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Succeeding at IELTS for Overseas Studies

People wanting to study overseas commonly take a test called IELTS (pronounced ‘eye-elts’, and short for International English Language Testing System) to prove their English competence. There are many similar tests, which range in popularity around the world, with IELTS being the gold standard in the UK, where the test originates.

There are actually two types of IELTS test: General Training and Academic. Those applying for secondary school or for visas may be asked to take the General Training test. The details of that won’t be covered in this article, but you can find information on both tests at the IELTS website. Here, let’s focus on the Academic test, which you’ll be taking to support your application to study for a degree overseas.

There are four test components: Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening. Each is scored out of 9 and averaged to give an overall score. Your results are valid for 2 years, and you can repeat the test if you don’t get the score you need. In fact I’d advise those who aren’t confident to have time to make a couple of attempts. This in-person test can be a little intimidating, and even strong students may not get marks that reflect their skills if they don’t thoroughly prepare.

The requirements from top universities are high; for example, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and the University of Sydney all require an overall score of 7. This is a C1 level on the CEFR, which is categorised as ‘Advanced’, and is typically only achieved by students getting a 5 or above at DSE English*.

Students with strong English may not feel the need to prepare, but there are two papers that commonly trip them up. While the listening and reading are a little easier than the equivalent HKDSE papers (see here for sample questions), the speaking and writing papers are hard and require unfamiliar skills. Take a look at an example pitfall for each:

The Speaking paper starts in the format of an interview. The examiner asks relatively simple questions about you and your life, e.g. ‘Tell me about the place you live.’ Some students try to give a ‘correct’ answer, and they are too short and factual, e.g. ‘It’s a city called Hong Kong.’ Really, the examiner is trying to give you an easy topic of discussion through which you can show a natural communication style and demonstrate a varied vocabulary. A strong answer to the question about where you live would be: ‘I live on the outskirts of Hong Kong in a relatively new estate, and though the buildings may look large and imposing, there’s actually a great sense of community there.’

The Writing paper starts with a piece of visually presented information (e.g. a graph or process diagram) and asks you to describe and explain it. The short time and low suggested word count makes unprepared students write something simple for this. However, you should be following a specific format to describe both general trends and exceptions, and you must use a range of language related to describing data, e.g. ‘prices increase sharply’, ‘demand plateaus’, and ‘this slow decline contrasts with…’


The most comprehensive free resources for IELTS are at ieltsliz.com/. Although this website contains a wealth of information, it can be overwhelming for students to study alone, especially if you’re short of time. Our IELTS course covers all four papers and helps students get ready for success in just 12 lessons.


* The HKEAA has put together this useful benchmarking between HKDSE English levels and IELTS scores, based on the results of students taking both exams.