A better overall score improves a candidate’s chances for immigration. That much is simple – yet, the misunderstood word here is overall. If you are confident in one or more of the abilities tested, you may be inclined to dwell more on that skill. By neglecting your weaknesses and overperforming in one category, the candidate may get a good average score. However, the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) rewards each ability separately. This is why some candidates find themselves repeating exams and doubling preparation time, without improving their overall CRS score.
The strategy then, should be to focus on your weaknesses first, and to lift your performance across the board. The best way for candidates to gauge their current level of skill is to do the timed practice test available on the IELTS website. One’s own perception of one’s skills may not be aligned with the examiner’s expectations. The following are some tips that would help you on your journey.
The Listening Test
When in doubt, jot
There are four sections of questions based on four recordings. Each will play without pause. At the end of all four, you have 10 minutes to transfer your answers to the answer sheet. As you will be instructed by the recording, the first thing to do is to read the questions carefully and anticipate the kind of information contained in the recordings. If you catch a word or phrase you think is an answer, pencil it onto your question paper. You could always correct it later as the conversation progresses. At the end of each sub-section, there is a minute’s period for candidates to double-check their answers.
Did they really say that? Or didn’t they?
Some recordings have two people transacting business over a telephone call. Beware that these speakers may correct or contradict themselves mid-sentence. Often, they restate and clarify the numbers and figures they are dealing with. It is important to listen and revise your answers continually.
As you are waiting for the conversation to enter a topic in question, it may detour to a deceptively similar topic. Perhaps the speakers may compare two things in a tangled manner. It is up to the candidate to track the different threads of conversation and revise answers along the way. Do not jot down the first thing that resembles an answer and tune out the rest of the banter.
Breakdown the jargon
Some recordings have experts in niche fields using a highly specialized, technical vocabulary. The examination makes sure there is enough explanation and context for the candidate to understand these words and phrases. The questions make the candidate breakdown the jargon into simpler concepts. Often, the questions do not contain the jargon as it is spoken in the recording. Therefore, it is important to listen to the explanations given and to understand ideas fully. If you are simply scanning the recording for trigger words, you might miss the point of the question altogether.
The Reading Test
Practice reading feature articles
The reading test gives the candidate long form texts to analyze and employs a wider vocabulary. Even if you are a native English speaker, it is good to build up your mental stamina by reading newspapers and blogs. Keep in mind that you should practice reading the right kind of prose, too. The kind of descriptive, argumentative writing found in these questions is used in feature articles and columns.
Don’t guess – always refer to the text
Some comprehension questions may seem to require nothing more than common-sense. As tempting as it may be to guess an answer, always re-read the relevant portion of the text and select the accurate answer. This is especially relevant for multiple choice questions where your options may seem confusingly similar.
The Writing Test
Formal or informal?
The first part tasks the candidate with writing a letter. Based on the situation given, the candidate must decide whether the letter should be formal or informal. When addressing an official of an organization, such as in a cover letter for a job posting or a business request, you must use a formal structure. If you are writing to family or friends asking about their lives, it would be an informal letter.
A formal letter should be addressed to “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. X”. However, do not hail the recipient by first name as that is more informal. Immediately afterwards, there should be a heading that succinctly describes the purpose of the letter. For instance, in a cover letter for a job application, it would be, “Applying for X position.” When signing off, use the following formula:
An informal letter may address the recipient by the first name. Keep in mind that grammar must be observed even in an informal letter. Sentences must have a subject-verb-object relationship and be in the right tense. Think of it this way – each sentence has someone doing something. If one of those components are missing, you are likely to be making a grammatical error. When signing off, you could use the following more relaxed formula:
“Best regards/yours truly,
An introduction, a summary and a paragraph for
each bullet point
Every answer must begin with an introduction and end with a summary. Each writing task gives few bullet points for the candidate to address. The surest way to address them all is to dedicate a paragraph to each bullet point. This is also a good way to avoid writing scatter-shot or a big lump of information. However, make sure you transition between paragraphs.
The second writing task tests whether you know how to contrast two concepts and consider the merits of an argument. In the opening paragraph, take a stand. If you are clear in your mind whether you agree or disagree with a given topic, it is much easier to argue your way through.
Speed – one idea per sentence
For the first writing task the candidate has 20 minutes to write a minimum of 150 words. For the second task, you have 40 minutes to write 250 words. That is a fairly tight time frame even for native speakers of English. Whatever the level of competence, candidates must practice model writing questions before the exam. A trick is to write only one idea per sentence. You could have multiple subjects and clauses in the same sentence. But limiting the number of ideas makes it easier to maintain the right tense and to be clear what is the dominant clause. Think of a sentence as a shot in a film. There could be more than one person doing one thing in one shot, but the whole event has to be shown through one point of view. It should be clear whether the camera is placed in the past, present or future.
No short, choppy writing
Writing one idea per sentence does not mean writing choppily, for which candidates will be penalized. Sentences should flow rhythmically and logically. A good rule of thumb is to read aloud what you write when you practice. (At the exam, you would have to do this silently, with your inner voice.) If all your sentences sound like morse code – just stop-start at random – you might be making grammatical mistakes along the way. Furthermore, short, overly simplistic sentences could be taken as a sign of the candidate’s poor command of grammar.
The Speaking Test
It is possible for examiners to have the diverse accents found across the Commonwealth. A fun, additional step of preparation would be to watch English language films and pay attention to dialogue between characters. The goal here is to be comfortable with the rhythms and idiom of day-to-day conversations.
Becoming better at IELTS is an organic learning process. When candidates hack the exam by memorizing phrases or repeat questions, their performance at the exam looks unnatural. It is fine to correct yourself occasionally but do not give the examiner the impression that you do not understand the questions asked.
It is completely acceptable for the candidate to speak with an accent. However, it is paramount to enunciate words clearly. When in doubt, refer to the native pronunciation of a word as a guide. A good habit would be to speak grammatically in English with friends in your day-to-day life.
Do not attempt to shoehorn memorized idioms into the conversation. It is much better to explain an idea in your own words than in borrowed quotes. When an examiner asks a question, do not give a “yes/no” answer and fall silent. Extend your answer, explain why you think what you do and give more detail. At all times, try to have a natural conversation as you would with a peer.
The next level
In order to get the highest band in all abilities, candidates must demonstrate variety. Sprinkle your writing and speech with an advanced vocabulary. Connect clauses with conjunctions such as “and, but, when, if.” Transition from idea to idea with qualifiers such as “however, meanwhile, in contrast.” If you are comfortable, use complex features like colons and semicolons in writing. However, you have to use advanced words and punctuation in the right context. Writing simply may not get a candidate a great score, but misusing language will definitely receive a bad score.
Read books – also, book reviews
The final section of the reading test has the most difficult text. It could be an academic text or a piece of creative writing. Here, language is not exercised merely to convey a message, but also to entertain. A conversational competence of English can get a candidate a middling score. However, to get an optimal score, a candidate would have to immerse in English language culture. This means reading novels, listening to native speakers and practicing writing. Reading more and more complex books is the slow, steady method of breaking into this advanced level of fluency. There is, however, an effective short cut – reading book reviews. Even if a book is elementary, commentary about that book is going to contain a crash course on literary writing. This does not mean reading academic criticism produced in universities, which is not at all the kind of writing you will encounter at an IELTS test. Instead, read the books section of newspapers, news websites or popular blogs. There, you will find mostly conversational English, but put to more analytical use.
Your IELTS score is a decisive factor for immigration – and one that is in your control. The skills you develop would pay heavy dividends beyond just the application for Permanent Residence. Being a competent communicator means you will be highly employable wherever you go, in whatever industry.
Assess your situation
Canada needs skilled immigrants and is planning to welcome more than 400,000 newcomers in 2022. Like getting a better IELTS score, there are many factors that candidates can improve upon to start their new lives with confidence. The key step is to assess your unique situation and choose the immigration pathway best suited to you.
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