What Happens When a Native English Speaker Takes the IELTS exam?

What Happens When a Native English Speaker Takes the IELTS exam?
On the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the Endeavor, a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.
-Benjamin Franklin


While I was in Vienna, I arranged to take an IELTS test.  What is IELTS and why are you taking it, you ask? IELTS stands for "International English Language Testing System" and it's used to (wait for it) gauge someone's English language skills.  But why would a native English speaker, such as moi, need to test their language skills?  While most test-takers are not native English speakers and take the test for university programs abroad, many people also take the exam for international work or visa purposes.  So I fall into the second category, since I may be applying for a visa to live/work in Canada or New Zealand and an English proficiency test is required for that, native speaker or not.  (For the record, let's just say I was the only US citizen in Vienna taking an English proficiency test, and the IELTS staff was quick to point this out with confused looks on their faces hehe.)

The exam was a bit pricey at $250, so fortunately the results are valid for two years.  It's worth mentioning that the test itself isn't easy and is stressful to take, even for native English speakers.  It involves a lot of logical thinking and attention to detail, which can trip anyone up.  (Don't believe me?  Try the sample tests; my mom, a very smart lady, took them and made quite a few mistakes.)  For the listening part, the recorded voices have various accents (Irish, Australian, American, etc.) and it can be challenging to understand everything they say because they may use pronunciations and vocabulary different than the English one is used to.  All-in-all, though, I found the listening part to be the most stressful (no repeats!), and the reading and writing parts to be almost... pleasant.  I mean, who wouldn't enjoy writing a 250-word essay about the pros and cons of raising children with little responsibility, or answering questions about how a toy library works??  (I must have enjoyed it a little too much, because I received the lowest score on the writing section, wah wah.)  Surprisingly, the speaking part was also stressful, like job interview stressful, and being the shy, self-conscious person I am, I got a bit flustered.  (It didn't help when IELTS gave me weird instructions before going in the room, like "Do not, I repeat, do not shake the interviewer's hand.")

So how does the test work and do I have any tips?  There are two types of tests (general and academic) and people applying for visas will take the general test.  Tests are given all over the world, usually in major cities every month; I suggest booking the IELTS at least a month out, because testing dates/locations can fill up fast.  As described, the test is made up of four parts (listening, reading, writing, speaking) with the last part given separately.  The first part takes about three hours total, and it is very structured, as in they practically strip search you as you enter and someone must accompany you to the bathroom during the test.  This is a difficult test to "study" for apart from understanding the exam structure, preparing accordingly per IELTS, and knowing English well.  Even for native English speakers, it really is helpful to practice the test in the weeks before the exam; the free sample tests IELTS provides online are sufficient and there's no need to purchase practice exams and other extras if you are a native English speaker IMO.  

After all of that how did I fare?  According to the handy chart "Understand how to calculate your IELTS scores," I am a "very good user" clocking in with a solid overall score of 8.5 out of 9.  While I'm no Socrates of the English language, I do have a master's degree and a keen interest in reading and writing so I thought that maybe my results would be a smidge closer to 9.  Alas, a 9 was not in the stars and I will have to just deal with it.  Taking the exam was an interesting experience and I feel a bit more prepared now for the visa application process.  Oh, and along the way I learned a fun fact: Did you know that the US has no native language?