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The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is the most popular English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration. It assesses all 4 language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing, has an excellent reputation for rigour and security and is accepted by over 10,000 organisations worldwide. International nurses wishing to register to work in the UK are required to score a level 7.0+ in Listening, Speaking and Reading, and 6.5 in Writing and medical doctors need an overall 7.5+, with no individual skill scoring less than 7.0.

University entrance requirements range between 5.5 and 7.5, depending on the university and course.

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Speaking Test

Candidates are given a band score according to the following criteria:

  • Fluency and Coherence
  • Lexical Resource
  • Grammatical Resource
  • Pronunciation

The 11-14 minute test consists of an oral interview between the candidate and the examiner. There are three parts to the test: a 4-5 minute general conversation about everyday topics, a 2 minute monologue on a topic given by the examiner and a 4-5 minute follow-up discussion, which may contain an element of challenge. All Speaking tests are recorded.

Listening Test

The listening test takes approximately 40 minutes and consists of 4 sections, with 10 questions in each. Questions appear in the order they are heard. Candidates are required to follow conversations and monologues in everyday social contexts, educational settings and academic lectures. The recordings are heard once and contain a range of native speaker accents. Each question is worth 1 mark and a range of question types is used, for example, table completion, multiple choice, sentence completion and labelling a diagram. Candidates are given 10 minutes at the end of the recording, when they can transfer their answers to the answer sheet. Students may be penalised for incorrect spelling and punctuation.

Reading Test

The reading test takes 60 minutes and consists of three different passages. It contains a total of 2,150 – 2,750 words and assesses a range of skills, such as how well candidates understand a writer’s opinions, attitudes and arguments, as well as detail, meaning and inference. Passages are designed for a non-specialist audience and are on academic topics of general interest. They range from the descriptive and factual to the discursive and analytical. There are 40 questions, which do not necessarily follow the order of the text. Candidates may also be expected to show an understanding of diagrams, graphs or illustrations.

Candidates must complete 2 writing tasks in 60 minutes.

Task 1 requires candidates to report the main features of a diagram / graph / map / table / chart or similar, in their own words. They need to write 150 words in about 20 minutes. They must not use note form or bullet points and are assessed according to the following criteria:

  • Task Achievement
  • Coherence and Cohesion
  • Lexical Resource
  • Grammatical range and Accuracy​

Task 2 requires them to write an essay of at least 250 words in approximately 40 minutes in response to a point of view, argument or problem. They are assessed according to the following criteria:

  • Task Response
  • Coherence and Cohesion
  • Lexical Resource
  • Grammatical range and Accuracy

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IELTS Overall band descriptors:


Expert user

Has fully operational command of the language: appropriate, accurate and fluent with complete understanding


Very good user

Has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriate words. Misunderstandings may occur in unfamiliar situations. Handles complex detailed argumentation well. 


Good user

Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriate words and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.


Competent user

Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate words and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language particularly in familiar situations. 


Modest user

Has partial command of the language, coping with overall meaning in most situations, though is likely to make many mistakes. Should be able to handle basic communication in own eld. 


Limited user

Basic competence is limited to familiar situations. Has frequent problems in understanding and expression. Is not able to use complex language. 


Extremely limited user

Conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations. Frequent breakdowns in communication occur. 


Intermittent user

No real communication is possible except for the most basic information using isolated words or short formulae in familiar situations and to meet immediate needs. Has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English. 


Non user

Essentially has no ability to use the language beyond possibly a few isolated words.