Whether you’re studying for TOEFL, IELTS, or another English language exam, prepare like a winner with these 10 study tips.
1. Understand the exam content and format
The main English tests are split into the same different competencies (speaking, listening, reading and writing). Avoid nasty surprises by finding out the typical exam questions for these competencies beforehand, and the time you will have to complete each question.
You should also figure out the logistics before the day of your exam, including:
- The smaller details about the exam, such as how many times you will hear test recordings (if there are any test recordings in the first place) or what types of topics you will write about.
- Where the test center is located, or whether you can take it online (if you’d prefer to).
- What you can bring to the test center on the day.
2. Focus on your weaknesses
Before studying for your English exam, ask yourself: what areas am I weakest in?
Most of the time, all four language skills are weighted equally in an English language exam, so you shouldn’t spend much time on areas where you’re already strong. Put more of your time into improving your weaknesses.
If you’ve taken a similar exam in the past, look through it carefully and make notes on where you went wrong. Or, you can check your current skill level by taking a practice test right away. Either way, you will notice where you perform the worst out of listening, reading, writing and speaking.
3. Make a practical study schedule (right now!)
There’s nothing worse than cramming last minute for an exam, and feeling “I should have prepared better for this!” If you don’t already have a study schedule in place, start one right now.
Take a diary, an excel spreadsheet, or even just a big piece of paper that you can put on your wall and stick post-its on. Work backward from the day of your exam and list the days you have remaining. Split up your time wisely, focusing on your weakest areas, and try to fit in two or three sessions per day. According to research, the ideal work schedule is to work for 52 minutes and take a 17-minute break. Here’s an example of an effective day of studying:
- 11.00-11.30: Vocabulary – Use a flashcard app.
- 12.30-1.30: Writing – Write a 3-page journal entry in your target language.
- 14.00-15:00: Listening – Listen to an English podcast and take notes of new vocabulary.
- 15.30-16.30: Speaking – Chat with an English-speaking friend, exchange partner or English tutor.
A study plan breaks down a huge amount of scary material into smaller, more manageable chunks, and you won’t be afraid that you’ve missed something. Plus, there’s nothing more satisfying than ticking “to-dos” off your schedule. When they’re all done, you’ll be confident knowing you worked hard and smart for your exam.
4. Prepare faster with a tutor
Although the rest of the study techniques in this article are free, purchasing a package of private online lessons before your exam works wonders. A 1-on-1 tutor is the most efficient way to sharpen your performance at Technion Academy we provide before an exam.
Whether you need a quick boost of knowledge before your exam, or if your exam is months away, you can grow in confidence with professional online tutors on Technion Academy.
5. Expand your vocabulary
To ace an English language exam you need to show off an impressive range of vocabulary. One decades-old technique is flashcards, which drums new words into your head through repetition, repetition, repetition. Create your own by writing the word on one side, and the definition and an example sentence on the other. Then test yourself to see if you remember the definition and example.
6. Write a daily journal in English
Writing a daily journal is not just great for your mind… it’s also a fantastic way to strengthen your ability to form sentences.
Writing a journal is a great exercise to help you think in your target language and form sentences quickly. You’ll also spot which important, daily-use words are missing from your vocabulary. This means you can then look them up and add them to your flashcard app to memorize later.
You should also bear in mind that both the IELTS and TOEFL exams include a section where you will be asked to write about your opinion, or describe something. This is where your journal will come in handy, as you’ll write about things, people, or events in your own life, as well as your opinion on them.
A journal is also a great tool to stay motivated. Imagine looking back through a month of journal entries and seeing the progress you’ve made! The topics you write about in your journal will also give you great ideas for what to discuss when you practice your speaking skills.
7. Practice speaking regularly
You won’t find a greater language fluency “hack” than conversation. There’s something about real-life conversation that helps your language skills level up fast: you need to create sentences spontaneously which forces you to think about the right vocabulary, and you also receive listening practice and real-time feedback.
One study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that language skills of learners who practice speaking exceed those who learn from comprehension exercises only. This is likely because our memories prioritize human-to-human experiences with emotions tied to them. Although flashcards and other study techniques are useful, in a live conversation, you get to implement all of the words and phrases you’ve practiced over time.
8. Read as much as you can
Get into reading English material as much as possible. Reading allows you to take in the language at your own pace, and it’s also a fun and interesting way to develop your knowledge. Not just of the English language, but other subjects too!
A little bit of reading every day or two helps a lot. You could read academic journals, books, or newspapers (materials that the IELTS Academic test is based on) or texts you often encounter in daily life: magazines, newspapers, novels or advertisements (which the IELTS General Training test is based on). Your reading material could be fact, fiction, or anything in between. You could also dive into some classic stories in English, where we have an entire list based on your current English level.
While you read, don’t be afraid to make a mess of your books and texts. Scribble down notes, definitions, and translations. This will help you recognize familiar words and how they are used in real sentences and expressions.
9. Don’t forget to listen!
Listening is not as active as speaking, reading or writing, so it’s probably not as difficult or important… right?
Thinking this way is a huge mistake, as research shows that when we communicate, we spend about 40-50% of the time listening. Compare that to the 25-30% speaking, and you’ve got a skill that definitely needs to be developed for your English exam.
You can practice your listening skills in two ways: active listening or passive listening. Active listening means giving your full, committed attention to a podcast, YouTube video, or movie and writing notes as you listen. You can practice active listening while in conversation with an English tutor or language exchange partner, and take notes whenever you learn a new word or spot any gaps in your vocabulary.
Passive listening is where you listen to a podcast or YouTube video while doing other activities, like cleaning your room or walking the dog. It still counts as listening practice, but it’s less focused and can be done in your “resting” times.
Once you’ve topped up all the listening skills you need with these study habits, you will need to put everything you’ve learned into practice with the test material.
10. Take a practice test
In our first tip, we recommended familiarising yourself with the exam material, and understanding the type of answers that examiners want to see. But it’s not enough to just “know” what will get you the highest score. You need to put this into practice yourself.
Fortunately, learning resources and official practice papers can be found for any of the tests online. Once you have downloaded the official TOEFL, IELTS, or other relevant practice tests, sit somewhere without distractions, set a timer on your phone, and get to work on putting everything you’ve learned into practice. When you’ve finished, compare your work with best practice resources and answers from past exams.
One tip is to try and simulate the exact experience of the exam date. If you want to take it a step further, you can drink a cup of coffee before you take a practice test. The adrenaline from the caffeine will produce a similar feeling to the nerves you will have on the day. By simulating the exact experience, you will feel more calm and prepared when exam day comes.
Sharpen your English skills quickly with Preply
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”. This means that the best approach to truly understand something is to practice regularly — not just learn about it in theory. The same principles apply to your English exam.
You’ll have to put in practical effort to sharpen your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Technion Academy who specializes in exams can help you push these skills to the next level, wherever you need improvement. Your tutor will help you construct a plan, practice your speaking and listening skills, and get you in the right mindset. Even if you’re only a few days from the exam and have to cram in some extra knowledge practice, a tutor can help you brush up on the last minute details.
Combine the expert guidance of a tutor with the helpful habits in this article, and you’ll be on your way to conquering the English exam. Good luck!