Preparing for the IELTS usually starts when you find out you need to get a particular IELTS score for your visa or your university application. Many students spend months alternately worrying about the test and preparing for it. But if you think about it, your IELTS preparation actually began many years ago, when you first started learning English. It’s nice to feel that you’re well on your way already.

The IELTS aims to test your level of English accurately, so in an ideal world, IELTS preparation would just mean improving your English. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Here is my 4 step master plan to keep you on the right track in preparing for the IELTS:

STEP 1: Find out where you stand

If you don’t know what your current English level is in terms of the IELTS scale, you don’t know how far you are from reaching your goal. So the first step in any IELTS preparation plan should be to test your current level. There are lots of practice tests out there but the easiest way to check your current score on the IELTS is to take the EFSET Plus. It’s a two hour test and because it will give you an EFSET score and an IELTS equivalency score for both reading and listening, it’s 2 hours very well-spent. Unless your speaking and writing skills are at a very different level, now you know where you stand.

STEP 2: Improve your English

You knew this was going to be one of the steps, right? Improve your English using online tools, books, or whatever your method of choice may be, or you can take a class. You need to work on all aspects of your English: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. You can use IELTS-specific study tools, but you don’t have to at this stage. Any English learning techniques you find engaging can be effective IELTS preparation, for example:

  • Read in English about subjects you are interested in, and push yourself to look up words you don’t understand. Newspapers and magazines are a good place to build up your vocabulary.
  • Reading will help your writing, but practice writing too. Don’t limit yourself to a single writing style. Keeping a diary in English, writing short stories, and trying your hand at essays are all good practice. Correct your own work or find someone to go over it with you.
  • Watch English movies or listen to English-language radio. Replay the bits you missed until you understand them.
  • Getting enough speaking practice can be hard on your own, but with effort you can find a language exchange partner online or in your town. Push yourself to talk about more advanced subjects than just “hi, how are you” types of conversations.
  • There are also good IELTS preparation courses online and abroad, as well as in schools near you. If you have money to invest in an IELTS preparation course, this can jumpstart your efforts, and take you straight in to step 3.

STEP 3: Learn about the IELTS test format

Improving your English is not enough to get a great IELTS score. A native English speaker who takes the IELTS won’t get a perfect score if he doesn’t study the test itself. You need to know how the test scoring works, what length of text is required for each prompt, and when points are taken off or added. There can be essential little things like:

  • Should I guess at an answer if I’m not sure, or skip that question?
  • How many times will I get to hear a recording in the listening section?
  • What if the examiner can’t read my handwriting?

While step 2 was all about improving your English skills, this step is about using the skills you have to get the best possible score on test day. There are websites and IELTS preparation books to help you understand the IELTS test structure better. Start by taking a careful look at the official site. Your goal on this step is to go in to your IELTS test session already very familiar with the types of questions you’ll be asked, how they will be scored, and what your strategies are to optimize your score.

STEP 4: Test yourself again

When you can tell that you’ve improved your English and you’ve familiarized yourself with the IELTS test, there’s one more step before you sign up to sit the exam. Test yourself again. If you took the EFSET Plus in step 1, take it a second time to see how much you’ve improved. If you can take an IELTS speaking or writing practice test, do that too. Whatever you do, don’t skip this last step. It’s the only way you’ll know if you’re ready to spend money to sit the official exam. There’s no point signing up to take the IELTS if you’re not ready to get the score you need.

With this 4 step IELTS preparation plan, you can go into your test session confident that although it will be challenging, you are ready to get the score you need. When you get your IELTS score, that’s when you’ll know that your IELTS preparation has paid off.