The Basics of IELTS for International Students

Did you know that English is the top spoken language globally? According to Berlitz, around 1.132 billion people speak English worldwide. Approximately one-third of these or 379 million are native English speakers, which means the rest had to study the language.

There are many reasons non-native English speakers study English. One of the most common is to pursue higher education and graduate studies abroad. And, if you wish to study in a country where English is the native language, you may want to go to an IELTS center in Abu Dhabi, Berlin, Singapore, Paris, Brussels, or wherever you might be; IELTS centers are available globally. 

Is IELTS Necessary to Study Abroad?

If you’re studying in an English-speaking country, you might be required to prove your English proficiency. And IELTS does just that. Your IELTS scores will tell your target university or the immigration officer that you pass their English language ability requirements.

Even universities in non-English-speaking countries may require you to attain a specific IELTS minimum score. This happens when the courses in your program will be taught mainly in English.

Universities may or may not explicitly require IELTS. However, even such universities would probably accept your IELTS scores and consider them when evaluating your admission application.

Furthermore, even if your target university does not require you to take the IELTS, your destination country’s immigration authority may have IELTS thresholds for student visa applications. IELTS is clearly the preferred test for demonstrating English language ability in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

Generally speaking, the required IELTS scores are higher for postgraduate studies than degree programs, which are higher than the required scores for non-degree programs. 

What Is IELTS?

IELTS means International English Language Testing System. It tests, evaluates, and rates a person’s English listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills.

To put it fairly simply, IELTS is an exam designed to assess and rate people’s mastery of the English language against a set, statistically validated standard. Thus, every IELTS score corresponds to a specific level of English language proficiency.

In other words, your IELTS score is definitive and verifiable proof of your English language level. More than 11,000 training and education institutions worldwide recognize IELTS. 

IELTS Scoring

After taking the IELTS exam, you will get an overall band score and an individual score for the four component tests: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Component scores may be a half-band (e.g., 6.5) or a whole band (e.g., 7.0).

The individual components scores’ average is the overall band score. If the average score ends in a quarter (.25) or three quarters (.75), round up the score to the nearest half or whole band. Therefore, an overall band score of 5.25 becomes 5.5, while an overall band score of 5.75 becomes 6.0. 

The IELTS 9-Band Scale System

The following are the IELTS standard band scores and the level of English proficiency each band score represents.

  •   9 = Expert user
  •   8 = Very good user
  •   7 = Good user
  •   6 = Competent user
  •   5 = Modest user
  •   4 = Limited user
  •   3 = Extremely limited user
  •   2 = Intermittent user
  •   1 = Non-user

The expert user and the very good user have a fully operational command of the language. The former has complete understanding, fluency, accuracy, and precise usage, whereas the latter has occasional inaccuracies, misapplications, and misunderstandings.

The good user has operational command of English, occasionally tripping up on accuracy, usage, and understanding like the very good user. On the other hand, the competent user has a practical command of English, although he has more inaccuracies, inappropriate usage, and misunderstandings than the good user. And the modest user has partial command and a general understanding of the language, and rudimentary English communication skills.

The non-user occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. This pertains to someone who knows just a few words and their meanings. The intermittent user demonstrates little understanding of the language, while the extremely limited user can communicate in English but only in highly familiar contexts. In contrast, the limited user has basic English competence but only in familiar situations. 

Minimum Band Score Requirements

Different universities have different minimum IELTS band score requirements. The following are the threshold band scores for some universities. Note that this information is provided for benchmarking purposes only and may change anytime or be valid only if you meet certain other conditions.

To know the minimum band score you need to get admitted, inquire directly with your target university.

  • Harvard University: 6.5
  • Saïd Business School, University of Oxford: 7.5
  • Stanford University: 7.0
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 6.0
  • Columbia University: 7.0
  • University of Cambridge: 6.5

The higher your IELTS band scores, the better your chances of getting accepted into your dream university abroad and obtaining student visa approval. So, before you apply to take the IELTS exam, enroll in IELTS coaching. You may also enhance your focus through some neurofeedback training for peak test performance.

IELTS Test Types

There are two IELTS test types: Academic and General Training. Both tests evaluate English reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. However, they have different contexts. 

The IELTS Academic Test

The IELTS Academic test is designed to test for English language ability in the academic context. In other words, it will test your knowledge and command of academic vocabulary and language.

Get the IELTS Academic test if you want to apply for admission to a degree or postgraduate program. You should also take this exam for professional registration purposes. Someone who wishes to become a licensed nursing, legal, medical, or engineering professional in an English-speaking country will want to take the IELTS Academic test. 

The IELTS General Training Test

The IELTS General Training test assesses English language ability in social and workplace contexts. In other words, it will test your knowledge and command of everyday English vocabulary and expressions.

If applying for non-degree programs, the IELTS General Training test might be sufficient. Universities and colleges in non-English-speaking countries may also require this version of the IELTS. You may also be required to take the General Training test if seeking employment overseas. 

How Do You Take the IELTS Exam?

Registering for the IELTS is a straightforward process. It’s just a matter of finding an IELTS testing center near you and filling out and submitting an IELTS exam application form.

If everything is in order, the testing center will notify you about your test schedule. You just have to show up then to take the test, although the Speaking Test will be administered at an earlier or later date.

IELTS results should be available 13 days after test completion if you take the paper test. If you take the computer test, results should be available in three to five days.

IELTS and Studying Abroad

IELTS is a test that assesses your English language reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. And if you plan to study at a university in English-speaking countries – particularly in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – you probably need to take the IELTS to qualify.


Jerrin Samuel is the Executive Director at Regional Educational Institute (REI) in Abu Dhabi. Since 1995, REI has been at the forefront of education by delivering quality corporate training courses in the UAE, helping many businesses and organizations achieve greater productivity and higher customer satisfaction levels.