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What is the Purpose of the IELTS Test?

Audio tracks, passages, essays, and interviews, oh my! Yes, these are the things you’ll find on the IELTS. But what do they all mean? What is IELTS exam purpose? What is IELTS test content used for? IELTS meaning is linked directly to two things: IELTS test design, and the way that organisations use IELTS scores.

what is ielts exam? For the answer to 'what is ielts test?', keep reading

Table of Contents

Click the links below to go to each section of our post on IELTS Scores.


What is IELTS Test? (General Information about IELTS Meaning)

IELTS stands for “International English Language Testing System.” This test assesses the English ability of non-native English speakers. The IELTS is used for the purposes of study, employment, and immigration in the English-speaking world. These uses are a very important part of IELTS meaning. (For a quick overview of this, see Sean’s article “Why is the IELTS Exam Required?“)

So now you know the basic definition and purpose of the IELTS. From here, we’ll take a deeper look at IELTS meaning. We’ll explore exactly what is IELTS exam, and exactly how the IELTS test is used. I’ll show you IELTS meaning in terms of the format of the IELTS, the skills the IELTS assesses, and the way that IELTS scores are used. Once you’ve learned all about IELTS meaning and purpose, you’ll see an FAQ on the IELTS, so that you can know how to take and pass this test.

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What is IELTS test structure? What is the IELTS test format?

IELTS meaning is easier to understand if you know how the test is designed. So, to help you learn about IELTS meaning, I’ll show you what is IELTS exam structure and appearance– what the test looks like, in other words. Let’s take a look at IELTS contents and format, and the way that IELTS compares to other English exams.


What is IELTS exam content? What is in the IELTS exam?

What is IELTS exam skills testing like, and how are skills tested? The IELTS assesses four English skills. There are assessments for the “literacy” English skills, reading and writing. And the IELTS also tests your ability in listening and speaking, the conversational English skills.

What is IELTS test questioning like, then? The IELTS tests your English skills with a variety of question types and task types. You’ll need to answer multiple choice questions in various formats. There are also short answer questions, where you must write in the correct word or phrase. And there are tasks where you will talk to a native or near-native English speaker and write essays or letters in English.

Because there are so many different types of test items, the IELTS is not just a language test. It’s also an assessment of your test-taking skills.

Now that you know the answer to the question “What is IELTS test content?”, we can take a closer look at that content?

What does the IELTS Test Consist Of?

We’ve answer the question “What is IELTS test skills and questioning?” So now you know the basic contents of the IELTS, in terms of English skills and test items. This helps you understand IELTS meaning in a general sense. But more specifically, what is IELTS exam content? What does the test contain, in terms of what the test actually looks like?

At a glance, the IELTS test has four sections: IELTS Listening, IELTS Reading, IELTS Writing, and IELTS Speaking. These four sections are found on two different versions of the exam: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Below, we’ll take a look at the format of these four sections in detail.

The IELTS Format: Four Skills, Four Tests

When someone asks, “How’s your English?” a common way to answer involves highlighting what IELTS test strength and weakness for you. In other words, look at your IELTS practice test performance, and figure out what you’re good and not-so-good at. Why? Because each language user has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. The reflects this reality, separating the assessment of four key communicative tasks into tests of their own: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking.


IELTS Listening Test Format

So, what is IELTS test Listening like? Your listening skills will be tested, logically, as you demonstrate your ability to understand the speech of native English speakers in this 40-minute exam. Each recording represents a different kind of speech: everyday conversation, monologues that occur in an everyday contexts (e.g. information), conversations in training/classroom settings, and formal monologues, like course lectures. Each recording has corresponding questions, 40 in total. They may be:

  • multiple choice
  • sentence completion
  • matching
  • plan/map/diagram labelling
  • form/note/table/flow-chart/summary completion

Skills Tested

What is IELTS exam Listening really like? IELTS Listening is one of the two sections that is exactly the same in Academic and in General Training. So it makes sense that this section tests a mixture of “life skills” listening and academic listening. You’ll be expected to understand conversations and monologues related to business, school, and personal life. That’s the short answer to the question “What is IELTS test listening truly like?”


IELTS Reading Test Format

What is IELTS exam Reading, in terms of format? The reading section also requires you to correctly answer 40 questions, but this time, you’ll demonstrate your reading comprehension. The text-types and passage lengths differ for the two versions of the test, but both have the same possible question formats, including:

  • multiple choice
  • matching
  • sentence completion
  • summary/note/table/flow-chart completion
  • diagram label completion
  • short-answer questions


What is IELTS test Academic Reading like? If you’re taking the academic version, you’ll read three passages. Each passage will be followed by questions of varied formats.

General Training

Now, what is IELTS test General Training like? The General Training version of the reading test has three sections. The first includes multiple short texts, the second includes two slightly longer texts, and the third has a single long text. Question types, of course, will vary.

Skills Tested

In IELTS Academic, you are largely being tested on your ability to comprehend academic and educational passages. But what is IELTS exam General Training like in terms of skill assessment? Here we have more of a mix of skills. Academic reading ability is also assessed in IELTS General Training. But GT Reading also tests “life reading,” the ability to read bulletins about things like shopping and travel, and the ability to read work documents.


IELTS Writing Test Format

The writing portion also varies depending on which version of the test you’re taking. In either case, you will have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. So what is IELTS exam Writing like on IELTS Academic vs. IELTS GT? The difference lies in the nature of these tasks.


What is IELTS test writing like in Academic? In this version, you’ll be required to show that you can provide a written description of some visual information (no less than 150 words in 20 minutes) and that you can develop your ideas in an essay about a specified topic (no less than 250 words in 40 minutes). Both should demonstrate your ability to use English in an academic or semi-formal tone.

General Training

And what is IELTS test Writing like in the IELTS General Training test? For General Training, the first writing task involves a familiar task, like letter writing, in response to a scenario. You will be given 20 minutes to write about 150 words. The second task is an essay and should be no less than 250 words. You will be given specific instructions on what to discuss and you will have 40 minutes to do so.

Skills Tested

What is IELTS exam skills testing like in IELTS Academic? Again, the focus of IELTS Academic is purely, well, academic. IELTS Academic Writing tests your ability to write a short source-based academic essay (the source is the graph or table). IELTS Academic also tests your ability to write an academic-style opinion essay. This opinion essay writing ability is also found on the IELTS GT. But in addition, the GT tests writing as a life skill by asking you to write a letter to a friend or colleague.

For an even more complete answer to the question “What is IELTS test Writing like?”, check out: IELTS Writing Topics


IELTS Speaking Test Format

So what is IELTS exam speaking like? To answer the question “What is IELTS test Speaking like,” it’s important to understand how much shorter the IELTS Speaking test is, compared to the other sections of the exam. What is IELTS Speaking test duration, you ask? Well, the Speaking test lasts only 11-15 minutes and is broken down into three sections:

  • Part One involves a general introduction during which you are verbally asked questions that invite you to share a little bit about your life.
  • Part Two requires that you speak on a topic in what is called “the long turn.” What is IELTS test Speaking long turn like, in terms of topics and structure? The topic is given to you in written form. You will be allowed to make and use notes so that your thoughts are organised before you speak.
  • Part Three involves a discussion in which the examiner will ask several questions to allow you to explore the same topic in a bit deeper or more broadly together.

For ideas about the topics that will be discussed, read .

Skills Tested

Now we answer the question “What is IELTS exam Speaking, when it comes to skills assessment?” For the most part, IELTS Speaking is focused on life skills. The interview focuses on light personal conversation. This is the kind of talk you’ll have with many different people when you work or study in the English speaking world. However, there is also an academic component here. The “long turn” in Part 2 is similar to the kind of short speech you might give in a university communications course.


Is the IELTS Test Paper-Based?

This is an important aspect of the IELTS format. Yes, the IELTS test is paper-based. For IELTS Reading, you’ll enter your answers directly into the test booklet. For IELTS Listening, you’ll write your answers as you listen. At the end, you’ll transfer your answers to an answer sheet. Finally, you’ll hand-write your essays in IELTS Writing.

This says something important about the purpose of the IELTS: the IELTS does not test computer literacy. But it does test handwriting. Be sure to practice good penmanship. And for those who are a little uncomfortable forming English letters by hand, the IELTS offers a “cheat” of sorts. You are allowed to write short answers and essays in all CAPITAL letters.


How is the IELTS Different from the TOEFL?

What is IELTS exam in comparison to the TOEFL, then? The biggest difference between the IELTS and the TOEFL is that the TOEFL is usually administered by computer. (However, the TOEFL PBT (paper-based-test) is an option in some parts of the world.)

There are plenty of other differences too. The TOEFL, for example, comes in academic format only, with no general training version. Also, there are fewer types of TOEFL Reading and Listening questions. And the TOEFL Speaking section asks students to read passages, listen to audio, and record short speeches. In contrast, the IELTS Speaking section is an interview with a live person. Remember too that the TOEFL Writing Task 1 is significantly different than Task 1 in Academic or GT IELTS Writing.

Often, you’ll be given a choice between taking the IELTS or taking the TOEFL. So you want to consider the differences carefully. For help with this, see Kuangyan’s comparison between the IELTS and TOEFL, and read Kate’s guide to TOEFL vs. IELTS over at the Clemmonsdogpark TOEFL Blog.

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IELTS Academic Test vs. IELTS General Training Test

Obviously, IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training have slightly different purposes, so IELTS meaning may vary. This is not just true for the skills these tests assess. The scores for these two versions of the IELTS are also used in different ways.

Below, I’ll give you a side-by side comparison of Academic and GT, followed by a discussion of the way that different organisations use test results from the two IELTS exams.


How Similar are IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training?

The two different types of IELTS are more similar than they are different. What is IELTS exam similarity, across the two versions of the test? Read on to find out?

They each have the same very basic format. There are Listening and Reading sections with 40 questions each and 60 minutes each, a Writing section with two tasks, and an IELTS Speaking interview. Not only that, but—<las you've seen above, the Listening and Speaking tests are exactly the same in Academic and GT.

But how similar are these two exams, really? Well, if you want to measure it, you can say that IELTS Academic and IELTS GT are roughly 70% alike. By this I mean that 70% of the content will be exactly the same on both exams.

In addition to the identical Listening and Speaking sections, these two versions of the IELTS have Writing sections that are half the same; Task 2 is the same on Academic and GT. You can also say that IELTS Academic Reading and IELTS GT Reading are 1/3 the same. There are three academic passages of equal length in IELTS Academic; IELTS GT has one such passage.


How Different are IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training?

So we know that the two exams are a lot alike, with closer IELTS meaning than you might expect. But those little differences in content can make a huge difference in in how you study for the exam. And of course, those little differences are linked to a big difference in how your scores are used. IELTS meaning is very different indeed when it comes to where your scores will go, and how they will be analysed.

As I explained in the section on IELTS test format, all of the IELTS meaning differences lie in IELTS Reading and IELTS Writing. The IELTS General Training Reading passages are shorter on average. The passages are also more varied covering more “work and living” subject matter. And in Writing, the first GT task is far less academic; you write a letter instead of summarising a scholarly source.

Perhaps the biggest difference in IELTS meaning between these two version of the test is the way that they’re scored. Granted, Listening, Speaking, and Writing are scored the same way on both exams. But IELTS Reading, which represents a full 25% of your score, is rated very differently on GT vs. Academic.

For example, suppose you get 30 our of 40 answers correct in IELTS Reading, also known as a raw score of 30. In General Training Reading, that’s an IELTS Band of 5.0. But 30 out of 40 gets you a 6.0 in IELTS Academic Reading. IELTS meaning of raw scores really is very different here; totally different IELTS meaning for Academic vs. GT.

For an official, but incomplete, chart of these raw score/band score conversions for IELTS Reading in GT vs. Academic, check out the second chart on .

There is also an unofficial table of the difference between Reading scores on Academic and GT. This chart, which comes from , is more complete than the official one. It is also very reliable. All figures come from the unofficial-but-accurate . You can see the chart below:

IELTS meaning of scores: what is IELTS exam scoring? what is IELTS test raw scoring, and how does it relate to the IELTS band scores?

Source: Wikipedia

Although unofficial, this chart is a very reliable measure of IELTS meaning of scores for Listening and Reading.

And there you have an answer to the question “What is IELTS exam scoring difference, on Academic and GT?” Now that we’ve covered that “what is IELTS exam…” question, we should look at a “why does IELTS exam…” question. So why do you get a lower score for the same amount of correct answers in General Training Reading? Well, this leads to another common question about IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training….


Is IELTS General Training Easier than IELTS Academic?

What is IELTS exam difficulty level, and does it differ on Academic and GT? When there are two similar English skill tests, it’s always hard to say whether one is easier. After all, different students find certain things easier or harder. As the expression goes in English, “your mileage may vary.” Meaning that it’s possible for you feel like IELTS Academic is harder, while another student feels like General Training is harder.

With that being said, the answer to the question in the header is yes… IELTS General Training is probably easier than IELTS Academic. Nearly every IELTS student I’ve talked to feels that GT is less challenging.

The makers of the test certainly seem to think that General Training Reading is easier than Academic Reading. The IELTS assumes that getting 30 out of 40 in GT is as hard as getting 23 out of 40 in Academic Reading. This is why 30/40 GT and 23/40 Academic are both band 6. (Again, see the table above for more examples of this.)

As an experienced IELTS teacher, I can also tell you that IELTS General Training Writing is easier than Academic Writing. For every student I’ve worked with, writing a short letter is easier than summarising a complicated graph or table.

However, do not assume that IELTS Listening or Speaking will be easier on GT. As I’ve already mentioned a few times, these two sections are the exact same format and the exact same difficulty level, no matter which version of the IELTS you sit for.

Some is the easier nature of GT IELTS meaning you should choose GT over Academic? Not really. Ultimately these tests really are 70% similar, and you won’t have a choice as to which format you sit for. So it’s probably better to ask yourself this more general question: how hard is the IELTS? (Click that link for some help with figuring out how hard the test will be for you, regardless of the version you sit for.)


How Scores are Used For IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training

What is IELTS meaning when it comes to score use? What is IELTS exam scoring used for? Another important aspect of IELTS meaning is how organisations actually use IELTS scores. This reveals IELTS meaning in a very practical sense: the organisational use of IELTS scores shows IELTS meaning for your future as an immigrant, student, or international worker.

IELTS Academic

So, what is IELTS exam scoring used for when it comes to the Academic IELTS? True to its name, the IELTS Academic test is used mostly for academic admissions. The majority of IELTS Academic test-takers submit their scores to universities. IELTS Academic scores are used primarily by universities in English-speaking countries. However, many other “non Anglophone” countries have universities that offer degrees taught entirely in English. These programmes also use IELTS scores in their admissions decisions.

IELTS meaning is mostly related to higher education, when it comes to IELTS Academic. In the English speaking world, the IELTS Academic test is administered primarily to international students who want to apply for a student visa. However, some stricter universities require IELTS scores from all students who have a non-English-speaking background, even if they have permanent residency or citizenship in the country where they want to study.

Most English language university programmes that accept IELTS will also accept alternative English assessments. Usually, the TOEFL is offered as an alternative university entrance exam. (In other words, very often IELTS meaning equals TOEFL meaning.) But there can be other options too. If you want to explore different testing options, your school to see if they accept any IELTS alternatives.

In addition to school admissions, IELTS Academic is also used for one type of migration and employment: medical work. If you want to be a medical professional in Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, you’ll definitely need to sit the IELTS Academic. A wide range of medical jobs require IELTS Academic, including doctor, nurse, pharmacist, and even hospital lab technician.

In the United States, government agencies also use the TOEFL for skilled migrant visas and licensure for healthcare professionals. Because the IELTS Academic exam is more similar to the TOEFL than IELTS General Training, sometimes the IELTS Academic exam is used to assess the English abilities of foreign workers in America. The TOEFL is sometimes used as an IELTS substitute for medical professionals outside of the US, too. Check with immigration offices or employment agencies if you are curious about TOEFL vs. IELTS for medical work.

For more details on English testing for Medical professionals, see my post on IELTS for medical professionals, or check out my other article on the TOEFL for medical professionals.

General Training

What is IELTS exam General Training scoring used for? Not for academic or medical, or course. However, for all other immigration and employment, IELTS General Training scores are used. The IELTS GT is the test you take if you want to enter Canada, the USA, Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, etc. for general immigration.

Again, alternative testing may be possible. Australia accepts both TOEFL and IELTS for immigration. Other Commonwealth nations do not accept TOEFL for immigration. But they may have their own local alternatives to the IELTS. Canadian Immigration, for example, also accepts scores from .

But the IELTS General Training Test is not just used for government purposes. What is IELTS test General Training scoring used for besides immigration? I’m glad you asked! Multinational corporations sometimes use IELTS General Training scores to assess the English ability of their workers. So test-takers can use their IELTS General Training score report to get a job in some cases.

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What is IELTS exam purpose, relative to other Cambridge exams?

IELTS meaning certainly isn’t the same as the meaning of every other Cambridge English test.

What is IELTS exam use like, in comparison to other Cambridge Exams? Compared to other Cambridge exams, the IELTS is much more useful for immigration or acceptance into university. Cambridge exams such as the PET, FCE, and BULATS are used almost exclusively for employment at private companies, rather than the formal granting of medical licenses, skilled migrant visas, and acceptance into degree programmes.

What is IELTS test, in the Cambridge family of tests? Now you know the answer.

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What is IELTS Exam Like, Besides its Purpose? IELTS Frequently Asked Questions

And so, you now know what is IELTS test meaning, and what is IELTS test purpose. Now that you understand IELTS meaning and know the purpose of the IELTS test, it’s time to get studying! Whether you want to focus on IELTS General Training or Academic Training skills, is going to be your key to help improve your score.

As you begin your IELTS prep, it helps to know a few other things about the IELTS, beyond its purpose. Below are some common questions about the IELTS, with answers.

How can I take the IELTS exam?

Register and sit! To take the IELTS, you need to find your nearest IELTS test location and register for the exam. For more information on registry, see our guide to IELTS registration and test dates.

What is IELTS exam pricing? How much does the IELTS cost?

What is IELTS test cost? For so many budget-conscious test-takers, that’s such an important question. This ties into IELTS meaning in a financial sense, doesn’t it? IELTS fees range from about $150 to $300 USD. The cost of registering for the IELTS depends on the location of the IELTS test centre. Every country has its own price ranges. And the various organisations that host the IELTS exam have their own prices. For details on IELTS costs (and how to find the best prices), see the Clemmonsdogpark guide to IELTS fees.

Who offers the IELTS?

What is IELTS test availability, in terms of the companies that offer it? The IELTS is officially sponsored by three organisations: , , and .

Of these three official IELTS sponsors, the British Council and IDP offer IELTS testing at test centres they administer. The IELTS is also administered by a wide variety of other international and regional agencies, such as and the . To find out who offers the IELTS near you, use .

Where can you take the IELTS?

What is IELTS test availability, you ask? The IELTS is available in more than 140 countries. For a complete list of the countries that offer the IELTS right now, see Clemmonsdogpark’s article on where to take the IELTS.

For exact locations within a country or city, you’ll again want to refer to .

When should you take the IELTS?

What is IELTS test scheduling supposed to be like? There are several things you should think about when you schedule your IELTS, such as application deadlines, study timelines, possible retakes, available test dates, etc…. To help you with this important decision, Sean has written a short self-help piece entitled “When Should I take the IELTS?” If you’re still not sure after reading that, see Clemmonsdogpark’s in -depth guide to choosing Your IELTS test date.

How can I pass the IELTS?

What is IELTS test passing, really? Well, IELTS passing equals IELTS success. But what is IELTS exam success, exactly? What is IELTS exam passing in terms of what you do and how you approach the test? The answer to this question is simple, but not easy. You can pass the IELTS by studying and practising enough to get the score you need.

Good IELTS prep is key here. You can find great prep materials through or other IELTS books and resources.

So how do you know when you’ve practised enough with your prep materials? On that front, it helps to have a good IELTS study plan.

Again, Clemmonsdogpark is here to help. I’ve written a guide to making your own good IELTS prep timeline. Trisha has put together a one month IELTS study plan that uses only free materials. And Eliot outlines Clemmonsdogpark’s own official IELTS study plans: our one week IELTS study schedule, and our one month IELTS study schedule. These are designed to go with a Clemmonsdogpark IELTS subscription. But they can also give you ideas on how to make a personal study plan.

Of course, a huge part of passing the IELTS is knowing what is IELTS exam passing score. What score do you need in order to pass? This brings us to the final question in our IELTS FAQ:

What is a good IELTS score? What is IELTS meaning in terms of scores?

What is IELTS test em good scoring? It all depends. Every organisation that uses IELTS scores sets its own requirements. As a result, there are many different good IELTS scores. Is your score good enough? That all depends on who is using your scores, and the purpose of your IELTS scores. For a full guide to good IELTS scores and how they’re calculated, see my article “What is a Good IELTS Score?

Special Note

This post to answer the question “What is IELTS test purpose?” was updated for freshness and accuracy in August 2017. Trisha Alcisto made significant contributions to this new, improved guide to IELTS meaning.

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