IELTS Secrets

IELTS Secrets

IELTS Secret Key #1 – Time is your greatest enemy

To succeed on the IELTS, you must use your time wisely. Many students do not finish at least one module. The table below shows the time challenge you are faced with:

Module Total time Questions Time for each question
Listening 30 min 40 .75 min
Reading 60 min 40 .67 min
Writing 60 min 2 30 min
Speaking 11-14 min N/A N/A

As you can see, the time constraints are brutal. To succeed, you must ration your time properly. The reason that time is so critical is that every question counts the same toward your final score. If you run out of time on any passage, the questions that you do not answer will hurt your score far more than earlier questions that you spent extra time on and feel certain are correct.

On the Reading Module, the test is separated into passages. The reason that time is so critical is that 1) every question counts the same toward your final score, and 2) the passages are not in order of difficulty. If you have to rush during the last passage, then you will miss out on answering easier questions correctly. It is natural to want to pause and figure out the hardest questions, but you must resist the temptation and move quickly.

Pace Yourself
Wear a watch to the IELTS Test. At the beginning of the test, check the time (or start a chronometer on your watch to count the minutes), and check the time after each passage or every few questions to make sure you are “on schedule.” Remember that on the Listening and Reading Modules you have a little over half a minute for each question. If you can work quickly, you can pace yourself at half a minute per question, which makes it easy to keep track of your time. If you find that you are falling behind time during the test, you must speed up. Even though a rushed answer is more likely to be incorrect, it is better to miss a couple of questions by being rushed, than to completely miss later questions by not having enough time. It is better to end with more time than you need than to run out of time.

If you are forced to speed up, do it efficiently. Usually one or more answer choices can be eliminated without too much difficulty. Above all, don’t panic. Don’t speed up and just begin guessing at random choices. By pacing yourself, and continually monitoring your progress against the clock or your watch, you will always know exactly how far ahead or behind you are with your available time. If you find that you are a few minutes behind on a module, don’t skip questions without spending any time on it, just to catch back up. Spend perhaps a little less than half a minute per question and after a few questions, you will have caught back up more gradually. Once you catch back up, you can continue working each problem at your normal pace. If you have time at the end, go back then and finish the questions that you left behind.

Furthermore, don’t dwell on the problems that you were rushed on. If a problem was taking up too much time and you made a hurried guess, it must have been difficult. The difficult questions are the ones you are most likely to miss anyway, so it isn’t a big loss. If you have time left over, as you review the skipped questions, start at the earliest skipped question, spend at most another half a minute, and then move on to the next skipped question.

Lastly, sometimes it is beneficial to slow down if you are constantly getting ahead of time. You are always more likely to catch a careless mistake by working more slowly than quickly, and among very high-scoring test takers (those who are likely to have lots of time left over), careless errors affect the score more than mastery of material.

For Reading passages, don’t waste time reading, enjoying, and completely understanding the passage. Simply scan the passage to get a rough idea of what it is about. You will return to the passage for each question, so there is no need to memorize it. Only spend as much time scanning as is necessary to get a vague impression of its overall subject content.

IELTS Secret Key #2 – Guessing is not guesswork

You probably know that guessing is a good idea on the IELTS- unlike other standardized tests, there is no penalty for getting a wrong answer. Even if you have no idea about a question, you still have a 20-25% chance of getting it right. Most students do not understand the impact that proper guessing can have on their score. Unless you score extremely high, guessing will significantly contribute to your final score.

Monkeys Take the IELTS
What most students don’t realize is that to insure that 20-25% chance, you have to guess randomly. If you put 20 monkeys in a room to take the IELTS, assuming they answered once per question and behaved themselves, on average they would get 20-25% of the questions correct on a five choice multiple choice problem. Put 20 students in the room, and the average will be much lower among guessed questions. Why?

  1. IELTS intentionally writes deceptive answer choices that ‘look’ right. A student has no idea about a question, so picks the “best looking” answer, which is often wrong. The monkey has no idea what looks good and what doesn’t, so will consistently be lucky about 20-25% of the time.
  2. Students will eliminate answer choices from the guessing pool based on a hunch or intuition. Simple but correct answers often get excluded, leaving a 0% chance of being correct. The monkey has no clue, and often gets lucky with the best choice.

This is why the process of elimination endorsed by most test courses is flawed and detrimental to your performance. students don’t guess, they make an ignorant stab in the dark that is usually worse than random.

Let me introduce one of the most valuable ideas of this course. the $5 challenge:

You only mark your ‘best guess’ if you are willing to bet $5 on it.
You only eliminate choices from guessing if you are willing to bet $5 on it.

Why $5? Five dollars is an amount of money that is small yet not insignificant, and can really add up fast (20 questions could cost you $100). Likewise, each answer choice on one question of the IELTS will have a small impact on your overall score, but it can really add up to a lot of points in the end.

The process of elimination IS valuable. The following shows your chance of guessing it right:

If you eliminate this many choices on a 3 choice multiple choice problem: 0 1 2
Chance of getting it correct 33% 50% 100%

However, if you accidentally eliminate the right answer or go on a hunch for an incorrect answer, your chances drop dramatically: to 0%. By guessing among all the answer choices, you are GUARANTEED to have a shot at the right answer.

That’s why the $5 test is so valuable. if you give up the advantage and safety of a pure guess, it had better be worth the risk.

What we still haven’t covered is how to be sure that whatever guess you make is truly random. Here’s the easiest way:

Always pick the first answer choice among those remaining.

Such a technique means that you have decided, before you see a single test question, exactly how you are going to guess and since the order of choices tells you nothing about which one is correct, this guessing technique is perfectly random.

Let’s try an example:

A student encounters the following problem on the Listening Module in a conversation about the chemical term ‘amine’, a derivative of ammonia:

In the reaction, the amine will be?

  1. neutralized
  2. protonated
  3. deprotonated

The student has a small idea about this question- he is pretty sure that the amine will be deprotonated, but he wouldn’t bet $5 on it. He knows that the amine is either protonated or deprotoned, so he is willing to bet $5 on choice A not being correct. Now he is down to B and C. At this point, he guesses B, since B is the first choice remaining.

The student is correct by choosing B, since the amine will be protonated. He only eliminated those choices he was willing to bet money on, AND he did not let his stale memories (often things not known definitely will get mixed up in the exact opposite arrangement in one’s head) about protonation and deprotonation influence his guess. He blindly chose the first remaining choice, and was rewarded with the fruits of a random guess.

This section is not meant to scare you away from making educated guesses or eliminating choices- you just need to define when a choice is worth eliminating. The $5 test, along with a pre-defined random guessing strategy, is the best way to make sure you reap all of the benefits of guessing.

Scientific sounding answers are better than slang ones. In the answer choices below, choice B is much less scientific and is incorrect, while choice A is a
scientific analytical choice and is correct.


  1. To compare the outcomes of the two different kinds of treatment.
  2. Because some subjects insisted on getting one or the other of the treatments.

Extreme Statements
Avoid wild answers that throw out highly controversial ideas that are proclaimed as established fact. Choice A is a radical idea and is incorrect. Choice B is a calm rational statement. Notice that Choice B does not make a definitive, uncompromising stance, using a hedge word ‘if’ to provide wiggle room.


  1. Bypass surgery should be discontinued completely.
  2. Medication should be used instead of surgery for patients who have not had a heart attack if they suffer from mild chest pain and mild coronary artery blockage.

Similar Answer Choices
When you have two answer choices that are direct opposites, one of them is usually the correct answer. Example:

  1. described the author’s reasoning about the influence of his childhood on his adult life.
  2. described the author’s reasoning about the influence of his parents on his adult life.

These two answer choices are very similar and fall into the same family of answer choices. A family of answer choices is when two or three answer choices are very similar. Often two will be opposites and one may show an equality.


  1. Plan I or Plan II can be conducted at equal cost
  2. Plan I would be less expensive than Plan II
  3. Plan II would be less expensive than Plan I
  4. Neither Plan I nor Plan II would be effective

Note how the first three choices are all related. They all ask about a cost comparison. Beware of immediately recognizing choices B and C as opposites and choosing one of those two. Choice A is in the same family of questions and should be considered as well. However, choice D is not in the same family of questions. It has nothing to do with cost and can be discounted in most cases.

When asked for a conclusion that may be drawn, look for critical ‘hedge’ phrases, such as likely, may, can, will often, sometimes, etc, often, almost, mostly, usually, generally, rarely, sometimes. Question writers insert these hedge phrases to cover every possibility. Often an answer will be wrong simply because it leaves no room for exception. Avoid answer choices that have definitive words like ‘exactly’, and ‘always’.

Summary of Guessing Techniques

  1. Eliminate as many choices as you can by using the $5 test. Use the common guessing strategies to help in the elimination process, but only eliminate choices that pass the $5 test.
  2. Among the remaining choices, only pick your ‘best guess’ if it passes the $5 test.
  3. Otherwise, guess randomly by picking the first remaining choice.

IELTS Secret Key #3 – Practice Smarter, Not Harder

Many students delay the test preparation process because they dread the awful amounts of practice time they think necessary to succeed on the test. We have refined an effective method that will take you only a fraction of the time.

There are a number of ‘obstacles’ in your way on the IELTS. Among these are answering questions, finishing in time, and mastering test-taking strategies. All must be executed on the day of the test at peak performance, or your score will suffer. The IELTS is a mental marathon that has a large impact on your future.

Just like a marathon runner, it is important to work your way up to the full challenge. So first you just worry about questions, and then time, and finally strategy:

Success Strategy #3

  1. Find a good source for IELTS practice tests. These must be OFFICIAL IELTS tests, or they will be of little use. The best source for these is official practice tests from IELTS. A link to a source of official practice tests is included in the appendix.
  2. If you are willing to make a larger time investment (or if you want to really ‘learn’ the material, a time consuming but ultimately valuable endeavor), consider buying one of the better study guides on the market. Again, do NOT use their practice tests, just the study guide.
  3. Take a practice test with no time constraints, with all study helps ‘open book.’ Take your time with questions and focus on applying the strategies.
  4. Take another test, this time with time constraints, with all study helps ‘open book.’
  5. Take a final practice test with no open material and time limits.

If you have time to take more practice tests, just repeat step 5. By gradually exposing yourself to the full rigors of the test environment, you will condition your mind to the stress of test day and maximize your success.

IELTS Secret Key #4 – Prepare, Don’t Procrastinate

Let me state an obvious fact: if you take the IELTS three times, you will get three different scores. This is due to the way you feel on test day, the level of preparedness you have, and, despite IELTS’s claims to the contrary, some tests WILL be easier for you than others.

Since so much depends on your score, you should maximize your chances of success. In order to maximize the likelihood of success, you’ve got to prepare in advance. This means taking official practice tests and spending time learning the information and test taking strategies you will need to succeed.

You can always retake the test more than once, but remember that you will have to wait a minimum of three months before retaking the test. Don’t get into a situation where you need a higher score and can’t afford to wait, so don’t take the IELTS as a “practice” test. Feel free to take sample tests on your own, but when you go to take the IELTS, be prepared, be focused, and do your best the first time!

About The Author