What Do You Do If Your IELTS Score is Not Good Enough?

What Do You Do If Your IELTS Score is Not Good Enough?

By Clara N. 

What happens if you don’t meet the standards of your dream school? Or what if your IELTS results aren’t good enough for the job you want? What if the country you’re trying to immigrate to wants a higher score? When your IELTS score is unacceptable, what do you do next?

You have a number of options. We’ll explore them below.

Bad IELTS score? Resit the test

An IELTS retake is an obvious choice. And the IELTS makes it very easy to retake the exam. Unlike many other standardized tests, the IELTS does not place any limits on how frequently you can take the exam. Nor are there rules on how long you need to wait before you resit. As the official IELTS website states, if you decide to resit the test, “you can register for another IELTS test as soon as you feel ready to do so.”

However, this most obvious option may not be your only option for improving your IELTS results. In fact, it may not even be your best option. Let’s look at a few more possible courses of action.

Options if you have a bad IELTS score for school

Talk to the Uni you applied to

If your IELTS score falls short of your school’s requirements, there’s a chance that the uni you applied to may still accept you. School admissions offices are sometimes willing to be flexible about your IELTS scores. This is especially true if you have a strong professional or academic background.

Sometimes your school may also be willing to extend your conditional acceptance. This allows you to study with them on the condition that you take some additional English classes. 

Apply to a different university with easier IELTS requirements

Even if your target school isn’t flexible on their IELTS requirement, there are many other schools out there. And IELTS requirements can actually vary a good deal at different schools. If your IELTS score gets rejected at one campus, it can’t hurt to look for other unis that find your score perfectly acceptable. A “bad” IELTS score may not be bad in the eyes of every admissions office.

Consider an alternative to the IELTS, such as the TOEFL

Most IELTS-accepting schools will also accept scores from other English proficiency exams. The most common alternative to the IELTS is the TOEFL. Now, there’s no clear answer to which test is “easier,” objectively. But there are certainly some test-takers who personally find the TOEFL easier than the IELTS. It could be worth your while to look into the TOEFL as your next option. 

Apply for a different level of visa

Maybe you don’t have the IELTS score for the exact visa you wanted. But you could still have a chance at a different visa class, one with lower IELTS results requirements.

To give one example of this, New Zealand requires an IELTS of 6.5 for their Skilled Migrant Visa. Suppose you can’t quite reach that score, but you have a spouse that can get a 6.5. In that case, your spouse could apply for a skilled migrant visa, and you could initially apply as your spouse’s dependent. That only requires an IELTS score of 5.0. Alternatively, you could possibly apply for a New Zealand Essential Skills Work Visa. This visa has flexible, varied IELTS requirements. It all depends on your skills and the job offer you get.

And that’s just one example of how New Zealand can be flexible on IELTS scores. There are other ways to score lower and still go to New Zealand. Other countries also have similarly varied IELTS requirements. You can find alternative IELTS visa requirements in any IELTS-accepting nation.

Take a different English exam

We have already spoken about alternative exams for university applications. Immigration offices also offer a few other English exams beyond the IELTS. Most famously, Australia recently began accepting the TOEFL for immigration. Similarly, most U.S. states will accept the TOEFL for medical professions  instead of the IELTS. In another North American example, Canadian immigration accepts either IELTS results or CELPIP results (Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program) for skilled migration.

Once more, these are just a few examples. If your IELTS score is a little low, always see if you can take a different exam. Often, you can!

Really bad IELTS score?

Keep working on your English

If you tested into IELTS Band 5, you almost certainly need better English for university study. And at Band 4 or below the average IELTS score, your English proficiency is likely too low for most immigration visas. If you scored in these lower IELTS Bands, you aren’t really ready for an IELTS retake. Moreover, you likely won’t find an alternate school or different test that works for you. In this case, you’ll really need to improve your English skills before you can move forward.

Top 10 ways to improve your IELTS score

So, we’ve talked about a lot of alternatives to resitting the IELTS. But what if that’s what you want to do, or need to do? If the IELTS is the only test for you, you have just one option: improve your IELTS score.

As mentioned above, sometimes the best way to improve your IELTS score is to work on your general English skills first. But there are many other things you can do to get yourself into a higher IELTS band.

Below, is a list of the top 10 things you should do if you want to improve your IELTS score.

#1: Practice English as much as possible

Don’t just confine English study to an IELTS prep bubble. Even when you’re not in an IELTS practice session, you should look for ways to expose yourself to English. Read English websites, magazines, newspapers, and books. Watch English TV shows. Listen to English radio and podcasts. Talk to others in English, such as foreigners in your home country, or local people if you already live in an English speaking community.

#2: Learn all about the test

Make sure you know everything about the test: timing, format, types of passages and audio tracks, the interview questions you’ll get in IELTS Speaking, the different IELTS Writing tasks, and so on.

#3: Get feedback on your IELTS Writing and Speaking

It always helps to find another person for feedback on your English speech and writing as you practice for the IELTS. This person could be a classmate, teacher, family member, or friend who you can share your diagnostic responses with. Just find someone whose judgement you trust.

#4: Find good vocabulary word lists

You can’t memorize every vocabulary word that might appear on the IELTS, but there are certain words you’re pretty likely to see. Those words are ones you should commit to memory. Perhaps the best official list of IELTS vocabulary is Cambridge’s Vocabulary for IELTS book. Other unofficial sources, such as IELTS Liz or Magoosh’s IELTS vocabulary flashcards.

#5: Practice understanding vocabulary in context

For the most common IELTS vocabulary words, there are IELTS word lists. For everything else, there is “vocabulary in context.” This is the skill of guessing at or recognizing the meaning of words based on the language that surrounds them. This is absolutely essential to improving and getting a truly good IELTS score. The English language has around a million words and you will always encounter some words on the IELTS that you don’t know. But the IELTS will always give you clues to the meaning of any important words. Learn to read and listen for these clues.

#6: Keep your note-taking under control

Note-taking is very helpful on the IELTS… but only if done intelligently and in moderation. If you take notes too heavily in IELTS Listening, you may find you are so busy copying down what you hear that you don’t take the time to actually understand what you hear. Similarly, in IELTS Reading, there’s a fine line between brief helpful notes and overly-long, distracting notes. Keep your notes minimal; focus them only on the very most important key words and ideas.

#7: Learn to pre-write

Prewriting is the act of making notes and an outline before you write or speak in English. On the IELTS, this is a valuable skill for both IELTS Speaking and IELTS Writing. In the IELTS Speaking interview, you’ll be given a “topic card.” After a minute of preparatory prewriting, you’ll give a short speech on the topic. And in IELTS Writing, making notes and an outline for each essay will greatly improve your essay score. Insufficiently planned writing is the biggest reason that otherwise skilled IELTS test-takers get poor IELTS scores in the Writing section.

#8: Practice visual literacy

The IELTS tests a language skill you may not have heard of before: visual literacy. Visual literacy is the ability to read informational graphics such as charts, tables, and diagrams. Charts, tables, and diagrams come up in IELTS Reading, Listening, and Writing. Take some time to practice reading these kinds of infographics in English and familiarize yourself with IELTS visual literacy tasks.

#9: Practice test skills, not just language skills

While the IELTS is a measure of your English language ability, it’s also a standardized test. That means you should focus on test-specific skills as well as language skills during your IELTS prep. Keep track of your pacing and develop techniques that help you finish tasks within the testing time limit. Understand the different question types and the best ways to approach them. Know and anticipate the unique structure of the test. Then, for a top score, blend good English language ability with these testing skills.

#10: Take care of yourself on test day (and the day before)

Do all that you can to be in top physical condition by test day. Rest well and eat well the day before the test and the morning of. And don’t worry too much about studying in the 24 hours before the test. One more day of study won’t make much of a difference. But being alert, healthy, and calm in the examination centre makes a huge difference.

Final thoughts

Understanding the IELTS Bands and how they’re calculated is key. Make sure you know what IELTS scores are required of you.If your IELTS score is not good enough, there are many other options to explore. Above all, be ready to improve your IELTS score—and your general English skills—if need be.


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  1. Fetwi Sahle
    Fetwi Sahle
    August 23, 2021 at 10:06 am

    I would like to thank you so much for these top 10 clues about IELTS to be considered. During exams naturally, we human beings most of the time feel worries and fear.
    I haven’t taken the IELTS exams yet. However, I would like to do exams or IELTS if you are able to help me with how to engage in it. Please send me the steps I have to follow .

    Thank you in advance.

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