8 Steps to Ace Your English Language Test

Mathilde Frot

Updated April 19, 2021 Updated April 19

This article is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide 2016-2017, available to read online here.

Need to hit a high benchmark in an English language test such as the TOEFL or IELTS? Follow these eight tips to up your game, and show your language skills at their best on assessment day…  

1. Work out the practical details. Do this now.

Do yourself a favor and get the basics out of the way well in advance. Where and when will your English language test take place? What are you required, or not allowed, to bring to the assessment center? Print out directions or save the route in your travel app for offline use, to make sure everything runs smoothly when travelling to the test.

2. Practice does make perfect.

Most English language tests follow a clear and predictable format, with each paper being a variation on the previous one. To achieve the highest scores, you need to be familiar with the format and requirements of the exam.

Practice, practice, practice. A simple search on your internet browser will take you to dozens of free online quizzes designed specifically for the test you will be taking, and you should also be able to find examples of past papers, along with answers and a grading rubric. 

3. Purchase a test-specific textbook or prep guide.

Consider investing in prep material designed specifically for the English language test you will be sitting, especially if you feel that you need a little extra support. If you are keen to keep costs down, look for second-hand copies of official material being sold on sites such as eBay or Amazon.

4. Scribble down a new word every day.

It’s generally a good idea to dedicate time to expanding your vocabulary while you study for an English language test. You could try to make your task easier by restricting yourself to just a few words per day. Learn these using mnemonic devices and a little creativity! If you’re a visual learner and/or social media fanatic, one trick is to set up a dedicated Tumblr or Instagram account and update it with new words every day, just as the Portuguese illustrator Inês Santiago has done with her blog, adutchwordaday.tumblr.com.

5. Challenge your ears by listening to podcasts.

Are you an amateur of crime fiction or second wave feminism? Are you ‘into leather’ like the bespectacled little girl in Annie Hall? With about a million free online podcasts to choose from on sites such as iTunes and the BBC website, there should be something online for you, whatever your interests! Find a regular time each day to immerse yourself in an English-language podcast, such as just before bed or during your commute.

6. Watch TV shows or films (without subtitles).

Everyone knows that all non-native speakers learn English by watching Friends or Game of Thrones without subtitles! Jot down any words or idioms that you are not quite sure about while watching the show, like ‘maester’ or ‘pyromancer’, and look them up afterwards.

7. Read English-language newspapers and magazines.

Being able to read news in a foreign language is a very good indicator of your fluency level. Read newspapers and/or magazines in English and look up any words that you are not quite sure about. Try to stick to the variety of English (US/UK/Australian) your English language test is in, to avoid getting spellings and idioms mixed up.

8. Study on the go with an app.

There are many free language learning and/or test-specific gaming apps to help you prepare. While mobile self-study might not be optimum on its own – you still need to do some in-depth revision of grammar and practice essay-writing – it can be a great way to extend your vocabulary, try your hand at multiple choice questions and keep practicing.  

Memrise, Open Language, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and FluentU are just some of the many great language-learning apps available for free! Each app has a different approach so try a few to see which best matches your learning style.

Best of luck!

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This article was originally published in November 2016 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

I'm originally French but I grew up in Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and Geneva. When I'm not writing for QS, you'll usually find me sipping espresso(s) with a good paperback.

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