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International English Language Testing System (IELTS) – a Guide for Postgraduates

With over three million students taking IELTS in 2017, it’s the most popular English language test for higher education and global migration. There’s a reason for this: IELTS is recognised by thousands of universities across the world, from the UK and Ireland to Australia and America.

Our guide covers everything you need to know about IELTS as a prospective Masters students, from typical university requirements to costs and exam structure.

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What is IELTS?

Jointly managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge English, IELTS helps people prove that they have the standard of English required by higher education institutions, immigration authorities, employers and professional registration bodies.

As an international student whose first language isn’t English, you’ll need to take one of two different types of IELTS: either the standard IELTS Academic or the IELTS for UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) Academic.

The IELTS for UKVI Academic is meant for students who need a visa to study in the UK. The content of the test is the same as the normal IELTS Academic exam, but is designed to satisfy certain visa conditions set by the UK Government. If you’re unsure whether you need a visa to study a Masters in the UK, take a look at our guide to UK visas for postgraduate students.

If you’re from a country that doesn’t require a visa to study in the UK, you simply take the IELTS Academic test.


International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
Length of test 165 minutes
Number of students Over three million in 2017
Grade scale 0-9
Test locations Over 1,200 centres in over 140 countries
Typical cost £165
Established 1989

How does IELTS work?

Unlike other English language tests, IELTS is usually a paper-based exam. However, it is possible to take a computer-based version of the UKVI exam in certain locations.

The IELTS test consists of four distinct papers which, when taken together, will take you two hours and 45 minutes to complete. Question formats range from multiple choice and sentence completion to written responses and summaries.

  • Listening – You’ll answer 40 questions on four different audio recordings of native English speakers (with a variety of accents). This section takes 30 minutes.
  • Reading – Again, you’ll answer 40 questions on a series of general interest texts written for a non-specialist audience. This section is one hour long.
  • Writing – You have to complete two writing tasks in one hour, one of which should be around 150 words long and the other 250 words. The shorter task involves writing a description of a piece of visual information (a chart or table, for example), while the longer one is a written response to an argument or issue.
  • Speaking – Uniquely among the major English language tests, the speaking portion of IELTS is a face-to-face interview with an examiner, lasting between 11 and 14 minutes. Test takers are asked a series of general questions and then have to speak on a certain topic. This topic then forms the basis of a discussion in the final part of the speaking exam. In some cases you can take the speaking test up to one week before or after the rest of the assessment.

You’ll receive your IELTS results 13 days after taking the test.

What IELTS grade do I need?

This depends on the institution and programme, but in general you’ll need an overall IELTS score of at least 6.5, with no particular skill – listening, reading, writing and speaking – below a certain level. Some universities may accept an IELTS score of 6.0.

If you’re applying for a Masters that demands a high degree of literacy – English Literature, for example – you may find that you need to achieve an IELTS score of 7.0 or 7.5.

Who recognises IELTS?

IELTS is accepted as proof of English language proficiency by more than 10,000 education and training providers across the world. This includes almost all universities in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as over 3,000 American institutions.

Chances are, if you’re looking to study an English-taught Masters, IELTS will be accepted by your prospective university. However, it’s always worth double-checking before you book the test.

You can view a list of the organisations that accept IELTS on the test’s website.

Please note that, as mentioned above, you’ll need to sit the IELTS VI version if you’re applying for a UK visa. Also, an IELTS score is only valid for two years after you’ve taken the test.

When and where can I take IELTS?

IELTS is available at over 1,200 test centres in more than 140 countries – please see a list of IELTS test locations. There are typically 48 fixed dates for IELTS tests each year, with up to four exams a month depending on local demand.

If you didn’t get the result that you wanted, there’s no time limit before you’re allowed to retake the exam. But it’s worth taking some time to reflect on your options and make sure that you’re fully ready for another go at IELTS. Don’t rush into resitting the exam! Many universities run IELTS preparation courses, so it could be worth thinking about registering for one of those if you need to improve your grade.

How much does IELTS cost?

IELTS fees depend on the type of exam you’re taking and the test provider.

If you’re taking the IELTS for UKVI (Academic), the standard cost is £200.

If you’re taking a standard IELTS Academic test (without the UK visa requirement), the cost varies from provider to provider. You can expect to pay around:

  • £165 in the UK
  • NGN 68,000 in Nigeria (USD $190)
  • INR 12,100 in India (USD $185)
  • RMB 1,960 in China (USD $310)
  • €223 in Germany
  • €230 in France

Other English language tests

Want to know more about the alternatives to IELTS? Our guide to English language tests covers TOEFL, Cambridge Assessment English exams and PTE Academic.

Last updated - 21/05/2018

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