Unfortunately, it is very common to hear people asking, “Why is my IELTS grade so low?” The IELTS exam is a big factor in many lives and it’s also an expensive and stressful test. As such, people often get a lower score than they expected and then wonder what happened. It seems unfair.
In fact, there are many reasons why your IELTS grade might be lower than you expected and this article is going to explain some of them.
IELTS is Hard
First of all, let’s discuss the most important thing: IELTS is hard because English is hard. This should be obvious to everyone, but people seem to forget it. English is a language and learning any language provides massive challenges. There are thousands of words to learn and hundreds of structures… There so many rules that even native speakers get them wrong sometimes, but you are supposed to get it right for IELTS.
Around the world, band 7 seems to be the most popular target for IELTS candidates. This is because it’s the number #1 requirement by universities, governments, and employers. If you want to move to countries like Canada, the UK, or Australia, this is generally going to be the band that you need to achieve.
However, getting a band 7 requires a really good level of English that most people just don’t have. I say all the time that IELTS IS A TEST OF YOUR ENGLISH but most students treat it as a key to passing a test. It’s about communication, and you can’t fool the examiners. Which brings me to my next point…
Your English is Not Authentic
This might seem a little confusing at first, but what I mean is that many IELTS candidates go into the exam and repeat what they have learned somewhere else. They use clichés, copied ideas, and popular “IELTS phrases.”
What’s wrong with that?
As I said before, IELTS is a test of your English. It is not a test of your memory. When I used to work in China, all my students would start speeches and essays with the same words and it drove me crazy. Their Chinese teachers would tell them: “you’ve got to remember this phrase,” and then teach them these ridiculous and unnatural phrases from textbooks. However, this is not true. No language requires you to memorize groups of words like that.
If an IELTS examiner asks you, “What do you usually do at the weekend?” and you reply, “With the development of technology, I like to go to the cinema,” you will not get a good score. Just because you saw “with the development of technology” in a textbook doesn’t mean it is useful in all situations.
Whether you are doing the writing or speaking exam, you will have a much better chance of success if you avoid repeating things that everyone else does. There are no magic phrases to give you a good score and you cannot learn whole answers to repeat in the exam. I have seen many people try and many people fail by doing this.
Your Expectations are Too High
This is a difficult thing to say, but it’s true: Maybe you are not as good at English as you think you are. Many people get a band 6 and complain that they wanted a band 7, but the difference between these scores is quite significant. It can take a long time to jump from one to the next.
Maybe you are able to communicate well with English speakers in your daily life… That’s a good thing and it certainly shows that some of your English skills are very high. However, IELTS is looking at a range of factors to gauge your overall English skill, and some of those take into consideration basic academic qualities. If you use very informal language in the writing test, you will not score highly. If you make many grammar errors, you will also fail to get a band 7, even if other people could understand you.
I have said before: IELTS is hard. However, it is not impossible. You need to know what is required of you in order to have a good chance of success. And this brings me to the next point…
Maybe the Practice Tests you did are Easier
Lots of people do online practice tests and that is a great idea! These are really helpful to give you an idea of your score and also to give you proper exam-style practice in preparation of the real test. However, are they always realistic and accurate?
The answer is: not always.
Sometimes you encounter reading and listening tests online that are not authentic and perhaps a little easier than in the real test. Or maybe you got a real one but spent more time doing it… Anyway, the result is the same – you think that your score is better than it really is.
As for writing and speaking, lots of people get their peers to review them and this is not honestly a good idea. Every day, I go on Facebook and check out the IELTS groups. I see people posting their writing samples and other IELTS candidates say things like, “Well done! This is definitely a 7.5!”
That’s a nice sentiment, but often the writing is only worth about 5.5 or maybe 6. The problem is that you have asked someone who does not know English well and does not understand the IELTS marking criteria. This is also a problem with poor-quality teachers. These people often think that using lots of cohesive devices and big words will guarantee a high band score… This is a primitive mindset, and unfortunately it affects many people.
One of the biggest problems that affects IELTS candidates is simply nervousness. The IELTS exam is an important moment in your life and for many people it can be the difference between getting a dream job or not. The stress factor is huge.
About eight years ago I was teaching a Chinese student whose English was phenomenal. He could speak perfectly, but in the speaking test he would always score less than 7. I was shocked to hear this because his spoken English was practically at a native level.
The problem was nerves. Every time he went into the test room, he would look at the examiner and just panic. He didn’t know what to say. He would stutter and repeat himself, then say totally incorrect things. Although he knew what was happening, he couldn’t stop it.
Thankfully, for him, we managed to fix the problem and he scored a band 8 on his next test. However, for many people it is a problem that can ruin their life. Stress makes people do strange things. In IELTS, even a little stress can make you use the wrong tense, spell a word incorrectly, or completely draw a blank on an important word or idea.
In this situation, the first thing to do is to recognize that stress is the problem. If you want to get a better IELTS score, it helps to be good at managing your stress levels and coping with difficult situations.
You are Making Mistakes
This last point probably seems pretty obvious, but it’s something that many people overlook. The fact is that there are millions of possible mistakes you can make in this sort of exam. Unless you really know the IELTS marking rubric and have a mastery of the English language, you will probably be unaware of those errors. This is true for everyone, of course, but having a good teacher can really help you.
Let’s take the writing test as an example. Who really knows that you need to do in the writing test? It’s confusing! All the so-called “experts” offer different advice. Which one should you follow? Actually, it doesn’t matter that much as long as you do what the exam tells you. However, it is important to know that you must:
- answer the question fully
- develop your ideas
- present a good structure
- sequence your ideas logically and connect them
- use appropriate language
- use a range of grammar
- make few errors in vocabulary and grammar
That all seems sensible, but many lazy or unqualified teachers give out bad advice. Whilst there are many possible good structures for an essay, they focus on stupid ideas like “You must use these academic words!” If you look at #5, you can see that I have chosen the word “appropriate.” You don’t need big, fancy words to dazzle an examiner. You just need the right words.
IELTS is a difficult test and many people get frustrated because they cannot reach their target score. There are a number of reasons for this and it is probably not just one single reason that causes it for you. Getting ready for your IELTS test requires a range of practice and you should look into improving your English skills systematically whilst also doing some specific IELTS practice. If you fixate on any one part of the test or view the test like some video game that needs to be completed, you will surely not do well. The IELTS test is difficult but it is fair and rewards people with good overall English skills.
Perhaps if you take all of the above ideas into consideration, you can avoid the frustration that comes with doing the test repeatedly.