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The IELTS Exam and the NCLEX

IELTS is the International English Language Testing System. Its exams are designed to test the English language abilities of professionals that would like to study or work in English speaking countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Many immigration authorities, government agencies, employers, schools, and professional associations in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand recognize it.

The IELTS is mainly used in Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, thus it measures general English as opposed to just North American English. Nursing boards in the United States tend to prefer the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) which is American English based, but will often accept the IELTS if a student cannot access a TOEFL testing center in their area. Nurses from Australia, Canada (with the exclusion of Quebec), Ireland, New Zealand, Trinidad, the United Kingdom, and the United States are generally exempt from needing to take an English language proficiency test.

Test Areas Covered

The IELTS covers four primary English language skills: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. There are two versions of the IELTS, an academic version and a general version. Nursing professionals will almost always require the IELTS academic version, so we will focus on that exam.


An assortment of conversations and monologues from speakers of various accents will need to be understood in order to pass this portion of the exam.

Academic reading

An understanding of generalist academic writing such as that found in journal articles and newspapers will be required for this part of the exam.

Academic writing

The ability to present and summarize information and main points is required for this section, as well as the ability to write clearly in a manner that can be understood and that shows a sufficient amount of vocabulary and usage for academic writing. Competencies that you will need to exhibit include the ability to present a position, write about abstract issues, and to assemble an argument.


This area focuses on word usage, sentence structure, articulation, and other areas of spoken word English. It requires the ability to monologue as well as to enter into a conversation with the examiner.

Test Taking

Testing centers for the IELTS exam are available in several nations. There is a computerized version of the IELTS as well as a paper-based version. Both are available to choose from depending on which you would feel most comfortable taking. The test is made up of four sections. The listening, reading, and writing sections must be taken together on the same day and may take about two and a half hours to complete. The final section, speaking, will be scheduled by the testing center and may be up to a week prior to or after the other sections of the exam. Each section is allotted a specific amount of time and may have a testing format unique to that section:

Listening section

This section is approximately 30 minutes long. It requires listening to recordings and then writing answers to printed questions regarding what you hear on the recordings. The recording cannot be repeated so pay close attention to them.

Academic reading section

This section is up to 60 minutes long. Three reading passages are taken from various academic writing sources such as books and journal articles. For each reading section there will be a number of related questions to answer.

Academic writing section

This section is also up to 60 minutes long. It consists of two separate sections. The first section requires an answer of at least 150 words and tests your ability to present and summarize the main features and information found in the example materials that will be provided during the exam section. The second section requires a short essay of at least 250 words that will be in response to a given statement or query. This section will test your ability to argue, discuss, and present a position.

Speaking section

This section will be between approximately 11 and 14 minutes. It is a face-to-face interview with an examiner. You will be required to answer short questions, to speak at length about a topic, and to prove your ability to converse with the examiner.

Preparing for the NCLEX

The state board exam, also known as the NCLEX, is an examination that is required in order to get a nursing license within the United States. Before you can take the NCLEX, most state licensing boards will require foreign nurses to have gone through an exam and visa screening process provided by CGFNS. Part of that process includes the requirement of passing an English proficiency exam such as the IELTS.

The IELTS should be taken prior to the NCLEX in order to meet the English language proficiency requirement needed to be given permission to sit for the exam. The IELTS should also be taken prior to applying for permission to work or attend school in the United States and other English speaking countries. The test can be taken alone or as part of the CGFNS certification process.