No one is born an expert

I’m Rachel. I don’t have a linguistics or TESOL degree. I’m writing as an IELTS test taker who worked hard to get a decent score. I’m writing to counterbalance Miss Anisa, because let’s be honest no one is aiming 8.5, some of us only need the bare minimum. Am I right? That being said, we still need preparation because who wants to pay $200 to get 6.0 then fade into oblivion in a scholarship screening process? So, what did I do to get ready for the test? Aside of joining an IELTS preparation class, here are five things I did to stay motivated and get my 7.5 target. A little spoiler is that this is all hard work because, simply put, no one is born an expert.

#1 Set a clear goal

In my case, my practical goal was to apply for a postgraduate degree program. That’s what kept me going. It goes without saying that if you have no direction, you’ll just be wandering around and eventually you get demotivated. Some people sign up for the test just to see how it goes and decide later. I think this mindset will stop you from giving your all. Trial and error will only end up in a non-optimal result, but if you see it as the only option – either you do it or die, you’ll take it more seriously. Quite literally when I thought about the $200, do it or die because it’s a lot of money. Set a goal first then sign up for the test and not the other way around! Otherwise you will only make the IELTS franchise richer. One for them. Zero for you. I decided that I was not going to pay $200 to be deemed incompetence. There. That’s my ideological goal.

#2 Knowing how to do it is not the same as being able to do it

I prepared for IELTS on my own for a good one month. I did IELTS exercises almost eight hours per day. I made a schedule for a month. I was practicing on my own so when it came to practice speaking skill, I literally talked to myself. I talked to my laptop’s camera, recorded my speech, and self-reviewed it. It felt like I created my own personalised IELTS course as a continuation of the classical IELTS I joined previously. This is because knowing how to do something is one thing, but being able to do it is another. Knowing which one is the gas and brake pedal and knowing how to change gears doesn’t make you a good driver – actually driving on the road does. In the IELTS class, which by the way was taught by Miss Anisa, I started to know how to compose a piece of text that adheres to the IELTS criteria. But I knew that knowing was not enough. That’s why I practiced and practiced until it’s not just knowledge but skills and competence. How many of you just dive straight into the test after a short IELTS preparation class? Folks please chill, step back and reflect on your progress. Unless you’re truly fluent, it’s better to take time.

#3 Know your weaknesses

I couldn’t read graphs and I over-overanalyse things. It took me ages just to come up with a writing outline. That’s why I decided to spend more time improving my writing skills. I allocated time to practice task 1 and task 2 separately and I did this for an extended period of time. Soon extensive practice like this turned tedious so I allowed myself a break from the academic writing. I started writing a diary because it could reduce the monotony and I could be more creative. I wrote one entry per day, practicing the fluency and not worrying too much about the accuracy. When I felt more at ease, I went back practicing task 1 and task 2. The free-writing helped me with the overthinking. Because my attitude slowly changed into: Whatever! Don’t think! just write! I started to feel more relaxed. As for the difficulty in reading charts, I kept similar attitude in mind: it’s just IELTS, it’s not undergraduate thesis. Don’t think too much! Just write. Funny enough, when you feel at ease and stop worrying, that’s when you perform better. My tendency to get caught in the details and stutter started to decline and I could focus on seeing the big picture, hence, completing the tasks. We all have weaknesses. Rather than denying it, I turned my weakness on its head. I practiced writing like my life depended on it.

#4 You can’t fill a cup if your pot is empty

I hope that’s the correct metaphor. My point is, some parts of the test are productive skills i.e. speaking and writing; and we cannot pour ideas unless we have something stored in our head. What is the solution to this? Read, read and read! It could be novels, news, magazine, motivational quotes on Instagram or anything. If reading takes too much time then listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, stream YouTube videos. This will get you familiar with various topics that might be a theme in IELTS writing or speaking. For me, I knew I would benefit from enriching my common knowledge on social issues. We never know what questions we might have to answer in IELTS speaking and writing, but what I believe is, although topics may vary, the possibilities are not infinite. Some common topics are: education, environment, health, technology, social media, film, arts, foods, consumerism, tourism and the like. It’s highly unlikely that the discussion is something esoteric, metaphysics or Greek mythology. The questions are all common knowledge, but if we have very limited horizon, we will find it difficult to answer even the simplest questions. Read and don’t leave the pot empty.

#5 Be happy, whatever will be will be

I was smiling a little too wide when taking a picture at the register. The officer even asked me not smiling too wide. This was the mood I maintained on the test date. What I’m trying to say is don’t be too hard on yourself. If you have done the same things as I did like what I described above, you should chill and take some credit. You don’t come unprepared. You have done everything you could. You study for a month non-stop, so much that you start knowing things by heart. You have done your best so what else is left? Even if you lose the battle, you have won the war. The $200 will not go to waste. You will have that que sera sera mentality, whatever will be will be.

Two weeks after the test, I got the score I wanted and I proceeded with my postgrad application. The question is, how did I come up with these tips like a conceited little fellow with a success story? Honestly, this was my second attempt. My first attempt was a total mess. I didn’t do any of those in my first attempt. I didn’t study. I didn’t prepare myself, hoping that I would just get lucky. Then I learned my two lessons: (a) that $200 is a lot and (b) that there is no short cut to success. It’s all hard work. It’s all in the hustle. You need to actually do hell a lot of practice, because once again, no one is born an expert.