I was elated to learn that I had been awarded the IELTS Local Prize 2018/19. As a self-financed international student, money is and always will be a constant worry during my education abroad over the next two years. The generous scholarship from the British Council acts as a safety net that will help to ease the financial strain and thus enable me to focus on my studies. The prize is also reassurance that I am pursuing something worthwhile not just for my professional endeavours but also for the collective good of society.

In my opinion, the IELTS Prize is the scholarship that anyone with a dream of studying abroad should apply for. The eligibility requirements are minimal compared to other programs: no fixed number of years of work experience is needed, and no specific study major/career is favoured over another. As long as you demonstrate a strong passion and a clear plan for the educational path you have chosen, everyone gets an equal chance of winning. The selection process was also completely transparent. Everything there is to know about the IELTS Prize is available on the official IELTS Asia website, which helps first-time candidates like me, quickly familiarise ourselves with the scholarship.

When it comes to taking IELTS, the British Council has always been my trusted organisation since day one. The first time I took the test in 2014, the service was excellent, especially in terms of pre-test perks. Official practice materials for IELTS were not as abundant as they are now, therefore the ‘Road to IELTS’ package offered exclusively for British Council candidates was tremendously helpful in the last stage of my preparation for the test. I definitely could not have gotten as high a score as I did had it not been for the authentic practice exercises and insights gained from this material. Since then, the British Council has raised the bar even higher to ensure the best test-taking experience. Registration is now available online with a wider variety of time slots, instructions inside the test room are more detailed, and the score-sending process to overseas universities is handled professionally with the help of the staff.     

The main reason I choose to take IELTS instead of other English proficiency tests is because of the diversity offered in all four components. Be it speaking, listening, writing, or reading, the IELTS test covers a vast array of topics that require learners to accumulate real-world knowledge on the subject matters if they are to comprehend the essence of the text/speech fully. The listening test uses multiple accents, which simulate realistic conversations in a world where English is the lingua franca. I believe the ability to recognise and understand the different ways of speaking English sharpened through the test preparation period will come in handy when I study in Leuven, Belgium – a university city with an international student population of almost 40 per cent.

My advice to people who want to ace the IELTS test is to be patient and take joy in the process of learning. The road to excellence may always be arduous, but whenever you feel like giving up, remind yourself why you started and work up the courage to get back on your feet. My journey of gaining fluency in English speaking is an example. When I was in high school, despite having a strong foundation in English grammar and listening skill, I was never able to utter a word in English in front of other people due to extreme shyness and a lack of exposure. I then challenged myself to sign up for a major English speaking contest in Hanoi only to undergo mind-numbing stage fright in front of 50 people. Those 20 seconds of silence felt painfully humiliating at the time; however, now that I look back at this experience, I could see that it was actually liberating. Because I knew things could not go any worse, I kept on trying to push my limits. In the next contest, I made it to the top five best candidates, and at the end of my freshman year in college I earned a first runner-up prize in a collegiate debate competition. Slowly but surely, I became comfortable with presenting myself in the English language.

To push through difficult times in your IELTS/English learning journey, it is essential that you surround yourself with a community of supportive people who are willing to answer your questions and encourage you to move forward. Form a study group, do practice exercises together and give one another constructive feedback. After each week, make notes of the most salient weaknesses you have in each test component so that you can hone in on these areas in the next practice sessions.

In the scenario that I have limited time – say, less than two weeks to prepare for the test, I would prepare myself by taking a full practice test every day. I would focus on the writing skill since this is, in my opinion, the most demanding part of IELTS. To do this, I would find a few prompts from recent actual tests, write my answers in strictly timed conditions, have them reviewed by a more advanced writer and make necessary revisions until I am completely satisfied with my answers. This is my personal best strategy to ‘cram’ for this exam.