I love teaching students preparing for their IELTS test and have been doing this for many years but I also enjoy working in an IELTS test centre, supervising test day sessions because they give me the opportunity to see first hand what candidates do in the pressure of an ‘exam’ type situation.

IELTS is a test of your English level but poor exam technique could lose you a few vital marks and be the difference between attaining the score you need and deserve or having to re take the exam again!

So with the start of the new academic year, I thought it would be timely to share with you some of my observations of candidates with poor exam technique and the common mistakes they make on test day.

Mistake No 1.  Unclear handwriting  – the instructions you are given at the beginning of the test state “make sure your writing is clear and easy to read” but I often see Listening and Reading answer sheets where the candidate has used ‘joined up’ writing, which can be difficult to decipher. Remember the clerical markers aren’t going to spend hours trying to figure out what you have written, so don’t leave things to chance and use capital letters.

Mistake No 2.  Checking your answers after each passage – predicting the answers is a key skill in listening so why not maximise your time for this. If you’re fairly confident that you have got the answers correct and not missed any out – don’t waste time when the recording says ‘you now have half a minute to check your answers’ by looking backwards at the questions you’ve just answered. This seems counter intuitive but remember you have 10 minutes at the end to check and transfer your answers. Also, you don’t need to wait until the recording tells you to look at the next section, I see some candidates day dreaming whilst others are busy underlining the key words in the next few questions.

Mistake No 3. Not reading the questions – if the question says write no more than one word and or a number that’s what you must do. Some candidates appear to write more than this just to be on the safe side!! And when counting words remember‘ a’ or ‘the’ still count as one word. I often see answer sheets where the candidate has heard the correct answer but written too many words.

Mistake No 4. Not writing the answer whilst listening – don’t wait to hear a whole section before writing your answer, it’s okay to write an answer and then cross it out when you hear the right one. It’s almost impossible to remember what was in the previous sentence so don’t try!

Mistake No 5. Not checking for grammar – if your answer doesn’t make sense grammatically it can’t be the right one, for example you might have heard the right word but not written it in the past tense, so always read the whole sentence to make sure it makes sense and don’t forget to write the article ‘a’ or ‘the’ if it’s needed grammatically, for example in a note completion exercise, if the question says ‘The performance will take place in  …….’ and the answer is ‘The Theatre’’ and you write simply Theatre, then your answer will be wrong.

Mistake No 6. Giving up – The worst thing to do is lose track of where you are and panic when you have missed an answer, I often see students visibly give up on a whole section, their heads go down or they sit back in the chair. I want to go up to them and say ‘Don’t panic, admit that you have missed an answer, re–focus and move on.’  If this happens to you whilst practicing, try using your pencil to follow where you are in the listening and looking 1 or 2 questions ahead; it sounds complicated but the more you do this the easier it gets. It’s also worth knowing that often the answer is said louder and clearer than something that sounds like it was said too quickly or quietly. Lastly, listen out for clarifying phrases such as ‘that is’ or ‘by that I mean’ or ‘in other words’ as they could be a clue that the answer is coming up.

Mistake No 7. Leaving blank answers – I encourage my students to write notes or possible answers like facts and figures on their answer sheet and in their own language if it’s quicker. So if you don’t hear the answer whilst listening, check your notes during the 10 minute pause at the end – you never know you might have written the right answer somewhere on the answer sheet. Remember the test day instructions say ‘you don’t lose marks for wrong answers so try to answer all the questions’

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If so eliminate these errors and improve your exam technique, so you can look forward to your test day and getting a great IELTS score.