Everything You Need to Know About the IELTS Test

Everything You Need to Know About the IELTS Test

By Clara N. 

What is the IELTS test?

IELTS stands for “International English Language Testing System”.

It measures the language proficiency of people who want to study, emigrate or work where English is used as a language of communication. It uses a nine-band scale to clearly identify levels of proficiency, from non-user (band score 1) through to expert (band score 9).

Compared to other Cambridge English Exams, the IELTS is much more useful for immigration or acceptance into university. Cambridge exams such as the PET, FCE and BULATS are used almost exclusively for employment at private companies, rather than the formal granting of medical licences, skilled migrant visas, and acceptance into degree programmes.


Did you know that there are two types of IELTS exams? The two formats are called IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. The difference comes down to purpose and to a lesser degree, format.

Continue reading this post for a breakdown of the major differences between the IELTS Academic vs IELTS General Training, plus the all-time favorite question “Which one is easier: the IELTS General or the IELTS Academic?”

IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training: Similarities

The two different types of IELTS are more similar than they are different. They each have the same very basic format. There are Listening and Reading sections with 40 questions each and 60 minutes each, a Writing section with two tasks, and an IELTS Speaking interview.

You can say that the IELTS Academic and IELTS GT are roughly 70% alike, meaning that 70% of the content will be exactly the same on both exams.

In addition to the identical Listening and Speaking sections, these two versions of the IELTS have Writing sections that are half the same; Task 2 is the same on Academic and GT. You could also say that IELTS Academic and IELTS GT Reading are ⅓ the same. There are three academic passages of equal length in IELTS Academic; IELTS GT has one such passage.

IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training: Differences

So we now know that the two exams are a lot similar. But the little differences in content can make a huge difference in how you study for the exam. And of course, those little differences make a big difference when it comes to where your scores will go, and how they will be analyzed.

The differences mainly lie in IELTS Reading and IELTS Writing. The IELTS GT Reading passages are shorter on average. The passages are also more varied, covering more “work and living” subject matter. And in Writing, the first GT task is far less academic; you write a letter instead of summarising a scholarly source.

Let’s now look at the differences in detail;

Purpose: Academic IELTS vs. General Training IELTS

Academic IELTS

It might seem obvious that the Academic IELTS is intended for students applying for admission in universities and programs in which language is the medium of instruction.

But apart from that, many professionals and job applicants may find that they are also required to provide scores for this version of the test.

E.g. if you want to be a medical professional in Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, you’ll definitely need to sit the Academic IELTS. A wide range of medical jobs require this version of the exam, including doctor, nurse, pharmacist, and even hospital lab technician.

Unlike the general training version, the academic version allows test takers to demonstrate some reading and writing skills that aren’t necessarily part of the everyday communicative experience of English speakers. These are considered to be distinct from reading and writing skills for general purposes.

General Training IELTS

For all other immigration and employment, the general training version is used if you want to enter Canada, the USA, Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, etc. for general immigration.

But that’s not all, multinational corporations sometimes use GT IELTS scores to assess the English ability of their workers. So test-takers can use their score reports to get a job, in some cases.

Content: IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Trainin

University students and professionals must be equipped with English reading skills that are strong enough for texts in professional and academic journals, textbooks, and relevant magazines and newspapers. As such, the IELTS Academic uses texts taken directly from these kinds of sources to test comprehension skills. Similarly, the writing tasks specific to this version use sample topics that would be relevant in academic and professional settings. English writing skills will be assessed to make sure they are strong enough to write college-level essays.

Those taking the IELTS General Training, on the other hand, will encounter the kind of language that will appear in advertisements, guidebooks, magazines, notices, or what working people might encounter in employee manuals. A test taker’s written English will be tested on general tasks such as letter writing or basic essay writing.

Score Comparison: IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training

Perhaps the biggest difference between these two tests comes down to the way they are scored. Granted, IELTS Listening, Speaking and Writing are scored the same way on both exams. But IELTS Reading, which represents a full 25% of your score, is rated very differently on IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training.

E.g. suppose you get 30 out of 40 answers correct in IELTS Reading, also known as raw score of 30. In General Training Reading, that’s an IELTS Band of 5.0. But 30 out of 40 gets you a 6.0 in academic reading. Your raw scores have a totally different meaning depending on whether you’re looking at the IELTS Academic or General test!

Score Comparison Charts: IELTS Academic vs. IELTS General Training

This chart shows the official Reading raw score/band score conversions.

There is also an unofficial table of the difference between Listening and Reading scores on the IELTS academic or general test. This chart from the Wikipedia article on the IELTS, is more complete than the official one.

Which one is easier: IELTS Academic or IELTS General Training? 

It would be hard to say which test is easier between the two. After all, different students find certain things easier or harder. As the expression goes in English, “your mileage may vary”.

With that being said, the IELTS GT is probably easier than the IELTS Academic. Nearly every student will say that it is less changing. Writing a short letter is probably easier than summarizing a complicated graph or table.

The makers of the test certainly seem to agree. The IELTS assumes that getting 30 out of 40 in General training reading is as hard as getting 23 out of 40 in Academic reading. This is why 30/40 General training and 23/40 Academic are both band 6.

However, do not assume that IELTS Listening or Speaking will be easier in general training. These two sections are the exact same format and the exact same difficulty level, whether you’re sitting for the IELTS Academic or General test.

Does this now mean you should choose IELTS General Training over IELTS Academic? Not really. Ultimately these tests really are 70% similar, and you won’t have a choice as to which format you sit for.

I do highly recommend though that you find out from the institution that you are applying to which IELTS version you should take before you register for the test.

What are the alternatives to the IELTS exam? 

Most English language university programmes that accept IELTS Academic will also accept alternative English assessments. Usually, the TOEFL is offered as an alternative to university entrance exam. But there can be other options too. If you want to explore different testing options, contact your school or institution to see if they accept any IELTS alternatives.

In the United States, government agencies also use the TOEFL for skilled migrant visa and licensure for healthcare professionals. Because the IELTS Academic exam is more similar to the TOEFL than IELTS General Training, sometimes the IELTS Academic exam is used to assess the English abilities of foreign workers in America.

The TOEFL is sometimes used as an IELTS substitute for medical professionals outside of the US, too. For General Training, alternative testing may also be possible. Australia accepts both TOEFL and IELTS for immigration.

Final thoughts

I always recommend that you check with the institution you are applying to; what English Proficiency Test they require you to take before actually registering for the test.

And at the end, it does help to get a good score to help you get admission into the institution of your choice.


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