How Hard is the IELTS?

If a student asked me this question, I’d probably respond by saying, ‘How long is a piece of string?’, which is a classic idiom that is used to indicate that something cannot be easily measured. You see, technically a piece of string has length, but that length is unknown, hence the phrase ‘how long is a piece of string’ means that the quantitative answer is not known and there is an implicate understanding that the answer will be difficult to find given the information available. If we consider this in the context of the IELTS exam, we must understand that a student’s perceived difficulty will vary from person to person based on that individuals personality, background, learning style, and practice history.


How to assess your level

Each of the four components – listening, speaking, reading and writing – are difficult in their own way. To get an indication of how hard you might find each segment, I’d recommend taking a practice test for each of the categories.  At the end of each practice test, check your performance against the relevant assessment checklist below, which are based on how the IELTs is marked. Circle the number 1-9 (where 9 is the highest). Be realistic about your assessment and if possible check it with a friend or even better, with a teacher. Include notes on how you felt with regards to each criteria so that you can help identify your strengths and weaknesses.

If most of your circles are 1s to 5s, that would indicate that you will find the IELTS exam challenging, and I’d recommend a lot more practice before attempting the examination.  If most of your scores are 8s, and 9s, that is an indication that you will find the IELTS exam relatively easy. I would aim for the majority of your circles to be 7s if you want a good IELTS score on examination day.

To check your progress, each time you do a practice exam or an exercise, rate your performance against the relevant checklist. Date and keep a copy of each checklist to see how you improve. 


Many students find the listening section the hardest, largely because the amount of information that you have to hear and remember before answering the questions.  This requires a lot of concentration, which can get tiring if you haven’t listened to lots of authentic English speech (TV shows for example) and are unfamiliar with different English dialects. Consider your competency in each of the following areas:

  IELTS Listening Skills Checklist - Magoosh


The speaking section is the part that the majority of students will be most comfortable with, as they have practiced it the most.  However, the area most students find hard is staying on topic and giving complete answers. For this assessment, I advise you to have a native English speaker help in the evaluation.

IELTS Speaking Skills Checklist - Magoosh


The hardest part about the reading section is that there is basically too much to read in the time given.  You have to read up to 2500 words and answer 40 questions in just 60 minutes. If you are a student who is comfortable with skimming and scanning you will find this section much easier than other students. Another aspect that students find challenging is the amount of academic vocabulary, which is often difficult unless you’ve had a lot of exposure to news articles. Rate yourself in the following areas:

IELTS Reading Skills Checklist - Magoosh



The hardest part about the writing section is generating ideas and examples that are specific to the task question and then making sure you write enough text all within the time limit.  The academic writing module takes approximately 60 minutes.  You have roughly 20 minutes to write 150 words for the Task 1 question and 40 minutes to write 250 words for the Task 2 question. Not writing the minimum amount has a severe penalty. Check yourself in these areas:

IELTS Writing Skills Checklist - Magoosh

In general, I recommend that you complete as many practice tests as you can before the examination.  By doing so, and using the checklists above, you will gradually learn what’s the most difficult aspect of IELTS for you.  These should be the areas that you get extra tutoring in to help you improve and increase your overall score. Check out these IELTS resources and Magoosh IELTS prep to help get you prepared. 


By the way, improve your IELTS score with Magoosh!

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