My name is Gift, a 28-year-old woman living in Seattle, WA, USA. I came here in 2018 with a student visa, studying Global Business Certificate Program at University of Washington. After graduation, I took the Optional Practical Training (sort of link an internship) for almost a year at a small startup. Then I decided to continue my education in an Associate degree in programming at a community college. The college required Academic IELTS 6.0 overall, with 5.0 in writing as proof of English competency. My old score has already expired; it’s a bummer. I felt sick knowing that I had to retake it while I wasn’t anyway ready for that kind of mentality.
On Christmas Eve 2019, I just walked out of a relationship with a man I love. No one was right or wrong; it’s just what it was. Both of us got hurt, devastated. Humans are more sophisticated than we think. That was the most miserable New Year of my life. I could be sad all I wanted, but life had to go on. I had to pull my shit together – fast. When your life is on transition, time does fly, things shift quickly, and all you need to get through it without falling apart is resilience, clarity, and focus. This is what you learned when you live on your own in a foreign country.
I found out that the IELTS test date in Seattle that I wanted to take was full till the next month, which would be too late for me to get the result and apply for the college. So, I ended up booking the test in the first week of January 2020 in Portland. Portland is a city located in Tacoma State, which is right next to Seattle. By bus, it takes around 3 hours from Seattle to Portland, and by train, it takes just a bit longer.
Initially, to make the lowest investment in time and budget, I planned to take the earliest bus to Portland, take the test, and come back the same day. But when I broke down the situations and pictured myself in each one, I was pretty sure I would mess up the test badly due to the restlessness, exhaustion, and anxiety from traveling. And I might need to retake the test and waste even more time and money. A similar thing happened last time when I took the test in Bangkok. I woke up so early, caught the train, then had a long commute to the test center. Those hours of chaos already drained me. I even had my period come on that day. Although my test result wasn’t bad, I could have done better if I could have had enough sleep. Glad, I didn’t have to worry about my period this time, and I promised myself that I would never make the same mistake again.
So, I ended up booking a hotel room at Holiday Inn to stay the night before the test date. Nothing fancy; just a standard private room, bathroom, and toilet. I chose it because I valued my privacy and wanted a place with no distractions. It’s also close to the test center and easy to commute. Besides, in case anything went wrong, it wouldn’t hurt my budget much if I took Uber instead. For that one night alone, it cost a bit over $100. It’s the most expensive price I have ever paid so far for my accommodation.
How I prepared for the test.
In a nutshell, I have been passionate about English at a very young age. I had studied in Thai schools until I graduated with a BA in Airline Business Management from Suan Dusit Rajabhat University. I joined Lufthansa airline for two years as a ground staff at Suvarnabhumi Airport. After that, I spent a year in Melbourne, Australia, on a Work and Holiday Visa before flying across the globe to Seattle to study a nine-month certificate program in Global Business at University of Washington.
For years, I had practiced English skills through media like Youtube, podcasts, and books. I usually picked the subjects I was interested in, so the learning became natural, easy, and enjoyable. Once I could understand and communicate the language efficiently, I felt like I could express myself better, even better than Thai. Also, I felt like I’m a better version of myself. With that kind of drive within me, I craved for something more challenging. So, I got out of my country and paved my way overseas.
Taking an English test like IELTS is, however, so much different than the way I communicate daily. Every day’s use of English is more fun and inspiring, but taking IELTS is the far opposite. I think it’s true for most of us. There are more conditions involved, which give me the most pressure, and that compromises my score. But, as we need the score as proof of our ability, there are ways to bring out the best of you during the test.
Taking IELTS this time, I had little time to prepare, so my priority was to focus on my weakest skill – reading. I remember when I took the test last time, I cluelessly guessed more than half of the test but magically passed the test! The reason was, I got overwhelmed with the length of the passage, and that ruined my focus. This time, I should do better.
To know more clearly which level I was at now, I began by doing the practice tests from the IELTS site. I printed out the test, set the timer, did the test, checked the answers, and repeated. Then I moved on to the next reading test. What I found out that works best is skimming the questions and circling the keywords before reading each article. Try to answer the questions while reading and skip the ones that you are unsure about. After you finish answering most questions, come back to finish the rest of the hard ones. This is the best practice I learned and tried to hold on to.
I also ordered an IELTS practice book on Amazon, which delivered to me only a few days before the test date. The book was, ‘IELTS 5 Practice Tests Academic (Set 1: Test No. 1-5)’. It was very helpful. I preferred practicing with books than with my laptop because I can take notes however I want.
The same strategy applied. Read all the questions of each section, circle, or underline keywords before the audio played. Skip the hard ones, and the ones you couldn’t keep up with the audio, then come back to them later. To read and digest the questions quickly and comprehensively, practice as much as you can.
I’m an amateur writer who writes articles once in a while and enjoys writing (thecraftminded.com is my own blog). I wanted to put writing as my strongest skill, but I learned from the last time that the test format is quite intimidating especially the graphs/charts part. So, I spent some more time trying to get familiar with the test format, word choices I should use, and time management.
To me, the best practice was creating a mind mapping before starting to write. It’s how I approach every writing task, including writing tests. It breaks overwhelming thoughts by allowing you to see your thoughts more visually. Then you can categorize, organize, or reorganize and connect them easier, especially with topics that are hard to tackle or require deep analytical thinking. When I don’t make a mind mapping, I tend to talk in circles, and the writing will lack a clear message.
I wasn’t worried much about this part. Again, I only focused on getting used to the test format and did some mock tests by recording videos of myself answering questions, then came back to assess myself later following the test’s criteria here (choose ‘Speaking’). So, you will understand how your speaking will be scored.
Another thing I found very useful is watching Youtube videos regarding the speaking test. Many great examples break down the best practices that you can implement. What I found hard to fix for me is I tend to ramble and can’t round up my thoughts properly.
It sounds like I practiced a lot. It was actually less than 10 hours of my full-focus mock test before taking the real test. It was a messy, hectic period. Apart from the breakup situation, I was also working two part-time jobs. Planning for the trip to Portland was not fun either, especially when you traveled alone, with limited time and money. I took days to research transportation, the transit system, routes, and bus stops. It was stressful and not cheap. I’d rather not screw this up.
What actually happened
The day before the test date, I worked in the morning with brain fog because I stayed up late the night before packing my bag. Glad, the bus to Portland was punctual and quite empty. I arrived in Portland around 8.30 pm, took a streetcar, then Uber, and finally landed at the hotel.
By that time, although I was ready to crash after a long day, I was still excited about the hotel environment. I needed to remind myself that I was in another city. So, let’s enjoy the new vibe a little bit. Sure enough, it’s not something I could invest in often due to the high cost; it’s my right to take advantage of what it had to offer. So, I went to the hotel’s restaurant, somewhat hungry. I blindly ordered fries, chicken caesar salad, and a glass of beer, forgetting all about how large the portion would be. It hit me when I got all the food on my table. It’s way too much food. I could almost finish the salad, went through only half of the fries and beer, then I gave up (Bad practice, please don’t do it.)
I tried to forget about the wasted food and enjoyed my time in a hot bath. Telling you, after an exhausting day of work and traveling, a hot tub could be all you ask for.
I wished I could have slept longer, but at least I felt pretty clearheaded. I hoped to get some time for a mock test in the morning, but I couldn’t manage to. So, I just crossed my fingers. Had breakfast at the hotel and chose to take Uber instead of the bus. At this very moment, my priority was peace of mind.
What surprised me was the test center is a small, single-floor building located right in the middle of a residential area – a lovely area where it is so green, clean, and quiet. The houses are big and beautiful. Some people were out jogging with their handsome-looking dog. This was, by far, the cutest test center I ever been to.
There were just about 30 test takers. The register process was quick and straightforward. However, the desks in the test rooms were tiny, also, there were no headphones. But I felt pretty satisfied with what we got here in Portland. It felt less intimidating.
No one had any trouble with the audio sound – it was loud and clear. I felt confident about the listening test. There were a few questions I was unsure about because I couldn’t keep up with the audio.
The reading part was, on the other hand, terrible. It happened again like the last time in Bangkok, but worse. I spent too much time in the first article, so I had less time for the second and third. I couldn’t remember what the third article was, but it wasn’t difficult to understand. It was just long. When I couldn’t finish the second article, which was the hardest, I freaked out. I wasted so much time flipping between the second and the third one with little progress and lack of focus. At the last minutes of the test, I tried desperately to guess and write down answers as many as I could. Even so, there were still some questions left blank. And that was it—time’s up. I was screwed. I was disappointed that I let the overwhelm take over what I had practiced. All I could do now was hoping to at least pass the test.
The writing test was a relief. I was able to make mind mapping for both sections. Trying hard to wrap up the first part nicely caused me to have less time for the second part (Not recommend this. The second one holds more scores than the first, it should be your main focus.). I roughly spent 30 minutes each part. Anyway, I felt like I kind of nailed the second one as well. Glad, I took the time to get used to the test format. During all written tests, someone nearby me must be starving because I heard loud bowel sounds several times. Some people giggled. I kind of thought it’s funny but truly feel empathized with the person. It must be embarrassing when it’s out of control in a quiet room like this.
My speaking test was scheduled at 2.30 pm. I already felt drained and wanted to call it a day. I was happy that the test center surroundings didn’t add more stress to me. It’s quiet and peaceful. For lunch, I had a yummy sandwich and black coffee at a little cafe near the building.
The speaking test went well, but not great. I got distracted by the way the test committee looked at the clock so often while listening to me. That sometimes made me stumble and lose my train of thought. There were no difficult questions that I didn’t understand. The hard part was how to answer succinctly. The very first part was about the kind of place I was living in, its advantages and disadvantages. Then there were questions about art classes that I needed to share my opinions. The last topic was about my favorite picture at home. This was a memorable one for me. I talked about my black cat’s photograph I took. At that time, the cat was staring at a lizard on the wall, very still. I took a photo of her right in front of her face. So, I got a great picture of her straight face with the amber, wide-open eyes. The joy seemed to make my speaking flow. I missed my cat. Overall, I gave decent answers but sometimes rambled.
I arrived back in Seattle safe and sound that night. The two weeks of waiting period felt like forever. From what I assessed myself, I should at least reach the same score, which was 6.0, with 5.5 in reading. And there it was, my result on the screen: band 7.0 overall, with everything 7.0 and reading 6.0! It’s pretty unbelievable, but I was happy and proud.
To recap and extract what I learned from this whole IELTS journey.
- Strategic preparation
This helps a lot when you have limited time to prepare, when you practice on your own, or when you’re emotionally distracted. It throws you back in focus.
- Quickly discover your weakest skills and put much focus on them. If you are unsure, do an entire IELTS mock test. Then you will know what you struggle with the most.
- Although you already have excellent English skills, make sure you are familiar with the test format and manage time well. The last thing you want is the overwhelm of not knowing which to focus and which to let go.
- Create mind mapping! It’s a great way to tackle writing tests if you know you can’t organize your thoughts and improvise your words well enough.
- Listen to your body and treat it well
Making sure that you’re physically prepared as much as intellectually prepared is crucial. Eat good food, sleep well, especially the night before the test, and let go of anything that bugs your mind. None of that matters at this moment.
- Know your priority and make the right investment
Take me as an example. My priority for this whole IELTS journey was peace of mind. So, I made decisions based on that priority. The trip wasn’t cheap, but it saved me time and away from headaches. If you’re fine at getting up early, commute to the test center, and get back the same day, that’s great—no need to book a hotel nearby or pay for Uber. If you’re okay spending the night at a shared house, socialize with strangers, and use a shared bathroom, then do it—no need to pay more for a hotel room. Do whatever makes you feel good before the test and doesn’t harm your budget.
So, that’s a wrap of my IELTS experience and what I learned so far. I hope it is helpful for you—best of luck!