Key advice to students taking an exam course

There are a variety of formal English language exams on offer, all with a different focus or different areas of the language being tested. IELTS, for example, has two different versions. The General Training version is often taken for employment or immigration purposes, while the Academic version is usually used to assist with entry to a further or higher education course. There are some exams, such as TOEIC and BEC, that have a Business English focus, and some exams, such as the Cambridge Suite, that are graded to particular proficiencies of English. Once you have determined which exam is suitable for you and your objectives, as well as your current level of English, it’s time to start preparing.

How to prepare for your exam

1. Be realistic

It’s important to be realistic about how much you can achieve. How much do you think you can improve your English during your preparation time? What result can you expect?  If your current level is around B1 and you are hoping to get a Band 7 in IELTS in 2 months’ time, you are very likely to be disappointed. The general rule of thumb often referred to is that it can take 12 weeks of full-time study to improve by half an IELTS band. Research has shown that it can often take candidates from countries that use a different alphabet longer than this to show a significant improvement.

2. Be prepared

As well as making sure you are familiar with the test generally and the type of questions you’ll be asked, you should also make yourself familiar with what happens on test day. You can get a lot of information from the official website of your test provider. They are also likely to have a Facebook page where you can find out more and even ask questions. If you know what time you should arrive at the test venue, what you should bring with you, how to get to there, what you will have to do when you get there etc, you will feel more prepared and, therefore, less nervous.

 3. Don’t ignore General English

Spending all your time on past papers is not going to help you achieve your best possible score. While it’s important to familiarise yourself with the format of the exam, and learn how to deal with the different question types, you really shouldn’t ignore general language practice. Remember that it’s your ability to understand and use English that is being tested. Make sure that your level of General English is up to the level appropriate for the test you’re doing before starting a preparation course.

 4. Revise well

Don’t leave exam preparation till the last minute. Prepare an exam timetable for your study. Studying a little every day is better than cramming just before the exam.

Get to know at what time of day you learn best and schedule your revision accordingly. If you are more alert in the morning plan to make an early start, however, if you are better in the afternoon or evening, revise then.

Take regular breaks. After studying for 20 minutes, take time to go over what you have just learnt before having a 10-minute break. It is beneficial to take a longer break of 3 to 4 hours at some point in the day so that you feel completely refreshed before you start your next study session.

Organise study groups with classmates to make learning more fun. You can help each other revise and giving explanations to others in your own words will make you learn more actively and effectively. If you understand what you are learning, you are far more likely to remember it.

Study vocabulary organised in topic areas. Make sure you understand the meaning of words and expressions then actively practise using them in your conversations and written exercises. Revise topic areas using mind maps. This will help you quickly bring to mind the vocabulary you need to discuss specific topics in the exam in both speaking and writing.

Relate new material learned to your own life and to your own interests as elaborately as you can. Afterwards you will find it much easier to recall in the exam context.

Time yourself doing questions from old exam papers. This will help you spend the right amount of time on each section when you actually sit the exam.

5. Take care of yourself

It’s always tempting, in the run up to an important exam, to spend all you’re time trying to cram more words/expressions/sentence structures into your head, but too much study and not enough rest might actually reduce your chances of doing well. It’s a fact that one of the first things that is affected by tiredness is vocabulary. If you haven’t been sleeping enough, or haven’t been taking a bit of time off to relax, you may be making it more difficult for yourself to remember some English words. A smaller vocabulary is not what you want when doing an exam, so make sure you get an adequate amount of rest and relaxation.

6. Be confident

If you have an appropriate level of English, are well-prepared for the exam and know what to expect, then you have no reason to be nervous. Nerves can affect both fluency and accuracy, so it’s important not to let them get out of control. It is, of course, natural to feel a bit worried or nervous, but you should do your best to stay calm and confident. There are many different ways of doing this? Deep breathing? Visualisation techniques (imaging a certain picture or scene in your mind)? Self-affirmations (where you say positive statements to yourself, e.g. – “I am confident. I can speak English well. I’m going to pass this test.”? Find out what works for you, and do it!

7. Be careful

In the exam remember to read essay questions carefully and plan your answer before starting to write. Afterwards, check for spelling and punctuation mistakes and make sure the word count is sufficient. It would be a pity to lose marks through carelessness.

Hopefully this advice will help you to do well in your chosen exam. Good luck!


Article written by Vicki Craig-Ariyo from Glasgow School of English ( and Rosemary Rowley from Global School of English-Edinburgh (

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Members of IALC share their insights on the language travel industry. Contributors are owners, directors, managers, teachers or administrative staff of IALC-accredited language schools worldwide.

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