32 bad IELTS tips

Summary: Things that you shouldn't do in IELTS, even though some people say you should

This article is a collection of advice that I have seen online, read in books and heard from students that I disagree with, often very strongly, with some better tips in their place.


Bad IELTS Speaking tips

Speak as long as you can in IELTS Speaking Part One

There is no upper limit to an answer in IELTS Speaking. However, if you speak for more than two or three sentences for each question in Speaking Part One, you are almost certain to go off topic. For example, if the examiner asks “Do you have a large family?”, a good answer is to say “Quite small, just one brother and one sister”, but other things you could say about your family such as names and professions are not answers to the question.


Memorise IELTS Speaking answers

If you do this there is a great danger that you will sound over-rehearsed and/ or answer the question which you are expecting rather than the question that you are asked, and these are two sure signs of having a low level of English. However, you certainly should memorise suitable words and phrases, for example looking up words to describe your own family, accommodation and work in a dictionary.


If you are not sure what an IELTS Speaking question means, answer whatever you think it might mean

This is one of the worst things that you can do. IELTS Speaking is basically a test of your communicative competence in English, and nothing shows a lack of communicative ability more than answering questions that someone hasn’t asked! Instead, you should always ask the examiner to repeat, rephrase, explain words that you have problem understanding, etc. You can just answer if you are pretty sure that you know what the question means but are not 100% so, but in that situation you should start with a phrase that shows the situation such as “Well, if you mean…, then…”


If you don’t understand the second time an IELTS question is asked, just answer anyway

This is as bad as the tip above, and is made worse by the fact that if you had shown your lack of understanding then the examiner would have rephrased the question for you.


You should worry if you don’t understand IELTS Speaking questions

Your listening skills are tested in the IELTS Listening paper, not in Speaking. Examiners are told not to speak slowly the first time that they ask each question, so it is quite natural to have problems understanding questions right through the test – or even more problems, as the questions become more complex in IELTS Speaking Part Three. You should worry if you respond with silence or use the same checking/ clarifying phrase each time, but using a range of phrases like “Sorry, I didn’t catch the last word” and “Sorry, can you rephrase the question?” should actually boost your score if you use them correctly.


If you can’t think of a true answer in IELTS Speaking, just lie

The examiner will obviously never know if you are telling the truth in the IELTS Speaking test. However, if you lie and say “I would like to go to Bali” instead of making an effort to explain the more complex real situation that “Actually, there’s nowhere abroad that I’d especially like to go. I really should explore this country more first”, then you have simplified the language much too much and missed a good chance to really communicate with the examiner.


Bad IELTS Listening tips

Read as far through the IELTS Listening exam as you can before the recording starts

It is possible to read up to question 20 in the test before you need to answer question 1, as long as you ignore the spoken instructions and the example question. However, not only does that mean you miss things that you really should listen to (see below), but also that you haven’t done other things that are more useful during that time such as predicting what will go in gaps and what rephrasing of the words in the question you might hear in the recording. Therefore, you should listen carefully for which questions are coming up next, read and underline key words in only those questions (e.g. only questions 1 to 7), then spend the rest of the time predicting what you might hear (see below).


Ignore the IELTS Listening example question

Although the answer to the example question is already written, it is worth listening carefully, as this will give you the chance to get used to accents that you will hear for the whole of the rest of Section 1. It may also help boost your confidence.


Try to predict the answer

With gapfill tasks it is certainly worth thinking about what kind of word and what kind of information might go in each gap, and even what range of possible answers there might be (e.g. approximately what price a student sports festival might have). However, there is literally no chance of guessing the actual answer.

The same is true of multiple-choice questions. Even if you were an expert on the lecture topic, you still wouldn’t have any idea which answer was more or less likely. However, you can guess how the options might be rephrased in the listening text, as key words are rarely repeated exactly. You therefore should underline the key words, quickly guess something about what goes in the gap with gap questions, then spend the rest of the time imagining how the key words might be rephrased.


Make notes as you listen to IELTS recordings

The trick to IELTS Listening is to pick out the important information to answer the questions from all that is said. Writing down everything that you understand will make you do the complete opposite thing. The constant movement of your pen will also interfere with doing the things you should be doing such as underlining key words, circling correct answers, crossing off wrong answers, and writing symbols such as question marks to indicate questions which you should check more carefully during the transferring your answers stage.


If you hear a key word from the IELTS Listening question, it’s always a trap and you can ignore it

This is often true, but IELTS examiners seem to be aware of this false tip and therefore often include at least one “double bluff” where the question is quite easy unless you over-think it, because the same key word is in the question and the listening text. You should therefore try to understand the whole sentence including the key word rather than just guessing from its presence or absence.


Write your answers directly on your IELTS Listening answer sheet

This is fine in IELTS Reading, as long as you make sure that you completely erase anything that you have changed, symbols, etc before you hand the answer sheet in. However, in the Listening paper you have plenty of time at the end of the test to transfer your answers, so you shouldn’t waste one second writing neatly while the recording is still running. Instead, all answers, guesses, and symbols such as question marks should be written just on your question sheet, to be transferred to the answer sheet during the extra ten minutes at the end.


Do shadow reading with IELTS Listening tests

“Shadow reading” means reading, listening and speaking at the same time, trying to match the speed and rhythm of the recording. This is a great activity for people who have problems understanding fast, natural, connected speech. It can be useful with short parts of the IELTS Listening which you had difficulty catching when you did practice exams, especially if that was a part which actually made you get the question wrong. However, it’s only worth doing shadow reading with a couple of sentences.

Shadow reading with longer stretches of the recording will make your brain switch off, meaning you will just be parroting words without thinking about the meaning, which is the exact opposite of what you need to do in the test. A lot of reading and listening at the same time may also make you too used to understanding every word that you hear, meaning that you will be in shock and panic in the real exam when you understand much less than everything! There is also the same danger in listening to the same thing too many times.


Bad IELTS Reading tips

Read the news as preparation for IELTS Reading

Newspapers do include some topics that often come up in IELTS such as the environment. However, they also include many other topics which are likely to be irrelevant for the exam such as crimes and celebrity gossip. More importantly, news stories don’t include any of the paragraphs, topic sentences, headings, etc that IELTS reading texts have.

News articles are also organised in a different way to IELTS texts. English news articles usually start with the latest news then go into more and more background, usually meaning going further and further back in time. In contrast, an IELTS text usually starts with a kind of “hook” then works its way through some subtopics, sometimes chronologically.

News magazines are slightly better than newspapers and internet news stories, but still contain sections which are unsuitable for exam preparation such as news summaries and commentary. Perhaps the most similar texts to IELTS Reading are features in newspaper Sunday magazines, popular science magazines such as National Geographic, and similar magazines of history.


Underline words as you read IELTS texts

You should only underline words which show you what the answer is or which show you which option is wrong. Any more underlining will be a waste of time and a distraction. It will also mean that you can’t use the underlined parts to help you find answers before, after and between the questions that you have already answered. If you find it very difficult to stop underlining as you read, you might also need to stop underlining as you are reading other things such as magazines. Instead, you should read such things a second time to find useful vocabulary.


Scan and skim to find the answers in IELTS Reading texts

“Scanning” means searching the text for particular words, number, etc. It can be useful to look for things that cannot change between the IELTS question and the text and that stand out in the text. However, this mostly only works with words with capital letters (especially names) and numbers. All other key words that you underline in the questions will probably be rephrased in the text, making scanning useless.

Skimming means skipping parts of the text which seem to be irrelevant. This is more useful for IELTS, as long as you can do it the right way. However, more useful than both skimming and scanning is thinking about the topic of each paragraph and so where the information you are looking for probably is. And even more useful than that is simply marking where the information is that helped you answer each question is in the text, so that you can search before that for earlier questions and after that for later questions. This is useful because in IELTS the questions in one section are almost always in the same order as the text. In addition, the different kinds of questions are also often in order in the text, e.g. with the gapfill task number 19 being somewhere before the True/ False/ Not given task number 20 in the text.


Read the whole IELTS Reading text first

People who don’t run out of time in IELTS reading can benefit from quickly skimming for the topic of each paragraph so that they can quickly find the right place when they then look at the questions. However, even for these people, “reading the text first” just means reading the first couple of sentences of each paragraph and skipping the rest, not actually reading the whole text. For everyone else, especially those who usually run out of time in IELTS Reading, it is quicker and therefore probably better to look at the questions first and never actually read through the whole thing.


Carefully read the topic sentence of each IELTS paragraph

Unlike simplified texts for language learners, IELTS texts rarely have a clear single topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph. However, if you have time to read through the text first or if you need to read every paragraph to match the topics to them, then it is useful to read from the beginning of each paragraph until you get the general topic, and this is usually possible in the first three sentences.


Use your pen or finger as you read an IELTS text

This is likely to make you read every word of the sentence carefully, meaning you will waste time on trying to understand parts which are not connected to any questions.


Bad IELTS Academic Writing tips

Bad IELTS Academic Writing Part One tips

Write a final summary paragraph in IELTS Writing Part One

If you have been selecting, summarising and rephrasing in the body of the IELTS Writing Part One essay, it is virtually impossible to make a good summary of that summary in a final paragraph. In addition, it will almost certainly be just one sentence, which will mean it is not a good paragraph.

If you want to make sure that the examiner notices that you have followed the instructions and (selected and) summarised rather than explaining everything, then it’s best to include a summary sentence in the middle of the introduction (between rephrasing the question and explaining the topic of each body paragraph), where whatever you write will be new to the reader.

Some people argue that you need a final paragraph in IELTS Writing Part One to show that you can write a proper essay. However, this kind of text would never be a whole essay in real life and would instead be followed in an academic paper by further analysis such as reasons, something that you shouldn’t include in IELTS Writing Part One (see below). You also have a chance to show that you can produce a good summary/ conclusion in Writing Part Two.


If you still need some words to reach the IELTS Writing Part One word limit, interpret the data in a final sentence or two

In Writing Part One you are only told to select, summarise and compare, and so should not guess why the data is that way, speculate on connections between different parts of the data, etc. The temptation to do this at the end of the essay is another good reason not to have a final paragraph. It is incredibly important that you reach the word limit, but to do this you should instead write another sentence for the body and then draw an arrow showing where it should go in the text.


Try to use a wide variety of tenses in IELTS Writing Part One

You should select, summarise and compare the most important points, not choose data just so that you can use Past Perfect, Future Continuous, etc. There is also a danger that trying so hard to use these tenses will make you use them in the wrong way. However, if it is suitable to compare progress by a particular point, go back in time to look at earlier data, look at a particular point in future time, etc, then please do use the correct tense, however complex it is.


Bad IELTS Academic Writing Part Two tips

Do IELTS Writing Part Two first

You should spend as much time as you can on Writing Part Two, which is twice as important as Writing Part One. However, this is an argument for finishing Part One as quickly as possible (preferably within about 18 minutes, and certainly no longer than 22 minutes). If you do the opposite, there is a danger of using the whole hour on Writing Part Two and so not finishing Writing Part One.


Always look at both sides in IELTS Writing Part Two

If the task is a “To what extent do you agree (or disagree)?” question and you have a strong opinion, it seems pointless to look at both sides. In this situation it is also difficult to think of opposing arguments and to justify your strong opinion in the conclusion. If you have a strong opinion, you should therefore give your opinion in the introduction and then give two or (usually) three reasons for that opinion in the two or three body paragraphs, either ignoring the other side of the argument or only briefly mentioning it. However, if the question tells you to look at both sides you obviously have to do so. You should also look at both sides if it is a “To what extent…?” question and you only have a weak opinion on the topic.


Always give your opinion in the IELTS Writing Part Two introduction

It makes no sense to give your opinion in the introduction and then look at the opposite side of the argument. The reader will already know that you don’t agree with any of that part of your essay and so will feel that it is pointless to read that paragraph. You should therefore only write your opinion in the introduction if you will only write about one side of the argument (because it is a “To what extent…?” question and you have a strong opinion, as explained above). This means that most IELTS Writing Part Two essays won’t have an opinion in the introduction. To make sure that the introduction isn’t just one sentence, you should rephrase the question and then explain your plan, perhaps after giving background to the topic in the very first sentence.


Always brainstorm before writing an IELTS Writing Part Two essay

The only time that it is worth brainstorming is when it is a “To what extent…?” question and you aren’t sure if it is easier to write about one side or to write about both sides. In that case, you should brainstorm four or five arguments, see if the two sides are evenly balanced or not, and then start writing. If you have to write about both sides or know straightaway that it is easier to do so, you should just start writing straightaway without any brainstorming. This may mean that the arguments that you use are not the most logical that you could come up given more time. However, you will not be judged on the strength of your arguments, only the language that you use (unlike in your future academic life!)


Start the final paragraph of an IELTS essay with “In conclusion”

If you have put your opinion in the introduction (because you will only look at one side), then the final paragraph is actually a summary not a conclusion, and so should start with something like “As I have explained above,…” In addition, not even conclusions should start with “In conclusion”, because this will mean that you jump from looking at both sides to coming down on one side without explaining your thought process and what happened to the other side of the argument. Instead, conclusions should start with phrases like “Although arguments on both sides are convincing in some situations,…”


Make up support for your arguments such as quotations and statistics

The test tells you to support your opinions with your own knowledge and experiences. This makes it completely unlike real academic writing, where you should use sources (which obviously you can’t access in IELTS) and avoid personal sentences. In the unlikely event that you happen to know some exact statistics on the topic of that Writing Part Two question, you will need to explain why you have that knowledge with phrases like “I read an article on this last week that said something like…” which reflect how well or not you remember the info.


Bad IELTS Academic Writing Parts One and Two tips

Avoid personal words like “I” in IELTS essays

Unlike most real published academic papers and university essays, you need to use “I”, “my”, etc in IELTS to support your opinions with your own knowledge or experience in the way that the instructions tell you to. Other options like “We” and “The author” are either inaccurate or pretentious. I therefore think that there isn’t much point trying to avoid “I” in other sentences by using language like “This essay will look at the pros and then the cons of this policy in the paragraphs below”.


Use long sentences in IELTS Writing

Combining short sentences with linking phrases like “In addition”, “This is because” and “For this reason” will make sentences that are both higher level and easier to understand than sentences that stretch on for line after line. They also make it easier to make sure that paragraphs have more than one sentence.


Try really hard not to repeat words from the IELTS Writing question

Rephrasing words from the questions (changing “graph” to “line graph”, “people” to “the population” etc) is a good way of showing that you really understand the question and that you know a wide range of language. However, rephrasing in this way is a fairly mechanical process which doesn’t actually answer the question or achieve the task, so you are not going to get a lot of marks for it. You should therefore rephrase as quickly as possible, and just use the same word (or a different form of it if possible) if you can’t instantly think of a way of rephrasing it. You can then try to rephrase more when you edit the essay, while you look for grammar mistakes, places you can add more complex language, etc.


Copy IELTS model answers

Looking at model answers can be useful, as long as you bear in mind that even official model answers are not supposed to be perfect. Also always remember that every task is different and so the task in your IELTS exam will need a different essay to the model that you are looking at, sometimes a very different one. 

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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