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IELTS tips from 9.0 scorer Qazi Mustabeen Noor

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To most of the IELTS test takers, scoring 8.0 on a scale of 9.0 is like touching the Holy Grail. Every now and then we hear of people who get 8.5 and we tell ourselves — I wish I could do that. And then come people like Qazi Mustabeen Noor, who record 9.0 on 9.0, and we wonder if these people are for real.

Mustabeen, now an MA student at the Department of English and Cultural Studies in McMaster University, got 9 in both Listening and Speaking while scoring 8.5 in Reading and Writing taking the Academic test. In an online interview, she shared some invaluable tips for the IELTS test takers.

Speaking isn’t scary

We tend to not speak English most of the time, and hence, when we actually sit down for a Speaking test, we get flustered. This may result in stammering or nervousness, and we really don’t want our examiner to see that we’re scared to speak English.

The test has three portions. First, general questions and answers about yourself. Second, you’ll be given a topic to prepare a short speech. This part has one minute for preparation time and two minutes for speaking. Finally, for four to five minutes, you’ll answer questions about what you just spoke on.

My suggestion over here would be practice, practice and practice. Find the IELTS Speaking test videos on Youtube to develop an idea about the exam. Another good resource is the Cambridge IELTS 1-13 series of books. They are basically past papers or previous years’ questions of the IELTS.

Pick out the Speaking exam questions from there and practice with a friend. I’ll also suggest sitting for some simulated mock tests which are available with the British Council, IDP and various English language training centers all across the country.

When you’re sitting for a speaking mock, treat it as a real exam. After the exam, listen to the mock examiner for some feedback on how to improve.

Listening for facts

The Listening test was my greatest challenge. The test authorities really throw a curve ball at you by mixing in different accents for the speaking test, but nothing to worry about. They play four different recordings during the Listening test. The first is a conversation between two people at an everyday setting, the second involves just one person speaking about general topics. After these two sections, the third is actually four people talking about an academic topic and the fourth is basically a class lecture (if you’re taking the Academic IELTS).

I would say, start watching some English TV series on a regular basis. This is the time to utilise that Netflix subscription! On the internet, there are even recommendations for special “IELTS movies” that can really help improve your listening skills. The Listening tests from the past are all available on Youtube, you can time yourself and sit for Listening tests by using those recordings.

Once you more or less understand what they’re saying, it’s time to incorporate some tips and tricks. Before starting the recording for each section, they give you some time to “look at questions 1 to 5” for example. During this time, underline the key words of each questions. For example, if there is a fill-in-the-blank question like, “Maria has never eaten ____ food”, then underline the words “never” and “food”.

When a female voice in the recording (apparently the said Maria) says, “Oh I’ve never ever had Korean food!” notice how, even though you’re zoning out, you’ll hear that “never” and that “food” very distinctly. You’ll immediately realize that this sentence has important information and you’ll listen for it. You should also keep your pen on the next question as soon as you’ve filled up one, this can speed you up greatly.

What I forgot to mention earlier: they give you a separate answer sheet. You’ll get plenty of time to put your answers in that sheet later on. Solve everything in the question paper itself, and then copy them into the answer sheet during the allotted time.

Reading and skimming

Three long passages, forty questions in total. The reading section is just one long test that looks for your comprehension skills. Some people like to look at the questions before reading the accompanied passages. In this strategy, you have to again, mark the keywords of the questions so that as soon as you encounter those words or their synonyms in the passage, you can quickly see the information and write it down. Some also like to read the passages first and mark keywords inside them. At the end of the day, it’s up to you.

Writing analytically

The writing section can be quite challenging because first of all, there are two pieces to write in an hour. Some people tend to begin the test with the first writing task, end up taking too much time and then struggle to complete the second. To prevent this problem, try to start with the second piece and time yourself to finish that in 35 minutes. Even though the second task involves writing 250 words in 40 minutes, it’s best to keep 5 minutes reserved.

The first task is a graph analysis, for which you can write 150 words. Finish this section in 20 minutes at most. When you practice writing at home, make an estimate of the length of your write ups, i.e., take note of how many pages you’ve used for 150 words and 250 words respectively. In the exam hall, go by this estimate and don’t waste time counting words. Also, going a little bit over the limit can always be excused.

While looking at the graph, chart or table, look at any trend that catches your eye immediately. If one portion is really big in a pie chart or a bar graph, describe it in your writing carefully. Also, make sure to include anything that has reduced over time. We need to avoid the use of irrelevant information as much as possible

The second task asks your opinion on something. This is a full essay and you should write it accordingly, but pay attention to the fact that you have a word limit and are constrained by time. Your introduction and conclusion, for example, should not have more than two or three sentences.

When you practice at home, don’t shy away from online resources that can help you to improve your speaking, listening, reading and writing. You might want to scan local bookshops for special guidebooks that talk about almost all aspects of IELTS. Most importantly, confidence is key. When you’re confident in yourself, a simple English language test will not feel like a doomsday event.

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