pronunciation with guaranteed results.
#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!
#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!
So take some time to read as many questions and sample answers as you can until you are confident you can read and understand the questions!
Now you know don’t make the same mistakes over and over again! Be more like Vic Mensa: