IELTS: Expectations versus Reality

I know, this is how it starts. There is this beautiful mix of excitement and dreams that lead you—yes, you—to first register to take IELTS. Next step? Well, you sit the test, and then it hits you like a ton of bricks... or in this case... a virtual ton of bricks—this test is COMPLETELY different from what you expected. Queue the dramatic soundtrack to your favorite drama-filled movie. What just happened?

How could it be completely different from the way that you planned or prepared?

Why is it that this test is NOT what you expected? Honestly, there are three reasons for this and I’m about to share them with you. Are you ready? Do you have your pencil and a paper at the ready, my friend? Get one—or both!— I’ll still be here waiting for you.

🖊️ & 🗒️ handy? Good! Let’s get to it.

While the reading and listening parts are more or less straightforward as either you get the question right or you don’t, the other two sections (writing and speaking) are not. However, this leaves a lot of room for either a positive or negative outcome in your band score depending on how you well the following three, key ingredients.

In this post, we will be highlighting the speaking test, but just know, my young grasshopper, that these three strategies absolutely apply to the writing module of the exam, too. And, the best part is that it’s not some kind of magical potion that you need to drink in order to understand them. Cool, huh? I thought so!

The very beginning of Part 1 of the speaking module can go one of two ways: talking about your home or what you do.

It’s time, my friend. For what??? It’s time to get serious and think about thinking. Haha-no, not really. Instead, we shall put on our thinking caps for today’s exercise. Oh, you don’t have one? No, worries—here’s mine— I’ll let you borrow it. 😉

Let’s assume that you are being asked to describe your home. Which sounds great, because, hey, you live in one of those. You’re off to a great start, right? Well, no because if you don’t remember to include these three, fundamental elements, you WILL regret it. It sounds a little bit like a horror movie, right? I promise, I’m not trying to give you nightmares before you go to bed. 🙀

Ok, let’s start back with our original question of: Tell me about your home.

What are the three pieces you need to remember in order to start your interview on the right foot?

3 Powerful Ways to Respond

1. Complete Answers

Please, pretty please, give a complete answer. Lucky for you, there are two paths that you can take.

The first is to rephrase the question. Use the examiner’s exact words in order to rephrase it. Seriously, doing that is half the battle. There is ZERO need for you to complicate your life. Just keep it simple, please.

The second option is to paraphrase the question as part of your answer. Frame the most important part of the question that was just asked in your response. And there you have it, my friend. Again, I don’t want you to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I want you to be strategic and smart by using what you’ve already heard in order to respond.

Remember when your teacher would tell you to: Turn the question around. Well, guess what? It turns out that it actually matters, and doing so will pay dividends beyond just answering the question completely.

What does this look like? Imagine that you’re asked that same question from above. How do you respond? Perhaps, something like this:

“I’d love to share details about my home with you. Let me start off by saying that my home is a one-bedroom condo in the beautiful town of New Canaan, Connecticut. There are plenty of parks close to my home. One thing that I enjoy most is that there is a train station less than a 10-minute walk from my home where I can be in NYC within 90 minutes.“

Let me be crystal clear—I don’t want you to make the above your answer, but it is merely a sample of what a complete answer would be.

After all, that’s what we want, FULL responses, not ones that leave the examiner questioning.... “Can this person tell me more about his/her home? If not, maybe s/he doesn’t have enough of a command of the English language in order to tell me more.” Whether or not that previous sentiment is true is irrelevant.

By answering the question fully, in the first place, we eliminate any doubt that the examiner may have with respect our English language abilities. And that, my friend, is precisely what you are after.

All in all, just answer the question completely the first time you’re asked, and leave no stone unturned, deal? Yes, I knew we’d come to an agreement.

2. Verb Tense Matters

Giving a complete answer is critical to your success on this exam. Why? In sum, it allows the examiner to determine to what degree you are able to converse in English. Sure, you may know a lot of very industry-specific vocabulary but can they really be applied to this exam in a fluent and cohesive matter? The odds are that it can’t—unfortunately.

Not ever scenario will lend itself to dropping STEM-laced vocabulary, and frankly speaking, that’s the point. This exam exists to provide the speaker (that’s you) with a broad range of topics to discuss, so that the examiner can determine how flexible your linguistic abilities are.

BUT... all hope is not lost.There is one piece to the IELTS puzzle that you can manipulate. And that has to do with the verbs.

Verb tense matters, plain and simple. I cannot stress just how significant this little nugget is. If your verbs are all over the place, STOP, and read the next paragraph for more clarity.

Pick one verb tense and stick with it. If you need a refresher, please absolutely do yourself the favor and spend a bit of time reviewing the different verb tenses that are most commonly used in conversation. Why?

It’s 100% probable that you’ll have to discuss topics in the past (simple past), present (simple present), and future (simple future) during the 15-minute (or less) interview with the examiner. However, those aren’t the only tenses that you need to be aware of—if only, right?!

You might have to break out the gorgeous but at times confusing (or intimidating) present perfect (have seen, etc.) in order to share your opinion of something that you’ve done multiple times: cooking your favorite meal.

How does this apply to our original question of your home?

In case you need a refresher, here it is: Tell me about your home.

It sounds like a simple enough of a question but it is critical that if you are asked a question in the present tense, you talk about the home that you currently live in. Conversely, if you’re asked about the first home you grew up in, you will use the past tense to describe your childhood home.

Keep this in mind when you’re asked to respond to EVERY answer as you may overlook this question as too simplistic. I can absolutely share with you that it is not easy in any way. When you let your mind think that it is, trouble is around the corner. Here’s what happens— you end up misusing the wrong verb tense, and thus your score declines.

Instead of responding about what your home is like now—you respond with a vivid description of your childhood home. While it may be super cool that you can appropriately use the past tense to depict the home you grew up in, it is NOT what the examiner was looking for.

When you don’t catch what the examiner says on the first try, ask for clarification. Yes, you can definitely ask and NOT have your score be affected at all. Nice, right? You’re welcome!

Let’s recap the above, shall we? Listen carefully to what the examiner is asking you (obviously) and, more importantly, respond using the most appropriate verb tense. My suggestion for you is to stick to the verb tense that the examiner used. You do this for two reasons: one is because it’s easier to remember and the second is because it gives you a clue as to which verb tense you should you.

If you’re being asked about something that you did for your birthday last year, it’s not going to be in the simple future tense. Therefore, you’ll be able to jump right in and use your simple past verbs so flawlessly, that it will be music the examiner’s ears. 🎶

And last but not least... drumroll, please. 🥁

3. Leave Memorized Answers at Home

This is my favorite one, and by favorite, I mean that it is often the one that is used INCORRECTLY by prospective candidates.

I genuinely wish that—Leave Memorized Answers at Home— were the tagline to IELTS and ALL tests. So many people think that if they have a prepared answer, they are swiftly led to this magical land. A magical place where you will absolutely get a higher score because, well, you’ve had time to think your responses through, and have perfected them in such a way that they are now a part of your mind... forever.

That might sound like it’s too good to be true??? Well.... or not.

Wow, I honestly cannot state how misguided and just plain wrong that way of thinking is. That’s the biggest mistake—in the testing world, that is— EVER. Please, repeat after me... “I will NEVER memorize any answers to my responses.” Promise that you’ll never memorize an answer? Pinky promise?! All together now.

Memorized answers must have some silver lining, right? Nope!

Here’s the case against memorization, friend.

Why shouldn’t you memorize your answers? It will hurt your score, and this I can guarantee you. If you take a look at the public IELTS rubric, you will see that “memorized” answers are actually included as part of the band descriptors for the speaking test.

I’m sure you don’t want to be in the band 2 or 3 range, so the best way to eliminate that possibility is simply by not brining memorized content to the test. Leave it where it belongs: at home. Or, if you’re me, they belong in the garbage. Better yet—just don’t memorize them in the first place. You will clear your mind of so much useless clutter. Your brain will thank you.

Here’s what you should do.

Instead of memorizing, be fresh! Say something that is true— try that one on for size! Crazy, huh? Just speaking the truth is the best way to go. It doesn’t matter at all whether or not the examiner agrees or disagrees because that’s not how the test is marked.

So, what do you get in return? A genuine response will net you an honest-to-goodness fair and accurate result. For me, that’s all you can ask for— a fair opportunity to prove yourself; well, in this case, your English language ability.

To sum up, be yourself because I can guarantee you that YOU is so much more pleasant and interesting than robotic you.

In a nutshell

At first glance, this exam might appear to be just like any other. A test is a test, right? You already know the answer to that one, and in fact there are three, proven ways to be in a position of strength: give complete answers; be mindful of verb tenses and their usage; never memorize answers.

With these three elements in your back pocket, you are ready to rock your test. After all, that’s what we want, correct? Cheers to you and your success! 🌟

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Until next time, happy IELTSing!

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