The Monster Called IELTS

For those who have plans of migrating to other countries, particularly where English is the native tongue, you may be required to take the IELTS and get a specific score before you are granted access by the country’s immigration body. Just like some of you, I also need to take this oh-so-challenging examination before I could practice my profession overseas. Luckily (not exactly, but I’ll get to that later), I achieved my target band scores and now I would like to share my experience with you.

Part 1: What is IELTS?

IELTS stands for: International English Learning System. It is a test of English language proficiency. The test is designed to assess the language ability of non-native speakers of English who intend to study or work where English is the language of communication. It covers all four language skills – listening, reading, writing and speaking. The IELTS test focuses on “International English”, which includes British English, American English and other varieties like Australian or South African English. (Source: here)

Basically, it tests your ability to speak, listen, read, write and understand the english language.

There are two modules for IELTS: the General Training (GT) or Academic. The difference? Roughly speaking, the GT module is required for those who seek to live in an English-speaking country as an immigrant, or if you wish to study for secondary-level, or for those seeking employment. The Academic module, meanwhile, is for those who are applying for higher education or professional registration in an English-speaking country. In my case, I took the Academic module because I want to work as a nurse in the US and in the UK.

(More info here)

Part 2: UKVI vs Academic

UKVI basically is IELTS Academic and its sole purpose is for UK Visa application. That said, the contents of the test is the same as the regular IELTS Academic module.

Part 3: My IELTS Journey: Before I faced the monster

My IELTS journey started sometime around early October 2016. I had just finished with my NCLEX (related blog post here) and was already starting on the next steps of my US and UK applications. Both countries required me to take the IELTS so I immediately got to work.

My first step was to decide whether I needed to enroll to a review center, or if I could just study on my own. There are two conflicting views about this and I will share both advantages and disadvantages of the opposing ideas.

Some people assert that enrolling in a review center is a waste of money, and they say this with the notion that the IELTS is simply an English examination. To an extent, they are correct. This is because there are a lot of free resource materials in the internet, such as free tutorial videos on youtube, sample answers for the writing examinations and some websites even offer free trial versions of IELTS review. Therefore, it can be said that one can opt not to enroll in a review center and simply study by themselves with these free materials. Also, since you’re reviewing at home, you have all the comfort you need such as internet connection, food and you can also study at your most convenient time.

However, the downside to that, is that there is no guarantee that these materials are credible and have undergone extensive research or came from reputable sources. Unlike in review centers where most are affiliated with IDP and British Council, the online contents for IELTS may not be as reliable as the materials from review centers. Another point to consider is that studying on your own does not provide you with a second opinion–that of a person who is more experienced or knowledgeable than you–and that might not help you improve your weak points. As such, it could be challenging to identify if you’re truly ready to take the examination or not.

Meanwhile, choosing to enroll in a review center has its equal perks and negatives. The upside is that you are guaranteed that the review materials are credible and reliable. In addition, most instructors are trained and have commendable IELTS results. Therefore, they are able to assist you in identifying your weak points and can properly explain the twists and turns of the IELTS that may be unfamiliar to you.

An obvious setback of this scenario is that of course, you have to shell out money for the enrollment and if you live far away from the center, you may have to spend money on transportation. Additionally, some review centers may not have the facilities that you want (room, food, air conditioning) and these may hinder you from concentrating on the test. In relation to that, some review centers have large class size, and this can be detrimental to students.

With all those things to consider, I finally decided to enroll in a review center. This is because

(1) I want someone to check my work and I don’t want my personal bias to get in the way.

(2) I have a lot of friends who achieved their target band scores with the help of review centers

(3) I am prone to procrastination and so having to travel to a center everyday will help motivate me.

I narrowed my search to three review centers: Kaplan, Niner, and JRooz. I will not be listing here their pros and cons because each center have their own equal strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately I settled for JRooz due to the recommendations of my friends and because of their agreeable schedules and rates.

And this, is where my IELTS journey officially began.

Part 5: My IELTS Journey: The Ascent

So I enrolled to JRooz IELTS Review Center, and I chose their Makati Branch for the sole reason that my friends attended there. Coming from the south (Las Pinas), their Manila center is more accessible but I decided to brave the odds and trust the Makati branch with my review (I do not regret that decision).

If there are three words that I can share to future IELTS takers on how to ace the examination, it will be these: PRACTICE, DEDICATION and SACRIFICE.

It has been said that there are no shortcuts to success. I can attest to this. The IELTS was a different monster, something that I have never faced before. As some of you may know, I am a nurse and as such I’ve taken two nurse licensure examinations: one in my country, and one in the United States, and while those are definitely difficult, they were at least a territory that I know very well. I mean, I studied four years of nursing school to be a nurse, and so when faced with difficult questions about nursing topics, I am quite confident that I can answer them. When it came to the IELTS however, I was an absolute noob. Hence, I had to work double time and expend more effort than usual.

To be honest with you, english is not much of a hurdle for me. I’m not saying that I’m an expert on the language, it’s just that it sort of came naturally for me. A lot of my friends usually comment that I am very good at it, and I never really had difficulty reading lengthy english texts or expressing myself in english. This is why, when I took my pre-test for my IELTS review, I was confident–overconfident, in fact–that I will be able to get a 7 in all areas.

I was wrong.

My pre-test scores were: Listening- 6; Reading- 6.5; Writing- 6.5 and Speaking- 7. It came as a surprise that I only got 6.5 for reading, because I love to read. And I was also quite shocked that I got the same score for writing because I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I write short stories and fanfictions in english and I was a part of the school paper in high school. Overall, it’s safe to say that that was my wake-up call.

I got off my high horse and took the review seriously. I attended all lectures religiously. I followed their advice to the letter. I practiced as often as I could.

Slowly, my grades started to move up.

It wasn’t easy to get a mark of 7 in all areas. Initially, I struggled with Listening, because I simply did not know how to distinguish relevant information while listening to the audio clip. I tried applying the tips I learned, such as watching english shows–which I didn’t do because I have little patience for TV and movies– I listened to a bunch of english songs though, as well as followed a trio of Irish comedians called Foil Arms and Hog (look them up in facebook! they’re hilarious). My Reading wasn’t also that great since I tend to be cocky and think that I got it–which I obviously didn’t. And my Writing was simply horrendous, at least for IELTS UKVI standards.

For a while, I got depressed. I felt like I was a failure, and everybody had high expectations of me. My mom would often comment how she envisions me to finally be able to provide for the family, my friends were all “Kaya mo yan, ikaw pa!”, and relatives were simply saying that if others can do it, so can I.

The pressure was real, and it was eating me up inside.

Fortunately, I have friends in high places and I turned all these negative experiences into positive ones. I pushed myself to attend the one-on-one coaching sessions as often as I could. I sacrificed one weekend to be able to attend classes and when I’m at home I would practice writing essays as much as I could. In fact, I had collected a small mound of essays and I had exhausted the review books provided to me by the review center.

I immersed myself in anything IELTS-related: I scoured the internet for additional materials, I asked my english tutor (which was paid for by my employer in the UK) to send me more resources and I spent nights on skype with him to discuss how else to improve my scores. I spent almost all of my free time writing essays. I printed several questions from online so that I could practice at home. I listened to audio clips anywhere I could–while waiting for my turn in the bank, while in transit, while waiting for my coffee to heat up.

This will seem insane, but I breathed, ate, and lived IELTS.

Part 6: My IELTS Journey: Facing the Monster

With the help of my teachers at JRooz and Oakley from IELTS-UK program, I was able to maintain a score of 8 to 8.5 in all of the 4 subtests. There were the occasional misses, especially when I fell prey to procrastination, but generally, I was improving. Suffice it to say that I was deemed ready to take the exam.

The big day came. I was dressed to the nines for my speaking test, which was held in Marco Polo Ortigas with IDP. I was two hours early so I killed time by reading Lourd De Veyra’s essays, when the exam finally began, I felt like it was the scariest moment of my life.

The examiner was Filipina, and we covered a lot of topics. She asked me about the street I live in, the place I reside in, what I see outside my window, if I liked reading, what book do I enjoy reading and if I want to teach in the future.Those were just for part 1 of the test.

Part 2 was about advertisements and commercials. Now, this was the part where most students fail, or get a lower score and this is because they tend to focus too much on the content rather than on the language. I felt like I fell prey to this one, because I was aware that I still had some time to talk yet I was already running out of things to say. I just kept talking though and I guess I made it through that part and sort of redeemed myself in Part 3.

Part 3 was tricky because it was about censorship and regulations on TV shows. And it was funny because my examiner and I had some sort of “debate”. In fact, it actually felt quite natural, as if I was just explaining my opinions to a professor. Nevertheless, it was a very unnerving experience on the whole, and I was just glad that the entire ordeal was over.

The following day, I had my Listening, Reading and Writing tests. Now this part of the IELTS was probably the most difficult. I was nervous, obviously, and I prayed to all the saints I knew. As a matter of fact, before the examination, I prayed to St. Jude and St. Claire and my friends also offered prayers for me and asked for divine intervention. And during the test, I paused many times to seek guidance from the Divine Being because the test was just so damn difficult.

I guess the most memorable part of my examination was the Writing test, and this is because I almost flunked it. Yes, I almost got a 6.5 or worse (I needed a 7). I just knew that I failed it that on my way home, I was crying. It was that bad.

What happened was, after I read the questions for both Task 1 and 2, I began drafting my essay outline for Task 2. I often answer Task 2 first because it has a greater weight in terms of score, and that I find it more difficult and therefore requires more time and effort. Unfortunately, I had a mini episode of mental block and I simply couldn’t start my essay. I don’t know what happened, but after 3 to five minutes, I got my groove going and I just wrote like there was no tomorrow. My hand started to hurt but I ignored it. My heart was hammering so fast but I ignored it too. In spite of that, I made many mistakes.

One: I should’ve budgeted my time better. Instead of spending almost 10 minutes on my outline, I should’ve cut it to just 5.

Two: I should’ve just answered the question directly and minimized my word count to just about 300. The question was agree/disagree and I took it further by explaining both sides before giving my own side. I should’ve just stuck to one side of the argument. But then again, if I did that, it may have been not enough to affect my dismal score for Task 1.

Three: I should’ve stuck to the twenty minutes time limit for Task 1.Because I spent too much effort on Task 2, I was left with only 13 minutes for Task 1, which affected my score. I’m guessing that I got 5.5 for Task1 and probably 8 for task 2, that’s why I got a total of 7 in the Writing Exam.

So then I got on to Task 1, and I only had about 14 minutes left, so I rushed it. It was dismal, to be honest, and I know I could’ve done better. I was so crushed towards the end of the test that I was already crying even before I left the hotel. I was sure that I failed.

Yeah. It was that bad.

Part 7: My IELTS Journey: The End of the Road

After the examination, I wallowed in disappointment and self pity for two days. My friends were supportive and tried to cheer me up, but the anxiety simply won’t leave me. There are a lot of things at stake, and I know I can’t afford to mess up. I tried to focus on my job but it was difficult teaching people how to write worthy compositions when I myself knew that I almost flunked the test.

Finally, the day of judgement came.

I was at work when I checked the online results. I will not keep you in suspense here. I passed! I got my target scores and more!

Listening: 9

Reading: 8.5

Writing: 7

Speaking: 8.5

Overall Band Score: 8.5

It was crazy! I didn’t expect to get such scores! Especially in Listening! Wow! Who would’ve thought that I could ace it?

I cried when I saw that I got 7 in Writing. It was just what I prayed for. I couldn’t be bothered with wishing that I got a 7.5 instead or whatever… I was just thankful that I got a 7. That was all that mattered.

“So how did you do it?”

Well, let me just reiterate that there are no shortcuts. Put simply, I studied. A LOT. I sacrificed nights out with friends, I sacrificed TV and movies and even eating out. I planned my days: Mondays are for Writing, Tuesdays are for Listening and Reading, Wednesdays are for Speaking, Thursdays are for Writing and Fridays are for Mock Tests. Saturdays are for Writing again.

I attended my review classes and coaching sessions at JRooz everyday. The instructors are even tired of seeing my face that often. At nights I meet up with my English Tutor, Oakley, through Skype and we’d have mock speaking tests. He helped me alot especially with collocations and grammar. I feel like his being American helped me with Speaking because I got to understand how native-english speakers talk and emulate them. It definitely worked to my advantage.

Of course, I prayed a lot. Faulty Christian as I may be, but I asked God for help and He didn’t fail. I often feel like I’m the worst person there is but He continues to shower me with blessings. Why, God? Do you do this not for me but for those who pray for my behalf? Regardless, thank you.

I also read news articles everyday. Yeah, I know, they’re mostly political bullshit, but they helped me learn sophisticated words that came in handy for my Writing examination. I also watched Youtube videos, especially IELTS Ryan. Look him up, he has great content!

Aside from that, I also sought advice from my instructors. Sir Ren helped me with connectors, Ms. Erika helped me with my speaking test, as well as Ms. Hazel, Sir Arnold and Ms. Karla. Ms. Lanie and Sir Jeth were instrumental in helping me with writing. The rest of the JRooz team were also integral because they made my review easier and lighter at least.

TIPS!

Okay, so I know that you want tips and I will try to give you ideas that helped me in my review.

  1. ALWAYS READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.
  2. The only way to ace the listening test is to listen to a wide variety of accents.
  3. Use skimming and scanning for reading. maximize the time.
  4. Read the questions first for Reading.
  5. Underline/encircle key words or phrases
  6. Practice reading everyday.
  7. Practice writing everyday.
  8. Practice speaking everyday.
  9. COMMIT. PUT YOUR HEART INTO IT. You must really want this for this to work. Do some soul-searching, if you need to.
  10. SEEK HELP. Ask friends to help you out, or family members. Tell people at home to not disturb you during your designated review time.
  11. ORGANIZE. A lot of students always say that the reason they do not have time to study is because they are working etc etc. BULLSHIT. (okay that was harsh). Make a schedule, plot days, plan things in advance and STICK TO IT. Put the effort you expend on going to the gym to your IELTS review.
  12. EXHAUST your resources. There are a lot of materials on line, it’s just a matter of being resourceful. Type “free ielts review materials” on google and you’ll see just how many pops up.
  13. ALLOT 1 HOUR OF PURE IELTS REVIEW EVERYDAY. And I mean everyday.
  14. WRITE LEGIBLY
  15. DISCIPLINE
  16. Motivate yourself by listening to upbeat songs. My personal favorite is Jonathan Young’s rendition of the opening theme for One Punch Man. Also his version of Fairytail’s opening song is inspirational.
  17. If you enroll in a review center, exploit their resources.
  18. KEEP AN OPEN MIND. Humble yourself down and do not follow my example where I was cocky and overconfident the first time. I felt like I was better than my classmates and that didn’t help me because when I saw that some of them were getting better marks, I felt depressed and got discouraged. I picked myself up soon enough, but still, it was an unhealthy attitude.
  19. PRAY. And I cannot stress this enough. 

Well. That’s all I guess. I have some essays posted in this site, and I will try to upload more if time permits. If you have any other questions, feel free to shoot me a message! I hope this helps you and congratulations in advance!

PS: Oh, and here are the people that I want to thank

  1. Lord.
  2. Mom, Dad and the rest of the clan– for the support, the financial backing and for being patient with my mood swings
  3. Super Supportive Friend Emi- my sounding board, my sister from another mother, possibly my soulmate in another universe. Thank you for being there. Your presence was enough. 🙂 (Albeit it was only virtual, but still)
  4. MMC peers: Tyang Abi, Tyang Donna, Tyang Karen- you guys were with me during the hell that was MMC, and although we’ve only met for that short time, you guys were real friends. Thank you for believing in me. Karen, thanks for lending me your ear when I was devastated after my exam. I truly appreciated it.
  5. CJ- thanks for the tips and support. 🙂
  6. Koko- you were truly inspirational. Our fates seem intertwined and if it wasn’t for your own IELTS journey, I wouldn’t have been inspired to be better. Thank you!
  7. Teachers at JRooz- Salamat po sa mga “as a matter of fact”, “furthermore”, “connectors” haha. Next time na po yung libre.

Those are the names from the top of my head. If I failed to mention anyone, I’m sorry, but know that I couldn’t have done it without your help. Thank you very much!

And now that I am through with this horrendous exam, I have decided to make it my personal mission to share the blessing by becoming an instructor for JROOZ.

See you in class!

~Nurse Pam/ Ms. Pam/ Sensei

PPS: Some useful links:

For inspirational tunes: One Punch Man, FairyTail— the lyrics to these songs are just uplifting.

For content: IELTS Ryan. IELTS Liz, British Council, IDP, some sample works 

JRooz Review Center- Makati, Manila, Cebu, Baguio, Davao

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