OK, so I'm going to be nasty today. Really horrible. You are not going to like what I have to say.

You will probably read this and then ignore EVERYTHING that you have just read.

But, if just 1 person reads this and follows my advice, I will be happy. I will be happy because I will have changed one person's mind about how to learn.

And as the old Chinese proverb says, 'A journey of a thousands miles starts with one step.'

So, what is it that I have to tell you that you are going to hate?

It is this....

You have been studying for IELTS in the WRONG way. Actually, 6 wrong ways.

And now you are thinking, "huh, I bet I don't do these things. I KNOW I am doing the right things."

I bet you're not.​ In fact, I KNOW you're not.

So, if you want to stop wasting your time and actually start learning, here are the 6 biggest mistakes people make.

Big Mistake no. 1

You expect to get an IELTS band 6+ but you only have an English level of band 4 or 5.

Of all the mistakes that you can make, this is the BIGGEST.

IELTS is a measure of your current level of English. That is, your level on the day you sit the test. If you are at Pre-Intermediate level (band 4), there is NO WAY that you can get a band 6 today.

Even if you do 100 practice tests before your exam day, you will still only be a band 4. Doing test after test after test will NOT improve your level of English.

You will become very good at time management in tests and MAYBE you will get better at reading faster. But your LEVEL of English will be the same.

So what SHOULD you do to get band 6+?

It is EASY! Learn more English!

You need to learn more vocabulary and know how to use it. LOTS more vocabulary.

You need to study grammar. Band 6+ grammar is complex. You must learn complex grammar structures and know how to use them in speaking and writing.

You need to get feedback from a teacher on your speaking and writing so that you learn from your mistakes. How do you know if you are improving if no-one tells you when you make a mistake?

Read A LOT. Read everything you can get your hands on in English. Find good vocabulary in the things you read. Write it down. Make a mind map with it. Study all the verbs - why are they in that tense? Find complex grammar structures in the texts. Can you use those structures?

Big Mistake no. 2

Writing essay after essay and thinking that you will get better at writing if you do.

Think about this for a minute. If you write an essay and it is wrong, how do you know it is wrong?

How can writing another essay make your writing better unless you KNOW what you did wrong in the first one?

This is a similar mistake to Big Mistake no. 1 - making the same mistakes over and over and never learning from them.

The result? You do not improve.

So what SHOULD you do to get band 6+?

Get feedback and act on it. You need a teacher who can tell you where your weaknesses are and what you can do to improve on them. Simple!​

There are 4 ​areas that the examiner is marking your writing on:

  1. Task achievement - can you answer the question fully?
  2. Coherence and cohesion - does your writing make sense and do you link your ideas logically and effectively?
  3. Lexical resource - is your vocabulary good and so you use it well?
  4. Grammatical range and accuracy - can you use a mix of complex and simple structures effectively?

So if you don't get feedback on how well you do in ALL these areas, you are not going to get a better score my friend!

And, like above, you need lots of vocabulary and to be able to use it flexibly. Your grammar should be advanced and accurate.

In short...you need to learn more English.

Big Mistake no.3

Learning a 'formula' or template for your essays.

OK, I admit you can learn how to answer certain types of question in certain ways. BUT, a lot of people believe that if they learn one template, one essay structure, they can use it for every essay they write.

This does not work.


Because there are at least 5 if not 6 different types of question, and if you do not read the question carefully and understand exactly what you are supposed to do, your template will probably not fit.

A lot of people think that if they write about the pros and cons/advantages and disadvantages/discuss both sides/give their opinion they will pass.

What if the question asked for solutions to a problem?

What if you are not asked for your opinion?

What if you are asked for the causes of something and the results?

What if ........

A 'one-size fits all' approach to essays is going to do BADLY.

So what SHOULD you do to get band 6+?

I'm sure by now you know the answer to this. You need FEEDBACK. Different questions require different organisation of ideas.

You have to be able to recognise EXACTLY what the question is asking you to do and know how to answer it.​

You should have practice in answering ALL the different kinds of questions and get feedback on your task achievement - did you answer the question correctly and fully?

Big Mistake no. 4

Trying to learn ALL the possible questions that can come up in part 2 of the Speaking test.

Do you know how many different questions could possibly come up? I don't, but I'm guessing it is a few hundred.

Do you REALLY think you can learn answers for every question?


So what SHOULD you do to get band 6+?

​There are a few broad topics that come up repeatedly. These are:

  • Education
  • Environment
  • People and relationships
  • Children
  • Objects (a favourite X, a souvenir, something old, a present you got/gave etc)
  • Hobbies
  • Work
  • Places
  • Holidays
  • Culture
  • Technology

And really that's about it.

You CANNOT LEARN every possible question that could be asked within these topics. Even I couldn't do that!

Unless you improve your overall level of English and increase your knowledge of vocabulary on a wide range of topics, you are not going to get better at speaking.

There. I said it.

I told you that you would not like what I was going to tell you today.

  • Learn vocabulary in these topic areas and PRACTISE using it.
  • Read articles on theses topics and find vocabulary that you could use.
  • Listen to talks or other things about these topics.​
  • Improve your overall level of grammar.
  • Listen to band 8+ answers on youtube. Try to copy HOW they speak, the music in their voices, their grammar structures. Notice how they ORGANISE their ideas and link them.
  • Get feedback from a teacher!

Can you see a pattern here?

Unless your overall level of English improves, your IELTS band score will not improve. Put another way, if you want a higher band score, improve your level of English.

Big Mistake no. 5

Learning part 2 questions by heart.

IELTS is not a test of your memory, it is a test of your ENGLISH.

If you memorise answers, the examiner will know - he's not stupid.​ Your answers will sound unnatural because you are trying so hard to remember all the exact words. You will get more stressed and do even more badly if you can't remember the next word.

And anyway, it will be clear what your English is really like in parts 1 and 3 where you cannot possibly memorise answers. If you manage to talk for 2 minutes with few mistakes in Part 2 and then are unable to answer questions fully in Part 3, your TRUE level of English is obvious.


Also, you might not memorise exactly the right thing. If you have learnt by heart to talk for 2 minutes about a gift you bought but the question asks about a gift you received, your answer is going to be off topic.

It is a dangerous game to play so I cannot stress this enough - DO NOT LEARN ANSWERS OFF BY HEART. PLEASE!

So what SHOULD you do to get band 6+?

The answer by now should be obvious - follow my advice for Big Mistake no. 4.

Being prepared by learning lots of vocabulary and grammar, and practising it with someone who can give you feedback​ is BY FAR the best answer.

Big Mistake no. 6

Doing loads of reading and listening practice test​s without learning from them.

Imagine if you read 5 texts, answered all the questions, got about 50% correct and then did nothing else. Just started another test.

What a wasted opportunity!

You might as well just throw all the money you spend on taking IELTS tests down the toilet.

Every text you read or listen to is a chance to build on your knowledge - increase your level of English. If you ignore all the learning opportunities that there are in these texts, then you are wasting your time and money.

Now, I know you don't want to do that, so...

So what SHOULD you do to get band 6+?

Treat every text like an English lesson.​ They are GIFTS to you and your struggle to improve your English and get a good band score at IELTS. Use them!

  1. Check all the answers you got wrong and find out why you got them wrong. Did you fall into the trap of finding the exact same words in a question in the text and thinking that this was the answer? Look for synonyms. Did you miss an answer in a listening because they pronounced a word in an unfamiliar way or stressed words in a way that is unfamiliar to you? Listen again and practise the sentence stress.
  2. Now learn from the language. Use your dictionary and look up every word you don't know. Use the audio scripts for listening texts. Find collocations. Examine the grammar.
  3. Use the new words to write on this topic.
  4. Find other texts on this topic and see if you can find the same words or new ones.
  5. Listen to TED talks on this topic and see if the same words appear.

So there you are. You need to STOP:

  • doing test after test after test without any feedback.
  • learning part 2 speaking questions form memory
  • trying to prepare for EVERY possible part 2 question
  • writing essay after essay without any feedback
  • using a template for every essay question

You need to START:

  • start improving your overall level of English with someone (ideally a teacher) who can give you feedback on your English and help you make real progress BEFORE you book your IELTS test.

If you would like me to help you with your IELTS preparation, contact me.

2 thoughts on “The 6 biggest mistakes you make in IELTS

  1. Oh, I can even leave a comment here! Well done! Useful article.

    But I am not agree with N4. Learning English and German I came to conclusion that spoken language mostly consists of memorized phrases. People speak fast and don’t think about any grammar. They just throw phrases which they already have on mind.
    Memorizing answers helps very much if one memorized vary many of them and can variate and combine them into other answers.

    1. I would agree that memorising phrases and ‘chunks’ of language is useful. English is made up of collocations and groups of words that naturally go together. You will sound very unnatural if you don’t learn these fixed phrases. Idioms is one example along with phrasal verbs, but you also need phrases like ‘environmental impact’ or ‘the increasing importance of [doing] …’ to give two examples in the context of ‘the environment’.

      But, some students try to memorise their entire 2 minute talk word for word. This is what I meant. It is not natural and, I believe, almost impossible because you cannot memorise the 100s of questions that could come up. I always advise my students not to do this, and I know that IELTS examiners agree with me.

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