Preparing to go abroad

February 07, 2020

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ONE of the cornerstones of success for most of the working class in Pakistan is to go abroad. Be what it may, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The dream of happier times across the border, not immediately to the East of course, has led hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to seek a better employment and a better future anywhere but in Pakistan.

Some seek the unthinkable journey with smugglers; land routes lead to Europe, while with the sea it is to the Gulf countries. For others though, the journey is more in line with the legal requirements and leads to a future more in line with values tagged to a degree. For this, the students have to make a lot of effort. Get your documents in place … find the right place of learning … hope to get the visa for the country on the basis of your admission … and then plan how to get the money to pay off the student loan that you took to go and study abroad.

An important part of the documentation that you gather for the admission is the IELTS test result. Let us suppose there are those in the audience who (somehow!) don’t know what I am talking about. This is an international test for English proficiency that everyone willing to go abroad, legally, has to take.

By going abroad, I mean, for education, work and even immigration. For more details, you can always Google. There is the education and the general IELTS tests. There is a little difference in the marking but, overall, things are the same.

Giving IELTS is not that simple a task. Many think and take it as an English language learning course whereas that is not the case. The premise for giving an IELTS exams is simply to acknowledge that you have a reasonable control of the English language and all you need is tweaking or simply to be taught how to answer the questions correctly.

English language testing has more to it than you think. For those serious about going abroad, it is always better to prepare accordingly while taking such tests.

Spread over Speaking, Reading, Listening and Writing, the test is designed as such that no one formula fits all. For example, the Speaking one is the only one of the four tests where you get to physically interact with the examiner.

Your replies are recorded in real time and your emotions come into play. Time restrictions are related with the ‘umms’ that one takes to think about what to say. One might think that this is the easy of the tests, but you would be shocked how difficult it becomes for many, the stage-fright syndrome that blanks a candidate at the moment of truth.

You are given the opportunity to jot down your thoughts. Do that. Keep a pleasant face, be happy and jovial when interacting with the examiner. At the same time, be mindful of what the question is. If it references happy times, like favourite childhood toy or neighbourhood, then the smiling should continue or at least be reflective in your answers.

But if the query is about your opinion, or something sad, then the smiley face would definitely be out of league. Natural emotions are appreciated. In opinionated questions, it is always good to express yourself. Say strongly for the topics you believe in, but do interact with the examiner.

Some candidates, as a result of the stage fright, even close their eyes to be in their own zone when speaking. That is not good. The expressions on your face should be representative of what you believe and what you want to say. Even if the English is not up to mark, you should be able to communicate what you want to say.

The challenge in the two minutes that you get to express yourself is to be clear about how you want to express yourself. Say what you want to say and keep saying. Do not stop. Pause only when the examiner asks you to. If you do before that, you lose marks. When I gave IELTS, the biggest mistake I made was that I stuck to the literal meaning of the question. And after I had answered it, I stopped, not realising the examiner was judging me for my eloquence, and not for the knowledge on the subject. I should have deciphered the look on her face. Instead, my confidence / arrogance forced me to lose marks. Don’t go for hand waving, and, for God’s sake, do not let that spit start flying out of your mouth in enthusiasm. The examiner might be seated close enough to get affected or offended. Be natural and within the limits of social etiquette.

In the other IELTS tests, things are a different kind of difficult. For most of us who are accustomed to rote learning it is difficult to take a decision immediately. In the Listening part, you have to jump to an answer immediately. Or at least save it in a part of your brain that you can re-collect in the time you get to review your answers. Never leave a blank answer. Always give it a shot and hope for the best.

Here, too, my novice approach cost me. I left a couple of answers thinking ah, what harm would two answers going to do to me. Every answer left unanswered deprives you of an opportunity to score a perfect 40 (band 9). My errors pulled my answer to 6.5 overall. There were incorrect answers too; it was probably my arrogance in play again.  

Reading was challenging with indirect questions looking for direct answers. In Writing, the trick is to go for the comprehension first rather than the letter. The topic of writing carries the most marks in this module. But in the given time, if you think of going for the letter-writing, you end up losing time, and, thus, marks. There is always the initial draft that is then reviewed.

At first, you think you have done a great job. It is just that you can make it better. You review. You rephrase. You rewrite. And by the time you review the time left, you have spent 30 minutes perfecting 150 words and now you are left with 30 minutes for 250 words! Now imagine had you done this the other way round. This is the IELTS test, not your primary school test where you have to impress the teacher with eloquence! Get to the comprehension part, get it done in 40 minutes and then focus on the letter.

When I gave the IELTS tests, there was only the option of doing it in hard copy. It had been over 10 years since I left the university and had become a salve to the computer. So, when I got to the IELTS part, it was difficult for me to compose my thoughts fast enough to be able to write the correct answer or phrase in the short time I had.

Now, the option of taking the IELTS exam online is there. If you take this option, you get to save time by not having to transfer your answers on the first page answer sheet. You also get to play around with your thoughts and change your comprehension sheet as per your liking.

Judging by the advertisements I received online while writing this piece, there are a number of institutes around the country giving IELTS preparatory classes. Though they charge a good penny, but that is worth the investment considering that the IELTS tests now cost Rs35,000 in one go.

If you plan to go abroad, start planning your IELTS now. Start reading newspapers for sure. Start building your vocabulary and start brushing up your synonym list. All these will definitely help your IELTS test when the time comes.