It’s the last two or three days before your English exam and you’re sitting at your desk, flipping through papers. You’re looking at the list of speaking topics you found from some IELTS blog and imagining what the perfect answer would be.

After you run through every possible answer in your head, you start looking at the writing tasks and trying to imagine how you would answer each question, and what you would write in each essay.

Then… it hits you. What if they don’t ask those questions? What if they ask me something I’ve never heard of before?

Panic sets in, and you start feeling like you’re not prepared enough. What if they ask me about Elon Musk’s space program?! I don’t know anything about it!

So you pull up a tab in your favourite web browser and start learning all about SpaceX. You learn that it designs, manufactures, and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft…

Wait a minute. Is this really going to help me to get a high score in the exam??

Focus on techniques, not “the perfect answer”

Do you buy lottery tickets every year, imagining what life would be like as a millionaire? Do you walk out in the middle of a thunderstorm, hoping to get struck by a lightning bolt that will give you superhuman powers?

Well, the chances of getting an exam question that you have memorized aren’t that low, but they’re pretty close. The people who design the exam are particularly careful to make sure the questions are different than the previous papers.

So how can you prepare yourself?

Simple: develop skills and strategies that will help you to deal with any question they throw at you. Then you won’t have to worry about having the perfect answer.

1. Analyze the question carefully.

Duh Tyler! Even my children know this one!

Well, you’d be surprised how many people fail because they are overconfident about their abilities.

Overconfidence in your English —> carelessness when reading the question —> an incomplete answer in terms of task requirements —> a low score for task fulfillment

Sounds simple, right? So firstly, do not rush into the question. Take your time to carefully and considerately read it. Read it like a letter from your loved one who hasn’t been home in over three months.

Next, break it into sections. How many elements are involved in this question? What do they expect you to write about?

Use the small amount of time you have to plan. Even a few words on a paper will help greatly to organize your thoughts. Your answer will be much clearer and you will write faster because you will know what you want to write about.

In a writing task, it helps to read the question after you finish each paragraph to see if you are addressing the task appropriately.

In a speaking task, it helps to paraphrase the examiner’s question to make sure you are saying exactly what was asked of you.

2. Explain your ideas fully.

Get out of your head. If you say something, will the listener/reader understand exactly what you mean? And if she does, will she have a good reason to believe what you said?

Get in the habit of putting yourself in the listener’s/reader’s shoes. Question yourself everytime you make a statement:

Why? How? So what? Who cares? Is this relevant?

Think of the consequences.

Tourism in protected areas should be restricted to protect the environment
Ok, but why is protecting the environment important?
Duh Tyler, because we need it to survive!
Then say it!
Tourism in protected areas should be restricted to preserve balance in the ecosystem which ensures future generations will have a stable environment to live in.
Restricted how?
It should only be permitted if tourists take care of the land and leave no trace.

When you answer questions like this, you should think of it like an academic debate, even if you’re not doing an academic test. If you say something, and someone disagreed with you, how would you defend your opinion?

For an essay, ask yourself these questions after each sentence, and then finish each paragraph with a consequence that is clearly linked to the question.

For a discussion, finish by looping your speech back to summarize what you said with a sentence that answers the question again (“So this is why we need to…”)

3. Begin your response slowly.

It might seem like a good idea to just jump in and get started as quickly as possible, but you should use approximately 10% of your time to warm up and get your ideas organized. Trust me, it makes your answer much clearer.

If you’ve been studying for the exam for a while, you’re probably quite familiar with how it is organized and what you have to do. It is important to have this feeling of confidence because it allows you to focus on your ideas and organize them.

Begin a writing task by planning carefully. Remember: no idea is a bad idea in the planning stage! If you have a clear plan about how to answer the question, you will write quickly and your ideas will be logically developed.

Begin a speaking task by planning (if you have time) or by using some empty phrases to full the time. You’re not expected to answer the question immediately, just within the time limit.

– From what I can see in this image, there are (paraphrase the captions)
– (Paraphrase the question), right? Well that’s actually an interesting question. It’s an issue that we don’t often think about these days. The way I see it…

There never is a “perfect answer”

So you can probably see what I’m getting at here. There is no perfect answer, ever. No one answer will ever get you a higher score. Any answer is a good answer, as long as you can explain yourself clearly and justify your reasons.

The problem most test-takers have is they approach exams backwards. They focus on finding perfect solutions when the exam is actually testing language skills. Just improve your abilities, improve your confidence, and keep a firm but steady approach.

Did you learn something? Help your friends to learn too!

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