Using Current Affairs to Develop IELTS Vocabulary (Part 1)

Improving your English does not always have to involve attending classes or completing language exercises. One of the positives to come out of the Covid-19 outbreak is the realisation that there are opportunities aplenty around to improve your language skills; you just need to look hard enough. In this blog series, we will look at an unconventional way to improve your IELTS vocabulary – taking an interest in current affairs.

Why build your IELTS vocabulary

The answer is fairly simple! In two sections of IELTS, Writing and Speaking, vocabulary (Lexical Resource) accounts for 25 percent of the final band score. Now, a widely held belief is that it is easier to get a band 7 on vocabulary than on grammar. Anyone who has tried to fix bad grammar will vouch for the fact that it is an arduous task that could take forever. Naturally, forming the ability to use a reasonably broad range of words, phrases, and collocations related to specific topics may seem to be a comparatively easier route to improving your band scores. Additionally, a wider vocabulary will most certainly help your comprehension along in the Listening and Reading sections too.

Why use current affairs

Current affairs stories typically feature common IELTS topics, such as the environment, consumer behaviour, health, culture, education and social issues. Such reports tend to be rich in topical vocabulary; all you need to do is put enough work into learning some of them. You can then reap the rewards on test day. This is because topical vocabulary generally helps you steam ahead in Writing Task 2 or Speaking Part 3.

News reports are also a great source of functional language – for instance, language used to agree or disagree, to state your opinion, to speculate about the future, to sequence your ideas, or to describe problems and their solutions. The more you see or hear such kind of language, the easier it will get for you to reproduce it.

Finally, news reports come in different formats – print, audio, video – which means that you get to choose whatever appeals to you best. You can alternate between formats too, making sure that monotony never sets in.

In the next part, we will see how current affairs can be used to boost your IELTS vocabulary.

How IELTS Prepares You For U.S. Study

You may think that the IELTS test might not have anything to do with preparing you for study in the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth. The time, effort, and preparation you are taking now to take IELTS is an excellent preview of what your studies in the U.S. would involve.

Research Resources

Over 3400 institutions in the United States already accept IELTS. Most importantly, all the top 50 colleges and universities ranked by US News and World Report readily say that IELTS is acceptable for international students needing to document their English language proficiency.

As you may have already found, the prepare section of the British Council IELTS website provides excellent online tools to help you get ready for the test, including several free practice tests as well as resources to improve your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. All four of those skills are absolutely essential for your studies at a U.S. college or university.

Practice the Skills You Will Use

Ideally, as you search for universities in the United States that have the academic subject you wish to study and meet other requirements you have (size, location, climate, costs, etc.), you should research what IELTS score you will need to meet the English language proficiency standards each institution sets for non-native speakers. Most colleges will have at least an overall score minimum to begin a full academic load of courses in your first term. Some will also set minimum band scores across the four sections of the IELTS test.

As always, you can prepare for IELTS with practice tests that will share your anticipated individual band scores as well as your overall result. Be sure to check those results to see what areas you may need to focus on before taking the actual test. While you are getting set to test, be sure to keep in mind how IELTS can truly help you for both study and work in the USA.

Fulfil the Requirements

In terms of tips you can use to use IELTS as the key to unlock your door to a U.S. higher education, there are three pieces of advice we can offer:

  1. Apply with confidence – have faith in your abilities to succeed.
  2. Meet your deadlines – yes, the dates set for application deadlines matter.
  3. Achieve your dreams – use your IELTS preparation and testing experiences to realise your goals.

For more insight on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from April 2021. Good luck!

IELTS Listening: Common Problems and Solutions (Part 2)

Previously, we discussed two problems – inability to understand accents and failing to keep pace with recordings – that test takers typically face during the IELTS Listening test and how best to deal with them.

A third problem that test takers grapple with is dealing with unfamiliar vocabulary. Even if you pick up every word on the recording, not knowing the meaning of key vocabulary can stop you from finding the correct answers. For instance, in Part 4 of the Listening test, if you didn’t know what the word ‘intact’ means, you might not be able to tell with complete confidence whether an artefact recovered from an excavation site is damaged or not.

Whilst it won’t be possible, or necessary, for you to know all the words you hear, expanding your vocabulary would certainly help improve your performance. You’re likely to come across particular types of vocabulary groups in each part of IELTS Listening – use this to your advantage. Words describing shapes and colours, for example, are likely to be used in Part 1, whereas common academic terms, such as syllabus and dissertation, frequently pop up in Part 3. Additionally, invest time in brushing up on your spelling because bad spelling will be penalised.

Finally, even if your listening comprehension is exceptional, a lapse in concentration can cost you dearly. In fact, it is not entirely uncommon for test takers to be distracted when they’re in the middle of the test, letting their attention wander as a result. When you’re loaded with so much information over half an hour, being able to keep your concentration is also something that demands practice.

If you have a poor concentration span, then it’s something you’ll need to work on before sitting IELTS. For starters, form a habit of listening to recordings in English that are reasonably long. Note-taking might help initially to stop your attention from wavering. Besides, learn strategies to tackle various question types so that you have a clear purpose while listening. Most importantly, enjoy developing your listening skills; if you treat it like a chore, you’re bound to lose interest sooner or later. And here’s a final tip – simulate exam conditions while practising listening so that you’ll feel less stress on test day. Good luck!

IELTS Listening: Common Problems and Solutions (Part 1)

The Listening section in IELTS may appear to be a breeze compared to the Writing or Reading sections, but it would still make sense to do some practice tests before you take the real thing.

Over two parts, we’ll talk about some common problems that test takers face and ways to get round them.

To begin with, failing to understand a speaker’s accent often proves to be an obstacle to doing well in the test. IELTS is internationally focused in its content. Naturally, the Listening section makes use of a variety of voices and a range of native-speaker accents, including North American, British, Australian and New Zealand. If you haven’t had much exposure to the speech rhythms and accents characteristic of the English-speaking world, it could be hard going.

Although there is an entire universe of native English accents out there, the good news is that IELTS has been known to use only neutral accents. One way to get better at comprehending standard native-speaker accents is by regularly listening to content produced in countries like the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. YouTube would be a good place to start, as it has tons of TV programmes filmed in the English-speaking world. The added bonus is that much of the content there comes with subtitles.

Another problem is test takers being unable to keep up with recordings. This is most common in the latter part of the Listening section, when speech gets faster. Sometimes, people are caught off guard – they lose their way and miss out on answering an entire set of questions.

To give yourself the best possible chance to keep pace with the speaker(s), see to it that you read all 10 questions in a part before the recording begins. That way, you can listen actively instead of having to do two things at the same time – i.e. reading questions and listening to the recording. Another strategy is to underline anchor words (e.g. names, numbers, technical words) while reading questions, as you’re likely to hear them in the same form later. This should help you navigate through a recording without getting lost.

Do read the next part to know about some more challenges that the Listening section can throw at you.

What to focus on in a statement of purpose

For most international students hoping to come to the United States for a master’s or doctoral degree, one of the most significant challenges they face is writing the statement of purpose (or SOP). If that’s you, let us spend some time covering what you need to know.

Graduate statement of purpose

What is important to remember in applying to U.S. graduate programs is that each department within a university may have different things it looks for in what prospective students write in their application statement of purpose. As a result, we strongly encourage applicants to focus on the department they are applying to more than the university when composing their thoughts. Oftentimes the graduate departments that require statements of purpose have the final say as to which applicants are admitted to their programs.

Tips for graduate applicants

There are many suggestions out there for writing an acceptable statement of purpose. Four tips have consistently shown to be reliable as international students approach this important writing assignment.

  • Find the right academic program
  • Investigate the specifics of each program
  • Get to know the faculty and their research
  • Be careful – one SOP does not fit all

There are many experts out there who offer advice on this writing process. The Princeton Review has put together a useful article with suggestions on how to proceed. If you are searching for what examples of good SOP look like, this site provides good samples of successful statements.

Final advice…

As you begin this process, we have some final words of advice. Remember this:

  • Nothing is perfect the first time.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over.
  • Be honest, specific, and concrete.
  • Proofread.
  • Have others read your drafts.

In the end, your SOP should reflect who you are, why you are applying, and what this degree will help you achieve in life.

For more insight on this topic, check out our Facebook Live chat from March 2021. Good luck!

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 3)

Internationally acclaimed language tests like IELTS are known for their transparent and robust assessment methods. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always stop people from drawing conclusions about the test experience, based largely on hearsay and guesswork.

Read on to know about some more IELTS myths that we’ve laid to rest for you.

Myth #7: The more linking words or phrases in your essay, the better.

When you aren’t well informed about the test, you may feel that achieving cohesion is all about peppering your response with cohesive devices, such as firstly, however, and despite. Further, reading ‘poor’ model essays will only reinforce this misconception of yours.

The truth: Too much of any one ingredient can ruin a dish, and the same rule holds good for essays. While prudent use of discourse markers can make your writing cohesive, overuse is definitely something to avoid. A quick look at the IELTS Writing Task 2 band descriptors will help you see what we mean. 

Myth #8: No word should be used more than once.

Many a test taker has wasted precious time during the Writing section trying to identify synonyms so that they don’t repeat words. And if some can’t think of any synonyms, they invent new words!

The truth: Exhibiting a wide range of words and phrases can boost your vocabulary score, no doubt. However, nowhere does it say that test takers shouldn’t write any word more than once. In fact, some technical words (e.g. computer, robot) may not have synonyms at all. Focus on words, such as verbs and adjectives, which can be easily replaced so that you present the examiner with a nice variety of vocabulary.

Myth #9:  It’s useful to learn up answers to past essay questions.

When you aren’t adequately prepared for the test, it’s natural to get desperate and look for shortcuts at the eleventh hour. Some take the easy way out and mug up answers to past IELTS essay questions.

The truth: IELTS essay questions are hardly ever repeated in the same form! This is done to dissuade test takers from reproducing answers from memory. A more fruitful approach would be to identify common IELTS essay topics and read up on them.

The next time you hear an IELTS myth, do check with an authentic source before you make up your mind.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 2)

In Part 1, we spoke of how handwriting has no bearing on your band score, why overwriting should be avoided, and how bombast won’t help push your vocabulary score up.

Here are some more misconceptions about IELTS that prospective test takers tend to believe.

Myth #4: It’s not important to meet the word limit.

Many test takers think that the word limit set for each IELTS Writing task is just a recommendation. This could be the reason why they don’t bother keeping track of the number of words they write while practising their writing skills.

The truth: A good number of test takers get penalised in IELTS Writing for the simple reason that they fail to meet the word limit prescribed for Writing Task 1 (at least 150 words) and Task 2 (at least 250 words). Learn how many words you normally write per line; use this information to estimate the length of your responses. That way, you won’t fall short on test day.

Myth #5: In the essay task, only your language skills matter, not your ideas.

Being language assessment tools, the main purpose of tests such as IELTS is to ascertain the proficiency of the test taker. However, by no means does this mean that the ideas introduced in an essay don’t really amount to much.

The truth: The ideas in your essay are just as important as anything else. If the points you make aren’t pertinent to the topic, it’d be virtually impossible to achieve logical progression throughout the response. The end result would be a lower band on the Task Response criterion.

Myth #6: The personal pronoun ‘I’ should not be used in the essay.

This one has got to be one of the most amusing IELTS myths – the personal pronoun ‘I’ should be avoided at all costs in Task 2, or you run the risk of getting penalised for informal writing style!

The truth: Most IELTS essays ask the test taker to express their opinion about a particular facet of the topic. And when you wish to give your view on something, the personal pronoun ‘I’ is the obvious choice, so it’s okay. Just don’t overuse the word and make your essay sound too personal.   

There’s more to follow, so please do watch this space.

IELTS Writing Myths Debunked (Part 1)

When a language test has been around for 30-odd years and has been taken by millions of test takers, then just about everyone has opinions about what strategies might or might not work. Unfortunately, notions born out of half-baked research are often little more than misconceptions about the test.  

In this series, we’ll debunk some of the popular myths surrounding the IELTS Writing section.       

Myth #1: Good handwriting automatically leads to higher writing scores.

There’s no doubt that good handwriting makes a great first impression on the reader. Perhaps this has helped peddle the myth that neat handwriting is the key to securing high scores in IELTS Writing. And every time a test taker with good handwriting gets a high Writing score, more people tend to believe it.  

The truth: Such a misconception fails to take into consideration the fact that good handwriting simply cannot be equated with language proficiency. The most your IELTS examiner will expect is for your answers to be legible.

Myth #2: It’s a good idea to write as much as you can.

A common strategy that test takers employ is to write long responses to questions, especially in the essay task. This is usually done with the intention of showing the examiner just how much language they are capable of producing. Additionally, some also believe that a longer response indicates fluency in written English, something they hope will improve their chances of getting a high score.  

The truth: Examiners only ever consider the length of a response if there’s any doubt that the word limit hasn’t been met. Ideally, you should aim to write only about 20 to 30 words more than the prescribed word count for each task. Remember, a lengthy answer often lacks coherence because of being wordy and repetitive.

Myth #3: High-sounding words are necessary to get a high score on vocabulary. 

Many test takers mistakenly believe that fancy words are a must when you aim for a vocabulary score of 7 or above. Cramming your essay with high-sounding words won’t really help your cause. This is because examiners consider various aspects of lexis and vocabulary before awarding you a band score.

 The truth: While you need to use some less common words, it is more important that the vocabulary you choose is appropriate for the topic. Other equally important aspects of vocabulary assessed include collocation, paraphrasing, and connotation. 

We’ll bust some more IELTS Writing myths in the next part.

IELTS on Paper vs. IELTS on Computer (Part 2)

In Part 1, we mostly focused on test features unique to IELTS on computer that help you keep track of time, manage your word count, highlight text, and make notes.

More Test Dates

A significant advantage of IELTS on computer is the degree of flexibility it offers test takers. For starters, exam dates are available round the year: many test centres have exam sessions up to 3 times a day and up to 7 days a week. This means that IELTS on computer can be taken on a date and at a time that you find most convenient. So, if you need to take the test at a moment’s notice, the computer version could offer you many more dates to choose from.

Test Venue

As far as test venues go, IELTS on computer is normally conducted in small, custom-built facilities that can accommodate only about a handful of test takers. These computer labs typically make use of the latest technology and have technical staff on hand to help test takers if needed. IELTS on Paper test sessions, on the other hand, are usually held in larger spaces at places such as universities or hotels. This is because there are fewer test dates per month, so test taker numbers per session is generally higher.

Fast Results

Finally, the best selling point of IELTS on computer is perhaps its faster results turnaround time. If you take IELTS on computer, your results can be previewed online 3 to 5 days from your test date. So, if you’re someone in desperate need of IELTS scores so as to meet a visa or university application deadline, look no further than the computer version.

If typing into a computer is something you find easier than writing by hand, then IELTS on computer is definitely the test for you. You can book your test today and have your results by next week, allowing you to pursue your study or work goals without losing any time. And all this at no extra cost!

The View From Campus: What’s Life Like In A US College Classroom?

Let’s face it, the last year has not been easy. With a global pandemic affecting every part of our daily lives in almost every country on earth, we’d be forgiven for thinking things may never be the same again. In many ways that may be true, but for many international students seeking to study in the United States there are and will continue to be several important parts of academic life that will remain.

While many courses have been taught online and those taught in-person having significant physical changes to the classroom space, the following areas remain consistent.

The Informality

What surprises most international students when they get into their first classes at U.S. colleges is how professors can be so friendly. You may be used to a very formal relationship between students and faculty members in your educational institutions in your home country. For many professors in the United States, the opportunities to help students become what they hope to be is a calling. Faculty members are routinely required to have a set number of hours each week that they are available outside of class periods for students to schedule appointments about topics in class that need clarification or even drop by to have a conversation. International students often develop close relationships with faculty members in their academic program who serve as mentors for students as they progress through their degree program.

The Syllabus

Typically, the first time each class meets, all students in the room receive what is called a syllabus. This document serves as an informal contract between students and the professor. The syllabus outlines all requirements for the duration the class meets, what textbooks or other resources will be studied, when assignments or papers would be due as well as the dates of quizzes, tests, and/or exams. Oftentimes, the syllabus breaks down all content that will be covered as well as how grades will be determined. Quizzes might be worth 10%, a mid-term test 25%, a paper 20%, final exam 30%, and classroom participation 15%. That’s right, you read that last part of the preceding sentence correctly – how well you participate in class can count as a significant portion of your academic grade for a course!

Asking Questions

While you take a minute to digest that last part, let us explain that whether it’s simply asking questions to demonstrate you are engaged in the conversation or need explanations of certain topics, the expectation is that students participate. Speaking with new international students over the years, I have found that while they can usually adapt to the informality of relationships with professors, the real challenge is in changing the way they approach class. Faculty members, in general (certainly not all), encourage debate and discussions on the issues that the topics of the day’s class cover.

Academic Integrity

The realities of the differences in how classrooms operate here compared to your home country may take you some time to become comfortable with them. But one area of how U.S. classrooms operate on college campuses that must be understood immediately after classes begin is academic integrity. In effect, this means there are university policies that require students to practice academic honesty and not engage in plagiarism or other forms of cheating while enrolled.


In the end, you’ll need to prepare for the academic transition to a U.S. college. For additional resources on these topics and more, check out this video playlist from our colleagues at EducationUSA that answers questions on the different facets of the classroom experience in U.S. colleges and universities.

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