IELTS fees: behind the scenes

It’s rare to find someone taking the IELTS for pleasure. Almost everyone takes it because they need a particular IELTS score to apply for a university program or a visa. That’s 2.5 million people last year. At 200$ or more per test, that’s a tidy half billion dollars in 2014.  So what is included in the IELTS fee anyway, and why is it so expensive?

IELTS fees for the Academic and General Training tests are the same. Fees vary depending on which country you’ll be taking the test in, but it’s never cheap. If you think about it, it’s a pretty big undertaking to run a test like the IELTS. Here’s a breakdown of what’s involved:

  1. Designing the original test – Sure, the IELTS has been around since 1989, but a team of academics and researchers had to build the original test, come up with the scoring mechanism, and pilot the test to make sure it was consistent across a range of skill levels and student profiles. That required a large upfront investment. IELTS fees for the first decade were probably paying that off, although by now the original cost has certainly been recouped.
  2. Keeping the test updated – If you go take the IELTS next month, you won’t get the same questions as Ahmed over there who took the test last year. You have to think of the IELTS as a test framework rather than a list of questions. The big pool of questions that any given IELTS test is pulling from has to be fed with new test items all the time to prevent people from cheating by sharing past tests. IELTS fees cover the writing and calibration of these new test items.
  3. Marketing the test – The IELTS went from 43,000 test takers in 1995 to 2.5 million two decades later. That kind of growth is powered by marketing, and marketing costs money. Standardized tests need one thing more than anything else and that’s acceptance. The more immigration authorities and universities require an IELTS score for application, the more people will take the IELTS. According to the IELTS site, over 9000 organizations accept the IELTS today. IELTS fees include marketing costs.
  4. Scoring the test – The IELTS includes four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. These last two must be scored by hand, one at a time. Your IELTS test fee includes payment to a corrector, usually an English teacher, who has had special training to be able to score English writing or speech consistently for the IELTS exam.
  5. Administering test centers – The IELTS is jointly managed by the British Council, Cambridge English Language Assessment, and IDP Education. Most IELTS test takers take the exam at a British Council center. British Council keeps a part of every IELTS fee for a test taken in its centers. British Council is a registered charity in the UK, and the huge revenue stream from IELTS is almost certainly part of the reason the organization is so powerful worldwide in the English learning sector.
  6. Monopoly – There aren’t many standardized English tests out there. If you need to prove your English skills in order to apply for a visa for the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, you’ll have to take the IELTS. Universities may accept more than one exam, but quite a few only accept the IELTS. When you have a monopoly, you can set your price.

If you need to take the IELTS and you’re trying to avoid paying high IELTS fees, your best chance is to prepare well before signing up. Taking the IELTS without preparing for it is a sure-fire way to get a lower score than you need. Then you’ll just have to pay the fee a second time!

Find out what your IELTS score would be if you took the test today by taking the free EF SET English Certificate. You’ll need to set aside 50 minutes of your day, and you can only test your listening and reading skills, but at least this test will challenge your stamina and give you a very clear picture of where you are currently in English and what you need to do to improve before paying to take the IELTS.

Find out how you'd score on the IELTS (for free!) Learn More

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