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16 Jan Thinking of Studying in Britain? Start Preparing Now

If you’re thinking of studying in a British university, you’re going to need a high level of proficiency in English. Not only will you have to listen to lectures and read textbooks on complex academic topics, but you’re also likely to have to write about them. Your exams will be written, and so will much of the coursework which you have to submit on the course. An ability to “get by” in English will not be sufficient.

For this reason, you’ll find that most universities set a specific level of English language proficiency as an entry requirement for their courses, and will ask you to produce certification from a recognised language testing organisation before they will accept you. You can check out the websites of the universities which interest you to find out exactly which examinations each one recognises, but you are almost certain to find IELTS on the list.

What is IELTS?

IELTS stands for the International English Language Testing System, and is run jointly by the University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations, the British Council and IELTS Australia. The exam is taken by over 500,000 people each year and is recognised by nearly 4,000 universities, government agencies and professional organisations in 120 countries around the world.

The IELTS exam consists of four sections : Reading (1hr), Writing (1hr), Listening (approx 40 mins) and Speaking (consisting of an 11-14 minute interview with an examiner). There are two versions of the test – the Academic version and the General Training version. However, universities will generally require the Academic version.

How is IELTS marked?

For each IELTS paper you will receive a score ranging from 0 (did not attempt the test) to 9 (expert user). You’ll find that universities rarely accept lower than a minimum overall score of 6 (competent user), and that the requirements are often higher. The University of Bristol, for example, requires an overall minimum of 6.5 for most of its courses, but 7 (good user) for law and medicine, and 7.5 for English.

Why do I need to prepare?

If you are thinking of going to Britain to study, then you probably already have a good general level of English. The IELTS exam, however, tests not only your general English ability, but also your ability to apply what you know to the academic context. You may have a good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, but unless you’ve had specific preparation, you won’t necessarily know what form of organisation, paragraphing, or style etc you need to use in the writing paper. The conventions of written discourse vary considerably from one culture to another, and what is considered “good” writing in your own language might not be acceptable in English – and of course, vice versa.

How do I prepare?

Many language schools and other institutions run specific IELTS preparation courses, but this option may not be appropriate for you. There may not be a course in your town, the cost may be prohibitive, or the timing and/or time required for the course may just not fit into the schedule of your other studies.

There is however another option. You can now find a number of good on-line courses aimed at preparing you for the IELTS exam. Some of these focus on one section of the exam only (often the writing paper) but others, like the NetLanguages IELTS preparation course [http://businesstalk.netlanguages.com/information/english/courses/ielts/reception.htm], focus on the complete exam. The on-line materials provide guidance and practice for success in all four papers, and your course tutor is there to correct your written work (via E-mail), to give practice for the speaking exam (via Skype or some other VOIP software), and just generally to help you with any problems you may have.

Will the university provide any help once I get there?

Yes. The IELTS exam is just the first step. Most universities will require you to complete a pre-sessional course during the months before your academic course starts. Again, this intended not simply to improve your general English but to prepare you for the requirements of your course : listening to lectures, discussing issues in seminars and giving presentations, using an academic style of writing, reading academic textbooks, etc. The pre-sessional course is also invaluable in providing a settling-in period, which allows you to get used to living in Britain, to start making friends, and to sort out the problems of everyday life before the heavy demands of your academic course start. Some universities run a single, standard pre-sessional course while others base their requirements on your IELTS (or other) test results. Kings College London, for example, requires students with only a 5.5 IELTS score to follow a three-month pre-sessional course, while those with 6.0 and 6.5 may opt for shorter periods if they wish.

Some universities may offer you a place on a pre-sessional course even if your test results are still lower than the requirements of the university department you want to enter, with the chance to retake the test at the end. In this case, the length of the pre-sessional course will depend on how much you need to improve. In the case of IELTS, if no individual score was lower than 0.5 below the required minimum, you could probably bring your score up by 1.0 in about twelve weeks, turning an inadequate overall 5.5 into an adequate 6.5. If, on the other hand you were particularly weak in any one area, you might need longer.

So – if you’re thinking of studying in Britain or any other English speaking country, the first step is to bring your language competence up to scratch. And if you’re not sure of the meaning of up to scratch, you might just have to start preparing now…



Sue Swift

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