Is IELTS Still Relevant?

For more than a decade, foreign students seeking admission to universities in the UK and Australia for tertiary studies have considered the IELTS (International English Language Testing Service) Examination the single greatest hurdle to admission they face. Over that time, the IELTS ‘band scores,’ numerical ratings that express candidates’ abilities in the areas of Listening, Reading, Writing and Speaking, have also slowly gone up, making the examination even more challenging – and frightening for many students.

In the last few years, students who live in places where they can meet face-to-face with recruiters and agents for the universities to which they seek admission have learned that some of those universities are willing to accept students whose band scores are not as high as the published ones. In most cases, the tradeoff is that the students agrees that, if their IELTS band score is not high enough, they will agree to take special English-language training courses, either during the summer before official studies begin or, sometimes, during the evening after studies have already begun.

The offer is more than a reflection of the universities’ eagerness to accept foreign students for the important tuition revenues they represent. A strong case can be made that a student studying abroad is more likely to bring his or her English skills up to speed more quickly in an all-English-speaking environment. Additionally, they may receive teaching much more closely targeted to the particular language skills they will need to succeed with their studies.

Even so, a prospective student’s IELTS band score is a strong indicator of preparedness for study abroad. Although the IELTS exam is notoriously tricky – enough so that some students with adequate English skills cannot get scores that reflect those skills levels unless they have also taken an IELTS Exam Preparation course – it is also a realistic, if not always fair, measure of skills.

The Listening Task tests the precise kinds of listening skills students will need to study abroad. The Reading Task, with its severe time limit, is a good indicator of whether a student is ready for the great quantity of reading that he or she will face in a master’s or doctoral program. (Even native-language speakers typically have more reading assigned than they can reasonably finish.)

The two parts of the Writing Task reflect the actual types of writing students will have to do in academic settings. Learning how to write a Writing Task 1 report and a Writing Task 2 essay makes any student ‘set’ for the remainder of their academic writing careers. Students who learn how to write ‘the IELTS way’ are likely to discover that its formats and styles are ones they will use not only for the remainder of their academic careers but throughout the rest of their lives. The Speaking Task, too – the other one testing self-expression in English – tests real ways foreign students will have to use spoken English in their country of study choice.

So, if you live in an area where you can meet with representatives and agents of the universities to which you seek admission, it is worth inquiring whether there are real alternatives to getting the published band scores before enrolling at that university. But demonstrating that you have the real English-language skills you need to succeed before you begin study abroad is generally a stronger guarantor that you will be able to compete with your fellow students.

So is IELTS still relevant? The simplest answer is ‘Yes’. Getting the band score you need is your best indication that one of the greatest stresses of studying abroad will not be one of the stumbling blocks to your success.

, Hugh Nelson ,