Let's Excel at the IELTS (student version)

(Note: This is the student version of the teacher's guide that Magoosh provides to its IELTS tutors. There is a lot of information in here that students can really benefit from as well.)

Table of Contents 

(Note: Click any line in the Table of Contents to jump down to that part of the article.)


IELTS Basics


The IELTS is a standardized English proficiency test that is given in test centers around the world. It is jointly sponsored by two organizations: Cambridge English (an educational company owned by Cambridge University) and the British Council (a UK governmental program that promotes English language education). This exam has four sections: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking.

The IELTS comes in two versions: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training (“GT”). The vast majority of IELTS Academic and GT test-takers will take the paper-based test. However, the computer-based IELTS is slowly becoming more widely available. While this article will focus on the more common paper-based IELTS, you can read updates about the new computer-based IELTS in our blog article "Is it Possible to Take the IELTS on Computer?"


IELTS scores for a number of different purposes. Most commonly, however, IELTS scores are used for university admissions and immigration. The IELTS Academic version of the exam is the one used for university admissions. IELTS General Training scores are used on immigration applications to the Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and a number of other countries where English is spoken.

IELTS Academic is also used for skilled migration for medical professionals. Pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals can submit IELTS Academic scores to get working visas in much of the English speaking world. In addition, non-native English speakers who already live in an English-speaking country can often gain local licensure with qualifying IELTS Academic scores.



In a nutshell, IELTS General Training and IELTS Academic have the exact same Listening and Speaking sections. For Reading, Academic consists entirely of long educational passages, while GT has several shorter work and daily-life related passages and just one long academic passage. Then for Writing, both Academic and GT have the same Task 2: a personal opinion essay. However, GT has a letter-writing assignment for Task 1, while IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 asks students to write a description of a chart, table, or other infographic.

Both IELTS General Training and IELTS Academic are covered in Magoosh IELTS’ video lessons and practice questions. For students who need to know specifically about General training, or students that want to compare the two versions, here are some useful Magoosh IELTS Blog posts:

In addition to that resource, there are two official IELTS web pages that show IELTS General Training materials and IELTS Academic materials side-by-side:

IELTS Academic and IELTS GT Reading and Listening also have slightly different scoring systems. I’ll go into this in more detail in the “All About IELTS Scoring” section of this article. You can also see details on the difference between Academic and GT Reading and Listening scores in the Magoosh IELTS blog article “What is a Good IELTS Score?” This information is found in the subsection “Bands for IELTS: How are They Calculated?


Magoosh offers a number of resources to help students understand the differences between IELTS and TOEFL. These include an excellent article by Kuangyan on the Magoosh IELTS Blog entitled “IELTS vs. TOEFL vs. PTE.” The Magoosh TOEFL Blog also has Kate’s article “TOEFL vs. IELTS,” and also has an entire TOEFL vs. IELTS archive with numerous additional articles. 


Overview of IELTS Structure


Below is a brief description of the tasks, questions, and time limits for each IELTS section. We’ll look at the finer details of each IELTS Section later in this article, in our sections entitled “All About IELTS Listening,” “All About IELTS Reading,” “All About IELTS Writing,” and “All About IELTS Speaking.”


  • IELTS Listening (Academic and General Training)
    • 4 audio tracks, also called Listening passages
    • 10 questions per passage
    • 40 questions total
    • 30 minutes to complete the passages and note answers
    • 10 minutes to transfer questions to the answer sheet



  • IELTS Academic Reading
    • 3 subsections
    • 3 passages
    • 12-14 questions per passage
    • 40 questions total
    • 60 minute time limit


  • IELTS General Training Reading
    • 3 subsections
    • 5 passages
    • 12-14 questions per subsection
    • 40 questions total
    • 60 minute time limit


  • IELTS Writing (Academic and General Training)
    • Two writing tasks
    • Academic and GT have different Task 1s
    • Task 2 is the same for both versions of the test.
    • 60 minute time limit
    • Self paced, but test booklet recommends spending 20 minutes on Task 1 and 40 minutes on Task 2


  • IELTS Speaking (Academic and General Training)
    • Formatted as an interview
    • 3 parts
    • Parts 1 and 3 have no fixed number of interview questions, but each last 4-6 minutes
    • Part 2 is a short speech given by the test-taker, with a 1 minute limit on prep time, and a 1-2 minutes of speaking time
    • No strict time limit, but timing is guided by the IELTS examiner who conducts the interview
    • Speaking section lasts 11-14 minutes
    • This section is administered separately from the rest of the exam, and can be scheduled either on the same day as the other three IELTS sections, or on a different day.



Magoosh offers one of the best summaries of IELTS Structure on the Web: Eliot Freisen’s 10-minute video lesson on the structure of the IELTS. This lesson is available to the public, including students who don’t currently have a Magoosh IELTS subscription. For the convenience of Magoosh students and student helpers who don’t want to watch the video, I’ve also provided a written description of the IELTS format below:


  • Breaks
    • There are no breaks between the Listening, Reading, and Writing sections
    • The IELTS Speaking section is booked separately from the rest of the test. It’s often possible to take a short or long break between the first three sections and the Speaking section, and IELTS Speaking can also be booked on a completely different day than the rest of the exam.



  • Total Duration
    • Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes of total test time for all four sections
    • This does not include a possible break between IELTS Speaking and the rest of the exam



  • Types of Answers in Listening and Reading

    • A variety of multiple choice formats
      • Matching
      • Fill-in-the-blank
      • One correct answer
      • Multiple correct answers
      • ...and a few other formats, too!


    • Written short answers
      • Can sometimes be more than one word. (Instructions will say the maximum number of words allowed.
      • Words come directly from the passage.
      • Sometimes there are a few different possible answers.
      • If a short answer is misspelled, it’s automatically wrong. (For more info, see “Special Notes about IELTS Scores and Short Answers” in the scoring section of this article.)

Paper-based features

  • Answer sheets where answers are marked or written in pen or pencil. Magoosh (and many other prep companies) recommend pencil, since that makes it easier to correct mistakes. (To see what these answer sheets look like, check out these official sample answer sheets for IELTS Listening, IELTS Reading, IELTS Writing Task 1, and IELTS Writing Task 2.)
  • A physical “topic card” is given to the test-taker during IELTS Speaking part 2. This card contains the speech topic and speech instructions for that part of the Speaking section.


All About IELTS Scoring

IELTS Listening and IELTS Reading are first scored based on a “raw score”-- the number of correct answers. IELTS Speaking and Listening are scored based on rubrics. In either case, the final section scores and final exam score are “bands”-- ratings made on a scale of 1 to 9 in half point increments. The IELTS Band system makes IELTS scoring a bit different from other standardized tests. The British Council gives an overview/description of the 9 IELTS bands as well as some basics on how the IELTS bands are calculated.

Beyond the info the British Council provides, there are a lot of other questions students may have about their IELTS scores. Magoosh offers quite a few excellent IELTS scoring resources, which should answer most student questions about IELTS scoring. Here are our top three resources, which include links to official IELTS band descriptors, as well as official IELTS score conversion tables:

  • What is a Good IELTS Score?This is our most comprehensive IELTS Scoring resource, with an in-depth look at how scores are calculated and used, and which scores are “good” by the standards of immigration offices, employers, and universities in major English-speaking countries.

  • How to Predict Your IELTS Score
    This blog post is more of a “quick hit” for students who want to start estimating their IELTS score, based on their current performance.

  • IELTS: Do you Lose Points for Bad Handwriting?
    A frequently-asked question among Magoosh IELTS Students.This blog posts focuses on handwriting in the IELTS Writing section, but the rules described in the post apply to the short answers in IELTS Reading and IELTS Listening as well. 

    For students who want further guidance on IELTS handwriting, a Google Image search for “handwriting guide” is a good place to start. For students who want additional help with good English handwriting, there is a good PDF guidebook online: “Better Handwriting for Adults,” from Ireland’s National Adult Literacy Agency.

Students who are curious about IELTS scores for high-ranked schools should also check out the IELTS’s official list of the top 200 U.S. schools and their IELTS score requirements.


Some Special Notes on IELTS Scores and Short Answers

The short answers in IELTS Listening and IELTS Reading leave room for many variations. For example, if the answer to a question is “son in law,” this could be written either without hyphens, or with hyphens as “son-in-law.” Or an answer could be written as “workplace” or “their workplace,” or “place of employment” if the answer is the shared workplace of the speakers, and allows for up to 3 words.

Every short answer section if Listening or Reading will set a maximum number of words in the instructions, usually 2 words or 3. An answer is marked wrong if it exceeds the maximum word count. Because of this, it’s important to know that the IELTS counts a hyphenated phrase as one word. So from the example above, “son-in-law” would be one word, while “son in law” would be three.

It’s also important to remember that the IELTS does not test contracted words (I’m, can’t, etc…) in its short answers. Because of this, it’s probably best to avoid using contractions in short answers. Short answer questions are never designed to require contractions, and using contractions can needlessly put students at risk of making contraction-related mistakes.

IELTS Rescores
It is possible to get an IELTS exam rescored. How rescores can be done-- and whether or not they’ll help-- is something Magoosh IELTS students often ask about. Below is a list of Magoosh IELTS Blog articles that should cover every student question about rescores:

IELTS Writing Scores and Feedback Through Magoosh

Magoosh offers IELTS essay feedback to our premium subscribers. Those with a six-month Magoosh IELTS subscription can get up to four of their essays scored. The one-month plan includes one scored essay.

  • How to Use Magoosh's Essay feedback in your TOEFL Study Schedule

    We encourage students to use one of our IELTS Study schedules. While we don't strictly require the use of essay grading in our study schedules, it can definitely be useful.

    If you have just one essay credit, it's good to use that credit in the first week of your study plan. That way you can check your Writing "baseline" and get some feedback on how you should improve over the course of your study schedule.

    If you have four essay credits, it's still get one essay scored at the beginning. However, from there, you should space your remaining essays evenly throughout the rest of your schedule. That way, you can periodically re-check your progress. And the feedback you receive can help you decide which Writing skills to focus on in a given week. 


All About IELTS Registration

Registering for the IELTS is an often-overlooked aspect of IELTS prep, but it’s also a very important one. If you’re not registered for the test, you can’t actually take it.



There are a number of different websites that offer IELTS registration. There are many local/regional websites where students can register for the IELTS. For example, you can register for the IELTS on the British Council IELTS India website or the IELTS IDP India website. These multiple websites exist because many different organizations around the world host IELTS exams, and each organization has its own registration and booking service. Different IELTS administrators such as British Council and IDP offer the test at different locations and charge a different amount for their test fees. So students registering for the IELTS should definitely “comparison shop.” Students wanting to explore their IELTS options should be sent to the central IELTS website, which lists all of the different IELTS providers and prices in a single search engine. So it’s best for students to use the “Find a Test Location” page when they register for the exam.

Important note: Although many different organizations help administer the IELTS, the exam itself will have the exact same content, format and level of difficulty at all test centers. The IELTS remains the same regardless of who is hosting or administering the test.



Magoosh has a really good go-to resource for registration and picking the right test day: our IELTS Test Dates and Registration blog post.

Magoosh focuses on timing questions-- questions from students about how to pick the best test dates. We can answer some student questions about registration, either through the help service we offer to Magoosh IELTS Premium and Magoosh IELTS General Training Premium, or through the comments section of our blog posts that deal with IELTS registration. However, if students have specific questions about IELTS registration, the best answers come from individual test centers, or from IELTS customer service. (One important thing students should note is that they have the option to register for IELTS Speaking along with the rest of the exam, or they can book their Speaking interview separately. Policies regarding this vary from test center to test center.)


Cancelling the IELTS

It is possible for a student to cancel their IELTS exam. Whether they get a full refund, a partial refund, or no refund upon cancellation depends on a number of things. Full details on cancelling IELTS exams can be found in Magoosh’s IELTS exam cancellation blog post.


Rescheduling the IELTS

Students are required to cancel an IELTS exam before rescheduling for another day. But beyond that, there are no limitations or special requirements for rescheduling. Once the previous test date is cancelled, students can just go to the IELTS booking website and schedule a new exam. In fact, because cancellation and re-booking are completely separate processes, a student could also book their new test date first, and then cancel their old one.


Retaking the IELTS

There is no limit to the number of times that a student can retake the IELTS. There is also no waiting period for retaking the exam. In theory, a student could retake the IELTS just a day or two after they first took it. In reality of course, a test booking may not be available immediately after a student sits the IELTS, and students should probably take some extra time to study for a retake. The Magoosh IELTS Blog offers several retake-related posts that students find helpful:



What to Expect on Test Day

It’s definitely important to know IELTS test center rules, and other practical aspects of test day. There’s a lot for students to consider, which is why the Magoosh IELTS Blog offers a test day timetable and list of tips for test day.

In addition to that Magoosh resource, the makers of the IELTS offer not one, not two, but three official guides for what to expect on test day:

    1. IELTS Essentials: What to Expect on Test Day
    2. Quick Tips for IELTS Test Day
    3. IDP IELTS: What to Expect on Test Day


Receiving and Sending Scores


The basics of sending and receiving IELTS scores are covered pretty well in Kuangyan’s Magoosh IELTS Blog post “The IELTS Score Sending Process.”

The normal process does get disrupted, however, if the test-taker’s IELTS scores are being withheld. The IELTS withholds score results for a variety of reasons. While this is relatively uncommon, when scores are withheld, this can cause students to become very anxious (needless to say!). Students whose IELTS scores have been withheld should be directed to the Magoosh IELTS Blog post “Why Were My IELTS Results Withheld?



As mentioned in Kuangyan’s article above, test-takers can send up to five score reports free of charge. Once a student has sent their free IELTS scores, they may want to send additional scores. To do this, IELTS test-takers should contact the test center where they took the exam. The student’s test center will guide the student through the process of ordering additional reports. Generally, students will be able to do this either with a paper form, an online form, or a choice of the two. Fees for sending extra TRFs vary depending on the test center and test location.


The Four IELTS Sections: An In-Depth Look

In addition to Magoosh IELTS’s very detailed lessons about IELTS Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking, the Magoosh IELTS Blog also offers comprehensive guidance for each IELTS section. Check out the link roundup below.





Meet the Publishers of the Official IELTS Prep

Students with IELTS Premium or IELTS General Training Premium subscriptions can get email advice and support for Magoosh IELTS questions, and for any official IELTS questions.

The official IELTS questions are pretty unique compared to official questions for other Magoosh-supported tests. This is because official IELTS questions are published by more than one company.

IELTS questions in book form are published exclusively by Cambridge. But within that single print publisher, there are many available books; see this complete list of currently in-print Cambridge IELTS prep books.

Internet-based official IELTS prep material comes from a more diverse range of sources. There are literally dozens of official IELTS websites, administered by a variety of authorized international, regional, national, and local organizations. Currently, though, IELTS practice questions are only hosted on three of the four international IELTS websites. Read this Magoosh IELTS Blog article for details.


Meet IELTS Liz, the One Magoosh-Recommended Unofficial IELTS Prep Resource

Although Magoosh can’t provide e-mail support for IELTS Liz, since it’s an unofficial IELTS prep provider, Magoosh IELTS strongly recommends IELTS Liz. Elizabeth Ferguson, the real woman behind IELTS Liz, is a former IELTS examiner who’s created a wealth of advice and practice questions. Students looking for extra IELTS prep beyond Magoosh IELTS, Cambridge books, and the Internet resources are strongly advised to check out the free IELTS Liz website.


Magoosh IELTS vs. the Real IELTS

Magoosh IELTS students often wonder how Magoosh IELTS practice compares to the real IELTS exam they’ll see on test day.

In terms of content, question types, difficulty, and so on, Magoosh IELTS is very much like the real test. All practice materials has been researched carefully to ensure that our passages, tasks and questions are truly “IELTS-like.”

However, when it comes to the look and feel of the test, Magoosh IELTS is significantly different than the real exam. This is inevitable, since Magoosh IELTS practice is computer-based, while the real exam is generally paper-based.

The first difference we should look at here is the timer. While Magoosh IELTS has the same time limits as the real exam, our practice platform features an onscreen timer. For the exam itself, students can look at a wall clock in the testing room, if there is one. If not, an IELTS exam proctor will periodically walk through the room and announce the time remaining.

In addition, in a real IELTS test book, students will see most or all of the questions for a passage at once in the booklet’s physical two page spread. To partly replicate this, Magoosh IELTS’ Listening and Speaking sections show the students all of the questions at once when they first pull up the Reading or Listening passage. From there, however, the students review each question on the screen one at a time, selecting their answer by clicking it.

Speaking of answer selection, obviously that’s different in a real IELTS booklet vs. Magoosh’s onscreen practice. On test day, students will physically mark answers on a printed answer sheet, which is separate from the booklet that contains the questions. And students will write their essays by hand on the paper-based IELTS, even though Magoosh IELTS gives students the option to type their essays on screen. Finally, Magoosh IELTS Speaking is different than the real test; on test day, students will be interviewed face-to-face by an actual human being.

Ultimately, there are many big and small differences an onscreen IELTS experience and the common paper-based one. For direct comparisons, Magoosh IELTS students and tutors should compare Magoosh’s platform to the free official IELTS practice tests from the British Council website. The BC’s IELTS practice tests are printable PDF booklets, designed to give students an accurate sense of what a real test booklet looks like.

Have more questions? Submit a request