IELTS Writing: Describing a Life Cycle

In the Academic version of IELTS Writing, test takers can be asked to write a report describing the life cycle of a living thing, such as a butterfly or frog.

Here’s some advice to help you do a good job of it.

Introduction

Like other question types in Academic Writing Task 1, a life cycle needs only a one-sentence introduction. The easiest way to introduce the task is by paraphrasing the information given in the question. Here’s an example:

QuestionSuggested introduction
The diagrams below show the life cycle of a species of large fish called the salmon.The diagrams provided illustrate various stages in the life of a large type of fish called the salmon.

Main Body

A life cycle is the series of changes that a living thing goes through from the beginning of its existence to the end. In general, most creatures begin life as fertilized eggs, develop into juveniles and later become mature adults. Since a life cycle is a set of scientific facts, most of your sentences will be in the present simple tense. Begin with the first stage and then describe each stage in some detail, using descriptive adjectives (e.g. immature juveniles, sandy river bed). Don’t forget to use sequencing words such as to begin with, later, and at this stage so that the descriptions you write stick together. Remember, overusing discourse markers can make your writing look artificial, so use them only when necessary. To avoid repetition, look out for opportunities to use synonyms and reference words (e.g. it, this, their).

Overview

As far as Academic Task 1 goes, the overview you write can pretty much decide the fate of your response. A quick glance at the IELTS Writing band descriptors will tell you that in the absence of a clear overview, the best score you could hope for on Task Achievement is a band 5. Naturally, it’s common sense to invest sufficient time so that you’re able to produce a well-thought-out overview that summarises the main stages.

Broadly speaking, it is easier to write a response to a life cycle than to most other task types, provided that you know what to do and that you’ve had enough practice.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 3)

So far in our series of blog posts on conditional sentences, we’ve discussed the zero, first and second conditionals.

In this final part, we’ll talk about the third conditional and then do a quick comparison of all four structures.  

Third conditional

Unlike the first and second conditionals, which talk about situations in the present or future, the third conditional is used to talk about a past situation that is unreal. In fact, we imagine a change in a past situation, where something did or did not happen, and then imagine a different result for it.

Examples

If Tom had played, he would have scored for sure.

If I had married her, I would have lived in Switzerland.

Sam wouldn’t have passed the test if his girlfriend hadn’t helped him.

The first example is about Tom, who did not play in a particular match. However, the speaker imagines just the opposite and then talks about an imaginary result, i.e. Tom getting his name on the score sheet. The third conditional is often used to express regret or to complain about something.

Structure

if + past perfectwould + have + past participle
conditional clausemain clause

Comparison

Even proficient language users would be quick to admit that it isn’t easy to get your head around the concept of conditionals. One thing to remember is to NOT focus on form, as it may be misleading. For instance, although the second conditional structure has the past tense, such sentences usually talk about the present or future.      

Here’s a quick comparison of the various conditional structures to help you decide when to use what:

ConditionalExampleTimeMeaning
ZeroIf you heat chocolate, it melts.AnyTalks about something that is always true
FirstIf I get this job, I’ll buy you a new phone.FutureTalks about something that is likely to happen
SecondIf I won the lottery, I would buy a Ferrari.Present or futureTalks about something that is unlikely to happen
ThirdIf I hadn’t drunk so much, I wouldn’t have got into trouble.PastTalks about an unreal past and its imaginary result

Conditional sentences can be hard to master, but remember, if you know how to use them well, you can talk about imaginary situations with confidence.

The View From Campus: Explaining the U.S. Admissions Process

This month, Rosalie Saladzis, Assistant Director of International Admission at Santa Clara University in California, shares a brief overview of her institution, her views on the value of IELTS in evaluating students’ English readiness for university study, as well as an overview of the U.S. college application process.

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words or less.
A: Innovative, Collaborative, Compassionate, Beautiful!

Q: For what is your institution known abroad?
A: Santa Clara University is known as a mid-sized private liberal arts institution located in the heart of Silicon Valley that blends high-tech innovation with social consciousness grounded in a Jesuit education tradition.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad)?
A: Our Leavey School of Business majors such as Finance or Accounting are popular amongst undergraduate students.  Minors like Entrepreneurship and International Business are popular across the entire student body.   
Within our School of Engineering some of our more popular programs are Computer Science and Engineering or Bio-engineering. 

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college? 
A: India, China, Japan, Singapore, and Philippines.

Q: How international is your institution? 
A: 4% of our student population is international coming from 44 different countries.

Q: Do you accept IELTS scores for admissions and do you trust this as a good indicator of a student’s English ability? 
A: Santa Clara University requires proof of English proficiency.  To be considered for admission, we accept IELTS as a strong indicator of English ability. SCU minimum accepted IELTS score is 6.5.

Q: Can you explain the difference between rolling admissions, early decision, early action, and regular decision at U.S. colleges?  

Rolling admissions:

Rolling admissions permits students to submit their applications to the University anytime within a designated window.  The average duration of time students are eligible to submit their rolling application is 6 months, while other Universities may indicate their intent to accept applications until the class is filled. Students can expect to receive a decision within a few weeks of applying under rolling admissions. 

Early decision

Early decision (ED) programs are usually binding.  ‘Binding’ means that the applicant is committing to enrolling at the University if they are offered admission.  The ED option is for students who have decided that a specific University is their first choice.  You may not submit Early Decision applications to more than one institution. Students may apply to other Early Action programs, but must agree to promptly withdraw their applications from all other institutions if admitted into their Early Decision school.

Early Action

Early Action is a non-binding admission program that allows you to get an admission decision sooner. Admission decisions may include: admit, deferred to regular decision or denied.  Early action applicants are not limited to applying to just one University. 

Q: What are institutions looking for in an application essay/statement of purpose? 
A: Institutions are looking for students who are capable of writing at a University level. It’s important that an applicant’s writing sample is grammatically correct and persuasive.  I encourage students to utilise the personal essay as an opportunity to share more about what’s important to them and how they may be a good fit for our campus community.  

Q: How important are deadlines in the admission process to U.S. institutions?   
A: Meeting application deadlines for U.S. institutions is very important.  By meeting the assigned deadline, students demonstrate that they are organised and serious about the possibility of attending their institution. 

Q: What needs to be in a letter of recommendation that my teachers/professors are asked to write?  
A: Strong letters of recommendation include details regarding academic achievement, how the student engages in a classroom environment, work ethic and character.

Q: Once a student sends in all the required documents to complete their application, how soon after that point will he/she receive an answer?  
A: Students can expect to receive an admissions decision approximately 1.5 – 2 months after the application deadline.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 2)

In a previous blog post, we began exploring conditional sentences, a set of grammar structures that describe situations and results. We also looked at some uses of the zero conditional.

In this part, we’ll take a closer look at the first and second conditional.

First conditional

The first conditional is used to talk about an imaginary situation in the future and its possible result. Even though the outcome here is likely, it is not guaranteed, as in the case of the zero conditional.

Examples

If it begins to rain, we’ll get a cab.

If you lie to the police, you might get into trouble.

You’ll miss your flight if you don’t wake up before sunrise.

Modal verbs other than will are sometimes used in the main clause to convey different shades of meaning. For instance, might can be used instead of will to show a slightly lesser degree of likelihood (see example 2 above).

Structure

if + present simplewill + infinitive
conditional clausemain clause

Second conditional

We use the second conditional to describe situations in the present or future that are imaginary. By choosing to use the second conditional, we are saying that the situation we are referring to is unlikely to happen in reality.

Examples

If I became president, I would abolish all taxes.

If I were you, I wouldn’t buy those shoes.

I would marry him if I were single.

Remember, in the second conditional, when if is followed by the verb be, it is common to use were in place of was (e.g. if I were, if he were, if she were, if it were). In fact, in the English-speaking world, the phrase ‘if I were you’ often accompanies a piece of informal advice (see example 2 above). You can use it to tell someone what you think they should do in a particular situation.

Structure

if + past simplewould + infinitive
conditional clausemain clause

Although the conditional clause here has a past tense, it does not indicate past time. The use of past tenses indicates a distance from present reality, thereby making what is being said imaginary.

Do make sure you come back to read the final part on conditional structures.

A Quick Guide to Conditionals (Part 1)

There’s little doubt that the primary purpose of using language is to communicate thoughts and ideas, but this can only be done effectively if the user has sufficient grammatical competence.  Poor use of grammar can cause confusion, sometimes leading to a complete breakdown in communication.

Not surprisingly, a candidate’s ability to use grammatical features with precision is something that all English language tests assess. One way to show off your grammar skills in a test is by using conditional sentences, a set of structures that can communicate a range of ideas.

Basically, a conditional sentence has two parts, which describe a condition and its result. The if-clause (conditional clause) talks about the condition, whereas the main clause tells us about the result. Here’s an example:

If you do your homework,I’ll get you an ice cream.
conditionresult

The example sentence above begins with the if-clause, followed by the main clause. Alternatively, you may begin a conditional sentence with the main clause and then add the if-clause.

I’ll get you an ice cream if you do your homework.

A change in the order of the clauses does not alter the meaning of the sentence in any way. The only difference is punctuation: when we begin the sentence with the if-clause, we use a comma to separate it from the main clause.

There are several types of conditional sentences in English. Here, we’ll consider four basic structures that are commonly used.

Zero conditional

We use the zero conditional to talk about things that are generally true. What we mean to say by employing this structure is that something always leads to something else, and that the result is guaranteed. Zero conditionals are particularly useful for talking about scientific facts, or general truths connected to rules and laws.

Examples

If you heat iron, it turns red. (scientific fact)

If I drink tea at night, I don’t fall asleep. (general fact about an individual)

You get fined if you ride a motorbike without a helmet. (general truth connected to law)

Structure

if + present simplepresent simple
conditional clausemain clause

We’ll be back soon with another blog post on some more common conditional structures.  

The View From Campus – How Welcome Are International Students on U.S. College Campuses?

This month we hear from Dana Brolley, Director of International Services, at the University of Idaho, on this very important and timely topic that is likely on the minds of international students considering study options in the United States.

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?

A: Welcoming, safe, research, beautiful campus, land-grant

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?

A: Top 100 public school in the USA, two thirds of undergraduates conduct research, lots of attention from faculty and staff, focus on innovative solutions for global warming and environment challenges,

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?

A: Engineering, Agriculture, Natural Resources, Architecture, Music

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college/How international is your institution?

A: China, Saudi Arabia, India, Nepal

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?

A: We require a 6.0 for undergraduate and a 6.5 for graduate applicants. IELTS is a great tool and we like that we can verify results!

How Welcome Are International Students?

Q: Given the current administration’s America First policies, are international students still welcome in the United States?

A: Absolutely! Moscow, Idaho where the University of Idaho is a welcoming town that values and celebrates diversity. The city earned the coveted #1 spot on Livability’s 2018 list of the Best Places to Raise a Family. This is reflected through our student and scholar population who have approximately 180 dependants living here while they complete their academic programs. The community is very environmentally focused and engaged in solutions to climate change.

Q: What steps do universities take to help international students feel welcome on campus?

A: The International Programs Office provides centralized services to our international population from an intensive English program, tutoring, student events, scholarships, immigration support, advising, study abroad and more. Our largest annual event, Cruise the World, attracts approximately 1500 campus and community members who come together to celebrate cultures from around the world. This year’s event is coming up on Feb 1, 2020.

Q: What is the role of an international student office on campus?

A: We provide full wrap-around support for all students, scholars, staff, and faculty in the US on visas as well as assist with all extracurricular needs of the community to connect them to resources available on campus and in the community. Everything from snow-shoeing to scholarships – we’re here to help!

Q: How seriously do U.S institutions value having international students on campus? Give examples.

A: We provide special international student scholarships, have dedicated staff to assist international students and support many international student clubs and activities as they promote their home cultures.

Q: What advice would you give prospective international students considering U.S. colleges to help them understand what life would be like for them in the U.S.?

A: Beyond rankings, academic programs, and costs – which are all very important! – it is important to consider the community where you will live for years. Moscow is very safe, very accessible (I walk to campus every day!), welcoming, surrounded by beautiful nature where you can experience wildlife, skiing, river rafting, hiking, climbing etc. and access to larger cities is very convenient. Students who came here from large cities have told me how much they love living here. Coming the US to earn a degree opens doors for life changing experiences both in and outside the classroom. Make the most of your adventure to learn!

IELTS Speaking Myths Busted (Part 3)

So far in this series, we have dispelled quite a few myths surrounding IELTS Speaking, facts that actually have little impact on your final score.

Read on to discover what other misconceptions people commonly harbour about the Speaking section.

Myth #7: Examiners aren’t interested in what test takers say

I think my examiner had little interest in what I was saying. He/she kept interrupting me.” It’s a grumble that test takers often have on completing the Speaking interview.

The truth: In IELTS Speaking, the examiner has between 11 and 14 minutes to assess a test taker’s language level. So, f they feel that the test taker has spoken enough in response to a question, they will want to move him or her on so that conceptually harder questions can be asked. Such an approach allows test takers to produce more complex language, opening the door to attaining higher scores.

Myth #8: Always use formal vocabulary

IELTS is a high-stakes test that is internationally recognised, so many wrongly believe that they should use formal language throughout the test.

The truth: Part 1 of the Speaking interview gives test takers the perfect opportunity to settle their nerves, as they are asked questions on familiar topics. While responding to questions on topics such as home, work, friends, or interests, it’s quite natural to use words and phrases that appear in our everyday conversations (e.g. chat with friends, have a blast). In fact, too many formal expressions at the beginning of the speaking interview could be perceived as a sign of rote learning, which doesn’t exactly help.

Myth #9: All prompts in Part 2 must be covered

In Part 2, the test taker will receive a task card with the topic they’ll need to speak on. The card will also have 4 prompts, each beginning with a wh-word (e.g. who, when, why). Many mistakenly believe that including all the prompts in their answer is a must.  

The truth: While the prompts can help test takers speak at length effortlessly, they are under no obligation to use them. What’s important is to produce a well-rounded answer that lasts 2 minutes; using the prompts given on the task card is a matter of choice.

The next time you spot any of these myths anywhere, do bust them. And when you need IELTS Speaking advice, see that you get it from an authentic source.   

IELTS Speaking Myths Busted (Part 2)

In the first part, we busted some myths surrounding the IELTS Speaking section, proving how speaking too fast, faking an accent, or putting on formal clothes don’t really help you get a higher band score.

Here are some more notions about the Speaking interview that you should reject straightaway if you happen to hear them.

Myth #4: Never disagree with the examiner

In the last part of IELTS Speaking, which will be a discussion, the examiner might challenge you on your views. Quite often they play devil’s advocate to have a good discussion about a topic. The end result is that you, as a candidate, receive enough opportunities to speak at length and substantiate your claims. A common misconception is that you need to agree with whatever the examiner says.

The truth: Do not feel obliged to agree with the examiner’s views. It’s worth remembering that the views you hold DO NOT get assessed. It’s the language you use to communicate your views that determines the final outcome.

Myth #5: Always speak the truth

Sometimes questions in the Speaking section require the test taker to draw on their own personal experiences. For instance, in Part 2, you may be asked to talk about ‘a time when a vehicle you were travelling in broke down’, but what if you’ve never had such an experience? Whilst it is a plus to be able to fall back on past experiences, this may not always be possible.      

The truth: There’s nothing wrong in using your imagination if you don’t have much to say on the topic that you’ve been asked to talk about. The Speaking examiner’s job is to test your level of English, not to check the authenticity of the details you choose to include in your answers.

Myth #6: The test is easier at some centres

Being an internationally acclaimed test, IELTS is available at as many as 1600 locations around the world. However, a considerable amount of effort has gone into ensuring that the test experience remains the same irrespective of where it is taken. 

The truth: IELTS speaking examiners are qualified and experienced English language specialists who work to clearly defined criteria. They undergo extensive training and are subject to ongoing monitoring, quality control procedures and re-certification, all of which make ratings consistent across test centres. 

There’s more to follow in the final part, so do watch this space.

The View From Campus – How International Students Can Finance Their U.S. Studies

This month’s post is featuring Aimee Thostenson, Director of International Student Recruitment, at University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Ms. Thostenson explains one of the most critical elements to successfully studying in the United States: funding your years of education.

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?

A: Large, research, public, comprehensive, urban

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?

A: High-quality and top-ranked academic programs, great metropolitan location, affordable tuition and many opportunities for students to get involved outside the classroom

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?

A: At the undergraduate level, the most international students are enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Science & Engineering, the Carlson School of Management and the College of Food, Agricultural & Natural Resource Sciences. 
At the graduate level, the most internationals students are enrolled in the College of Science & Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts, the Carlson School of Management and the College of Education & Human Development. 

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?

A: China, Republic of Korea, India, Malaysia & Vietnam

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process?

A: Students can submit IELTS results as part of their application for admission.  At the undergraduate level, our minimum for admission consideration is 6.5 overall with a 6.5 section score in Writing.  Graduate programs require 6.5 overall with 6.5 section scores for both Writing and Reading.

Q: What are the best sources of funding for international students coming to the U.S.? 

A: Students should ask the admissions or recruitment representative at each university they are considering for funding options available. Some universities will offer merit-based scholarships, which means that they award the scholarships based primarily on a student’s academic record or grades. 

Universities may also offer need-based awards, based on the student’s family financial situation.   This type of award might require a separate application or might be included in the merit-based scholarship consideration. 

Sometimes, universities may offer special scholarships because of a personal attribute or talent, like a scholarship specifically for students who play a particular instrument or intend to go into a particular program/major.  Sports or athletic scholarships are also an option, but they are often extremely competitive. 

Graduate students, in addition to merit and need-based scholarships, may be eligible for assistantships (teaching or research under the direction of a faculty member).  Usually, assistantships mean that the full or partial cost of tuition is waived and the assistant may receive other benefits like a salary and health insurance. 

Q: How should prospective international undergraduate students look at the price of a U.S. higher education? 

A: Usually, admission and recruitment staff at US universities will be very forthcoming with costs and scholarship options and they know that it is a primary concern for most families.  Education is an investment in a student’s future, so it is good to focus on finding the best fit for a student’s educational goals – affordability is an important factor in the equation.  

Q:For graduate degree seeking students, what is the best advice for finding institutional aid?  

A: Graduate students should be in contact with the academic department directly about funding opportunities.  Graduate admission officers also can assist prospective students to find the right person.

Q: Talk about the role of work in funding an international students’ education in the U.S.?

A: All students, regardless of level, can consider on-campus jobs to supplement their funding.  While an on campus job cannot usually cover the full cost of tuition, it can help with personal expenses or books.  International students who come to the USA with an F-1 student visa can work up to 20 hours per week while classes are in session and up to 40 hours per week during vacations and breaks. 

Q: Are there funding sources available for students after their first year of studies, in case they don’t receive any support initially?

A: Some universities will allow international students to be Resident Advisors for a residential hall floor in exchange for housing and food.  Usually this is offered to students who have already been studying at the university for one semester or a year.  Academic departments may offer special scholarships to students enrolled in specific programs. 

IELTS Speaking Myths Busted (Part 1)

Since its introduction almost three decades ago, IELTS has emerged as the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and global migration.  

Over this time, some myths about the test have also been established. In this series, we’ll attempt to dispel some of the myths about the IELTS Speaking test.      

Myth #1: Speak as fast as you can

In the Speaking section, test takers are marked on four criteria, one being fluency and coherence. A common misconception among test takers is that it’s good to speak as fast as you possibly can in order to show the examiner that you are a fluent speaker. Unfortunately, this isn’t always helpful – if you focus on speed and say whatever comes to mind, you may soon start sounding incoherent. Besides, speaking fast can also make you breathless, affecting your delivery and resulting in a lower band on pronunciation. 

The truth: While it’s important to speak at a reasonable pace and without hesitation, what you say should be well organised and logical. A higher rate of speech DOES NOT automatically mean a higher band score on fluency. What you should aim for is producing answers that are sufficiently developed.

Myth #2: Put on an accent

The IELTS test accepts all standard varieties of native-speaker English, including North American, British, Australian, and New Zealand English. However, this doesn’t mean that non-native speakers are expected to sound like native speakers of the language. Trying to fake an accent could have a boomerang effect – some of the sounds you produce might become unintelligible.

The truth: Pronunciation is assessed in IELTS, accent ISN’T. As a test taker, you need to ensure that you’re intelligible to the examiner throughout, and that’s all that is required!

Myth #3: Dress formally

It’s surprising how many test takers feel pressured to dress up and look their best in the hope that it might fetch them a higher speaking band score. Nothing could be further from the truth: the examiner closely monitors what you say during the test, not what you’re wearing.

The truth: Your choice of clothing has absolutely NO bearing on your final scores, so DO NOT agonise over what to wear to the speaking test. Choose something that makes you feel confident and comfortable. We’ll be back soon to bust some more speaking myths.

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