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What does the IELTS exam involve?

A student is studying at their desk in front of a laptop and is holding an open notebook and a pencil

An IELTS (International English Language Testing System) qualification can act as your passport to working in, studying in or even moving permanently to an English-speaking country.

Different governments around the world require you to achieve different scores, and within these the required score will vary depending on your purpose for visiting. To make sure you score as high a score as possible and that your options are kept wide open, you need to be fully prepared for your IELTS exam.

As you may know, there are two versions of the IELTS exam, namely IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Should you wish to use your IELTS to study in an English-speaking country, you should opt for the Academic exam. If you are moving to an English-speaking country to work or live, however, the General Training route is appropriate for you.

Both of these share the same Speaking section and the same Listening section. Where they differ is in their Reading and Writing sections.

You will take the Listening, Reading and Writing sections of your test all on the same day, but your Speaking section can be taken up to a week before these or up to a week afterwards.

Here is what your exam will look like and how you can successfully tackle each section.


To test your English speaking ability, you will sit with an assessor who will ask you questions. This section will last between 11 and 14 minutes. The Speaking section is broken up into three parts;

  • Part 1. You will answer questions about yourself and about topics you have covered in your classes. You may be asked about your family, homelife, occupation, education and hobbies.

  • Part 2. You will get given a card with a topic written on it and will speak on this topic for up to two minutes. You will have one minute to prepare what you are going to say. Your assessor will then ask you a couple of questions on the topic and your speech.

  • Part 3. You will be asked further questions about this same topic, and you can use this opportunity to present any other ideas you have and show off your speaking skills. This third stage will last between four and five minutes.


For this 30-minute section, you will listen to four recordings of native English speakers. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you can understand the themes of the recordings, and that you have picked up on factual information and speakers’ opinions. These recordings consist of:

  • Two people conversing within an everyday social context.

  • A speaker doing a monologue set within an everyday social context.

  • Four people conversing within a training or educational context.

  • A speaker doing a monologue on an academic subject.

Across the four recordings, you will be asked 40 questions, which vary between multiple choice, labelling, sentence completion and writing your own short answers.

Reading (General Training exam)

The General Training Reading section consists of 40 questions based on texts presented to you. It is designed to test you on various English language reading skills, including reading for gist, identifying overall ideas, skimming, understanding logical argument and picking out the writer’s opinion.

You have 60 minutes to complete these questions. The extracts of texts you are working on will come from sources such as advertisements, magazines, newspapers, books and company guidelines.

Questions are mixed in format. You may be asked to choose your answer from multiple choices, to type your own answers, to complete sentences or to correctly match up information.

Reading (Academic exam)

Similarly, the Reading section of the IELTS Academic paper lasts for 60 minutes and contains 40 questions.

Again, you will be assessed on your ability to read for gist, identify overall ideas, skim read, understand logical argument and pick out the writer’s opinion.

You will be given three long texts to answer questions on. The style of your texts could be descriptive, factual, analytical or discursive, so it is best to familiarise yourself with a range of writing styles and texts for different purposes in preparation for your exam.

The three texts’ topics will be general interest, and be taken from books, journals, newspapers and magazines with a non-specialist target audience.

Questions on the texts will test how well you can identify information and identify writers’ viewpoints, and may take the form of sentence completion, typing your own answers, labelling diagrams and matching up information.

Writing (General Training exam)

The General Training Writing section gives you 60 minutes to write a letter and write an essay, assessing your ability to write in different styles and for different purposes. A challenge of this section is to balance your time well, with the letter taking around 20 minutes to complete and the essay around 40 minutes.

  • Task 1. For the letter, you will be presented with a situation and given a specific reason to write. You may be asked to write a letter of at least 150 words to enquire more information about the situation or to express your personal response to it, for example. You will be given a recipient of your letter, and you must consider this person when choosing on its formality and what you choose to include.

  • Task 2. For the Writing section’s second task, you will write a discursive essay of over 250 words in a semi-formal and neutral way.

The subject matter of your essay will be given to you in the question, but will typically be on a general interest topic such as issues about families, health or the environment.

Writing (Academic exam)

Like in the General Training exam, your Writing section will be split into two parts across 60 minutes. However, the format of the questions are quite different. In Task 1, you must assess a data set presented to you and for Task 2 you will write an essay in response to a given viewpoint.

  • Task 1. In this task, you are required to put into practice analytic skills as well as English language ones. Looking at the graph, chart, diagram or table you are given, you must take 20 minutes to describe in an academic way what it conveys. It is important to include the most relevant information and that you write your findings in a well-organised way.

  • Task 2. In Task 2, you will be given a topic to write about in an academic style, making a discursive consideration of the relevant issues. You will gain points for using evidence and examples to support your ideas and for being well-organised in your writing.

Gain proof of your English language skills with Think English’s specialised IELTS Preparation course. Enjoy personalised online tuition, complete support and the freedom of flexible learning.

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