Tips for language test preparation

Have to take a language test?

Maybe it’s a final exam for your language course or maybe it’s a more official test such as IELTS, TOEFL or TOEIC.  The results of such tests can have a big impact on future careers, entrance to university courses, or even immigration applications.  All this pressure can make test day quite a stressful time.  Clearly, language ability is important for these tests, but test taking skills and mental preparedness are also very important.

Being involved in language testing and test preparation for a number of years, I have seen many “high-ability” learners do poorly in these tests due to of lack of preparation.   So, below I have listed some simple tips to help with preparing for test day. Many of then can also be applied to other types of tests and exams.

Practice under pressure
When doing practice tests, make the conditions as close to the actual test as possible.  Use the same time limits, answer sheets, and even try and visualize you’re at the test center.  Getting used to test pressure will help reduce basic mistakes you make on the day due to nervousness or stress.

Realistic practice tests
Make sure the practice test content is as similar as possible to the actual test.  Ideally, use recently published practice tests that are authorized by the actual test developer (eg. IELTS – Cambridge, TOEIC – IIBC/ETS).  This will not only give you realistic test practice, but also a better idea of how close to your target score you are. (don’t forget to check your mistakes when you’re finished).

Build time management skills
In reading and writing tests, often learners find they do not have enough time to complete all the questions. Doing some practice tests using exactly the same time-limits as the actual tests gives you a change to practice managing your time to get to the end of the test.  Try giving yourself at least 2-3 time targets to meet during the test (eg. 20min for the first 30 questions) and practice adjusting your speed to reach them.

Know the test structure & directions
Make sure you know about the different parts of the test and their directions in advance.  This can not only save you time on the test day but also give you an idea of what types of answers are expected in different parts of the test.  Be careful though, the content and directions of tests can sometimes change over time, so be sure to keep up-to-date on recent changes (test developers usually have this information on their websites).  Also, try doing some extra research on the test as this may also affect your test-taking strategy eg. are all questions weighted equally?  Are there penalties for incorrect answers?  How much is the penalty for under-length answers in the writing test?

Keep things simple
For speaking and writing tests, practice keeping your answers simple and clear.  While your answers are expected to be a certain length and contain detail, they are also expected to be clear and easy to understand.  Avoid using overly complicated language that you are not confident with.  Risk taking is a positive thing in language learning, but usually it is better to keep things simple in speaking and writing tests.

Don’t forget the fun stuff
Focusing too much on practice tests and test-related materials can be demotivating.  Remember to also use topics you enjoy for your study as this will be improving your general skills.  Perhaps you like extensive reading with romance novels or watching TV dramas without the subtitles.  Keep doing this; the more time you spend with the language the better.  Also, keep trying to recycle any new language you discover into your speaking and writing.

The day before
Make plans to get to the test center early.  As with other official exams, if you are even one minute late, you will unlikely be allowed to take the test.  This means you will not only have wait a number of months to retake the test, you will also likely have to pay the test fee again.  Also, don’t forget to prepare and check the documents you need to take to the test eg. correct identification, test registration details etc. Remember to also get a good night’s sleep, staying up late studying the night before is unlikely to help you in language tests.

More on reading & listening:

Recommended free reading sites (& apps)
Recommended free listening sites

Official test site links:

IELTS official website 
TOEFL official website
TOEIC official website