What is IELTS? Definition, Types and How it Works

IELTS, or the International English Language Testing System, is a widely recognized test that measures English language proficiency. If you’ve ever wondered, “What is IELTS?” – well, you’re in the right place.

What is IELTS?

IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System, it is a globally recognized English proficiency exam. This test is widely accepted as evidence of English language skills by educational institutions, employers, and government immigration agencies around the world.

Imagine you’re aiming to land a job in a company where English is the primary language, or you have aspirations to study abroad in an English-speaking university.

How do you prove your English proficiency? That’s where IELTS comes in.

It’s pretty much like showing off your language skills in a structured, tested, and certified way.

Key Takeaways

  • IELTS is a standardized English proficiency test recognized worldwide.
  • It plays a crucial role in several life-changing opportunities.
  • It is designed to evaluate your ability to read, write, speak, and understand English.
  • There are two types of IELTS, IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training.

Understanding the IELTS Test Structure

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) measures a candidate’s English language proficiency across four skills: Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking.

There are two types of IELTS: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training.

While the Listening and Speaking components are the same for both tests, the Reading and Writing components differ.

Here is a breakdown of the format for each section:

  1. Listening (30 minutes): This section is divided into four sections, each containing 10 questions. The first two sections are set in everyday social situations, while the last two are set in educational and training contexts. It’s important to note that you will have an additional 10 minutes at the end of this section to transfer your answers to the answer sheet.
  2. Reading (60 minutes): This section also contains 40 questions, split into three sections. The academic version includes three long texts which are typically extracted from books, journals, magazines, and newspapers. These texts are suitable for individuals entering undergraduate or postgraduate courses or seeking professional registration. On the other hand, the General Training version includes extracts from books, magazines, newspapers, notices, advertisements, company handbooks, and guidelines. These are materials you are likely to encounter daily in an English-speaking environment.
  3. Writing (60 minutes): This section consists of two tasks. In the Academic version, Task 1 requires you to describe a table, graph, chart, or diagram in your own words, and Task 2 requires you to write an essay in response to a point of view, argument, or problem. In the General Training version, Task 1 requires you to write a letter (formal, semi-formal, or informal) on a given situation or problem, and Task 2 is an essay similar to the Academic version. It’s advisable to spend about 20 minutes on Task 1, which requires at least 150 words, and 40 minutes on Task 2, which requires at least 250 words.
  4. Speaking (11-14 minutes): This is the same for both types of IELTS and is conducted as a one-on-one interview with an examiner. It’s divided into three parts: the first is an introduction and interview where you answer questions about yourself and your family, the second is a long turn where you speak about a particular topic, and the third part involves a discussion with the examiner where topics in part two can be further discussed.

Remember, the test format might be subjected to changes by the IELTS authorities. Always check the official IELTS website or contact your test center to get the most updated information. Also, it’s advisable to familiarize yourself with the test format by reviewing sample test questions or taking practice tests.

Types of IELTS

There are two types of IELTS: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training.

1. IELTS General Training

This version is typically for those who are planning to migrate to an English-speaking country for work or immigration purposes. It tests basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts.

2. IELTS Academic

The IELTS Academic is designed for people who plan to study in higher education or those seeking professional registration in an English-speaking environment. It reflects some of the features of academic language and evaluates whether you’re ready to begin studying or training.

Brief History of IELTS

Here is a brief history of IELTS from the 1980 till date.

  1. 1980s – Origins: The IELTS began in the late 1980s as a joint venture between the British Council, Cambridge English Language Assessment (formerly the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate), and the Australian organization IDP: IELTS Australia. It was created to assess the English language proficiency of non-native speakers who wanted to study or work in countries where English is used as the language of communication.
  2. 1990s – Growing Recognition: Throughout the 1990s, the recognition and acceptance of IELTS increased globally. Many universities in English-speaking countries began recognizing the test, and it was also used by a growing number of immigration authorities.
  3. 2000s – Rapid Expansion: By the early 2000s, the test had spread to over 120 countries, with test centers established worldwide. The format of the test underwent several changes, including splitting the Reading and Writing modules into two different types – Academic and General Training.
  4. 2010s – Digital Transformation: By the 2010s, IELTS began offering computer-delivered tests alongside the paper-based format, allowing for faster results. This move reflected the growing digitalization trend in education and testing.
  5. 2020s – Ongoing Improvements: More recently, IELTS has continued to update and improve the testing process. This includes measures to increase security and counter cheating, as well as efforts to make the test more accessible to a wider range of candidates.

In short, over its history, the IELTS has evolved from a relatively niche test to a globally recognized standard for English language proficiency, used by educational institutions, employers, and immigration authorities around the world.

Despite the emergence of new testing systems, the IELTS remains a respected and widely used measure of English language proficiency.

Why is IELTS Important?

IELTS acts as a golden ticket for numerous opportunities worldwide. If you’re still wondering, “Why is IELTS important?” here’s a rundown of the benefits:

  1. Global Recognition: IELTS is accepted by most academic institutions in English-speaking countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. It’s also recognized by many professional organizations across all sectors. As of my knowledge cutoff in 2021, over 10,000 organizations worldwide accept IELTS, including schools, employers, professional bodies, immigration authorities and other government agencies.
  2. Immigration Purposes: For people who wish to migrate to English-speaking countries for work or permanent residence, IELTS is often a requirement. Countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK use IELTS to process immigration applications.
  3. Professional Certification: For certain professions, an IELTS score is a prerequisite for professional recognition. This includes jobs in healthcare, such as nurses and doctors, who need a certain IELTS score to practice in English-speaking countries.
  4. Real-Life Language Skills: IELTS assesses your English language skills in a way that is practical and realistic. It covers listening, reading, writing, and speaking – all essential skills for succeeding in an English-speaking environment.
  5. Widely Available and Accessible: With test centers around the world offering both paper-based and computer-delivered options, IELTS is accessible to many people, regardless of their location.
  6. A Measure of Proficiency Over Time: Since language proficiency can change over time, the validity of IELTS test results is limited to two years. While this may seem inconvenient, it ensures that the language skills of individuals are up-to-date, which is particularly important in academic and professional settings.

Overall, IELTS serves as an internationally recognized proof of English language proficiency. It’s important for educational opportunities, career advancement, and immigration purposes, among other uses.


To further clarify “what is IELTS,” let’s look at some frequently asked questions.

The Academic version is for those who want to study at a tertiary level in an English-speaking country. The General Training version is for those who want to do work experience or training programs, secondary school, or migrate to an English-speaking country.

The test takes approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Yes, you can retake the test if you didn’t get the result you needed.

IELTS uses a 9-band scoring system. You will receive individual scores for Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking, and an Overall Band Score.

An IELTS Test Report Form (TRF) is valid for two years.

IELTS is accepted by over 10,000 organisations worldwide, including educational institutions, employers, and immigration authorities.

IELTS scores are valid for two years from the date of the test.

Yes, there is no limit to the number of times you can take the test.

IELTS Academic is for people applying for higher education or professional registration. IELTS General Training is for those migrating to Australia, Canada, or the UK, or applying for secondary education or training programs.

Each section of the test is scored individually, and an overall average is calculated to determine your band score.

Understanding the test format, regular practice, and vocabulary building can significantly help in preparing for the IELTS.


In the grand scheme of things, understanding “what is IELTS” is a small but significant step towards achieving your global ambitions. Whether you’re planning to study, work, or migrate to an English-speaking country, IELTS could be your steppingstone to success.

With adequate preparation and a positive mindset, acing the IELTS can be less daunting and more achievable.

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