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IELTS was nothing like Omar imagined – but he got Band 8.5 (here is how)

Omar considers English to be his first language, and even though he originally is from Jamaica, he’s been living in the US for quite a while. As someone who uses English daily and has experience with public Speaking (!), Omar didn’t think IELTS would be hard to pass, but the more he researched it, the more comments he read online, the more worried he grew. His IELTS story has a lot for you to learn from, and a happy ending – so have a read, make some notes, and use them to your own advantage!

Best IELTS test result January 2020 Band 8.5 in IELTS

Omar said:

“This was my first time taking the exam. I registered for the January 11th exam on December 6th. My band goal was 9 overall. I thought I could just walk in and take the exam without any major time investment because I viewed it as another typical standardized exam.

It wasn’t until December 18th while researching the format of the exam, that I saw where people were complaining about its difficulty and numerous repeated low band scores (even for native English speakers). This made me panic a bit; therefore, I went on a deep discovery of how that could be.

I quickly learned that the exam was nothing like I “imagined”. With that being said, I ordered 3 books to help me, asked specific questions that I was uncertain of regarding the exam designs, and psyched myself that I will find out what could cause the phenomenon of low band scores.

As of December 20th, I made it my duty to do at least 1 complete Listening and Reading practice test per day, with one rest day. I separated the sections of the tests (because I realized that they progressively went from easier to harder as you completed questions 1-40). I tracked the sections that I struggled with most and noticed that there were certain sections that I repeatedly struggled with (sections 2 and 3) as well as the T/F/NG or No/Yes/NG. I then understood I was good at the hardest and easiest questions (4th and 1st section, respectively).

What I did after learning from my mistakes and the trend of why I was struggling on those sections and questions, was that I decided to complete those parts first in the reading test and spend more time on them, than the other parts. This strategy can’t work with the listening, so I forced myself to listen more keenly in those areas for any traps and specific details.

For the Writing and Speaking tests, I barely did any practice. It wasn’t until near the end (after the Christmas holiday) that I decided that I should not neglect those areas because I think I’m good enough. With the speaking, I just learned what the components are and what they’re looking for and how to convey uninterrupted speech dialogue. Please note, I do have experience with public speaking. But I also learned that IELTS had a different style and I had to revamp what I was taught as a professional. I still never exercised any practical speaking in preparation. Advice: practice speaking English in EVERY SITUATION. No matter how casual or with non-speakers. It’s better to then translate.

For the writing, I read model essays that were considered/labeled as Band 8 and Band 9. Then I asked what’s different from theirs and mine. I started to write one task 2 essay each day for 5 days and sought feedback on 2 of them in Facebook and WhatsApp groups. The limited feedback were vague and did little to help me see necessary changes for improvement. One person even responded and said that one of my essay at most was band 5 and gave no reason why. I knew that wasn’t true because I had reviewed the IELTS Task 2 rubric and knew my basic writing was at least a band 7, but with some errors could be a band 6. What I realized was that with every essay, the writer had a certain style and that’s something you cannot replicate. I stuck to my writing style and just learned what were some recommended things to pay attention to. Advice: Know and understand the components of the rubric and the descriptors.

On the day of the exam:

I wrote in ALL CAPS on the answer sheet for listening and reading.

I completed the second and third section of the reading first. I still made mistake of writing words instead of letters for a few of the answers (why I got an 8), even though I read the instructions clearly. Advice: It’s best to write your answer on the reading answer sheet immediately in the essence of time. This will help you remember if you need to write words or answer choices (A, 1, i etc.) as answers for each section. You may be able to come back and make corrections. Otherwise, if you did like me and make a mistake when transferring the answers from booklet to answer sheet you may mess up following the SPECIFIC instructions for answer format. A costly mistake.

For the writing, I did task 2 first and truthfully went in with a plan of how to approach each type of essay question. I quickly looked at the type of question. It was a “to what extent do you agree or disagree with this…”

I jotted down a plan:

1st paragraph – General intro sentence. Rephrased the prompt. Thesis statement with my answer.
2nd paragraph – 1st point to support stance. Explain it. Give example or illustration.
3rd paragraphed – 2nd point to support stance. Explain it. Give example or illustration.
4th paragraph – conclusion to tie in the two points and say how they strongly support the thesis statement without repeating verbatim what was already said.

Truth be told, I spent so much time deciding on two clear and separate points, that by the time I decided to start writing, time was already slipping away. Therefore, I just started writing and almost threw the whole plan out the window. What came to my mind as I write, is what I wrote.

I did pay attention to make sure I had great transitions, using connectors, mix of simple, complex, and compound sentences, and paid attention to my punctuation. I did not pay much attention to vocabulary or grammar while writing. It was in the editing/reviewing phase that I did that. I made sure not to repeat words and used appropriate synonyms to replace most. However, I did not try to remember those “advanced IELTS words” that were suggested. I wanted to keep my individual (personal) voice and writing style to make sure the points were easy to follow, thoughts flowed, and that they were concise.

I did task 1 next and I literally just wrote as if I was writing/speaking to a friend. I did not use any plan or fancy vocabulary. I just made sure I covered what they asked for in the task: “Invite a friend to a concert, tell them why they would like it, when and where will it be, and how do I think it will be.”

With time against me, I quickly reread it and only made punctuation edits.

The speaking test felt like the easiest. The examiner’s disposition was so sweet and positive. It made for a pleasant conversation. I watched her body language as cue to when I’ve said enough and when I should keep talking. I just spoke naturally, avoided long pauses, and stayed positive. It was so quick and I was surprised when it was over because I was genuinely enjoying the “talk”. That’s what it felt like. My advice here is do not overthink or get in your head to try and give “perfect” responses. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. Just be you and give it your best shot of holding a conversation. If I was to receive a 9, this is where I thought I deserved it most.

My advice

  • Know what level of English mastery is required of you to realistically obtain the band score you need.
  • Master the English language first before trying to master the art of tricks and tips. The exam is designed in so many ways to prove your proficiency level is that or lower than it really is. It is very hard to fool or trick it.
  • Don’t waste your money if you know you are not ready. Like any art, you need to be at a certain level to soar.
  • Review the rubric for writing tasks and make sure you are unbiased about your writing.
  • Do not try to copy someone else’s writing style. It will come off as disingenuous and robotic.
  • Practice, practice, practice and note your weaknesses and strengths. Then strategize how to improve by learning why you got what you got wrong; especially for the objective sections (Listening and Reading).

    Note: if you are constantly getting the same range of raw score for reading and listening during the practice test, that’s the best estimate of your band score. Try to improve your English more first.

Use the time that you may worry or search for tricks to practice instead. The only way to get better at anything is to take action. Example: simply thinking about losing weight or researching how to lose weight won’t result in you losing weight.

Don’t be confused by the plethora of experts with conflicting views for what is required by IELTS. Take some of those advice with caution, as you may end up confusing yourself with too many different styles and varied recommendations.

Have confidence. But do not be cocky or biased about your English language aptitude.

PS: Although I prepped in 3 weeks, please remember that your situation will be different from mine, because we are all different. For that reason, what works for me may not work for you and vice versa.

Best of luck in your endeavors and may your results truly reflect your investment.”

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