How should I prepare for an international exam?

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If you’re learning English as foreign language, sooner or later you’ll find yourself sitting for an international exam: a challenge that I hope I can help you approach with the tips and tricks you’ll find in this article. Why trust me? Well, aside from  having sat for international exams in the past, I have helped EFL learners to prepare for international examinations. Along the way, I have noticed that success is not necessarily linked to mere mastery of the language. Here’s a list of some things I think are important to bear in mind when preparing for an international exam. 

1. Prepare yourself mentally

Exam settings are intrinsically stressful. Maybe you won’t be the one stressed out, but you’ll be in a room full of people with high levels of anxiety. This is due to the fact that there tends to be a lot at stake. Also, exam rooms can get really crowded, and international exams tend to last, on average, three to four hours, so prepare yourself to be in the company of a crowd for at least three hours. Also, try to have a hearty meal beforehand, because you probably won’t be given the chance to have a snack in between parts of the exam.

2. Be sure to know the format of the test

Exams are either paper or computer based. Some international exams offer both formats (IELTS and TOEIC, just to name a few), while others are only computer based (TOEFL). Find out if the exam you’re sitting for is paper or computer based, because the format of the exam will determine your experience sitting for it. In my experience, when I had to sit for TOEFL, I found the experience of sitting in front of a computer for four hours to be excruciating, to say the least. Plus, every single component  of the TOEFL was computer based (yes, even speaking), and oftentimes exam components occur simultaneously. This means that when sitting for the TOEFL, you’ll have to talk to a computer, which will record you for a default number of seconds; you’ll also find that everyone sitting around you is talking, and that can get in the way of your performance. In the paper-based version of IELTS, the speaking component takes place either before or after the other three parts, and you’ll have to sit and talk with an examiner for about fifteen to twenty minutes.

3. Find out what the format of the questions is 

All international exams have from two to four components: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Each one of these will have its own format, and its own way to test your knowledge. Some international exams will require you to fill in the blanks, reorder the paragraphs of a text that is out of order, while others will ask you to play with word formation (transforming verbs into adjectives through affixation, for instance). Be sure you know what kind of items you’ll be facing; this will save you time, which is precious in international examinations.

4. Practice mindfully

Don’t be afraid to sit for sample tests. Just bear a couple of things in mind. First, sample tests tend to be harder than the actual exam, so don’t get disheartened if you don’t get the results you hope for the first time. Second, time yourself. Each component of an international exam has to be completed within a specific framework of time. If you don’t finish them in time, you won’t be given a second chance or some extra minutes (better to be safe than sorry!). Third and last, be sure to think about the scores you need as coldly as possible. This will allow you to do some damage control, and distribute the number of incorrect questions you can afford to have in order to achieve the score you need. 

This article was updated on February 6, 2022

Author: Jared Curtis