Why international students need an IELTS 6.0 for UK university study

Most UK universities require a minimum IELTS 6.0 overall entry grade, and many foundations and pathway courses accept international students with a 5.5 or 5.0 grade overall. However, international students need to be aware that an IELTS 6.0 in each of the four language skills is very important to manage the demands of UK university study. Here’s why:



The first point is about quantity and speed. A first year international student may have 100 pages to read each week, divided between their different course modules. Some of these pages will be chapters in coursebooks, and some may come from academic articles. The international student will have to create a schedule for this weekly reading, between and around the lectures and seminars.  In the first weeks of the course, this amount of reading may seem manageable. However, as the course progresses and the international student is required to produce coursework and prepare presentations for seminars, the time available for reading reduces.

The second point is about the type of reading material. Academics texts are very different from text in novels or newspapers. For example, an academic text will usually develop an argument sentence by sentence which means that the text needs careful reading to follow the developing argument. In addition, each subject has its own specialist vocabulary and uses more formal language that is common in most other English language text. For native students, learning this specialist vocabulary and academic vocabulary is often a challenge, and so for international students, this vocabulary is an even greater problem.

Finally, remember that these two issues only intensify as a degree course continues into year 2 and year 3. The quantity of reading requires increases, and the arguments in the required reading become more specialist and complex.



Firstly, listening to lectures is a challenge for international students.  For native students with total comprehension, listening to lectures is easier because they naturally reduce their attention levels in the less significant parts of the lecture, and increase their attention levels in the more important sections. However, international students who don’t have total comprehension must struggle to maintain a high level of concentration during the entire lecture, and this is exhausting and difficult. Equally, an international student is more likely to have problems comprehending both the structure of the lecture and the accent of the lecturer.

Secondly, academic listening involves participating in seminars where the international student must follow a discussion and contribute to it. As in the previous example of lectures, native students with total comprehension naturally manage this by instinctively selecting the most important information to focus on and responding to it in their contribution. As second language speakers, international students use more of their mind to achieve comprehension, and so this mental process inhibits their ability to form a strong response as quickly as a native student.

Many university courses now have engagement and participation grades incorporated into their assessment, so seminar conduct is increasingly important.



One reason why international students are often surprised by the difficulty of achieving high essay and report grades at university is because of the difference between a strong IELTS academic essay and a strong university essay. In a university essay, the requirement to demonstrate critical thinking is much greater than in an IELTS academic essay. Therefore, students often find that their IELTS academic writing knowledge is not quite sufficient for university study. If a student has a writing score of below 6.0, then language and grammar issues are likely to prevent the student focusing on how to incorporate more critical thinking into their writing.

Another reason why an IELTS 6.0 in writing is so important is because of the need to produce multiple essays to similar deadlines. Most university degrees are modular, being made up of 4-7 different courses which run in parallel during the year. The lecturers who manage these courses will often set coursework projects, such as coursework essays or reports, with similar or identical deadlines. This requires the student to write two or three coursework essays over the same few weeks. For an international student to complete the required research for multiple projects as well as overcome IELTS 5.5 grammar and language problems is very difficult.



For both international and native students, one important goal of university study is to form the ability to communicate in a professional way for a future career. For example, business students need to know relevant business and marketing theories, but they also need to be able to discuss those ideas in relation to real situations and to recognise how language is used to indicate changes in levels of formality and seriousness. These are relatively complex language problems, and a student with an IELTS 5.0 or 5.5 in speaking will usually be too busy achieving basic communication to be able to address these complex areas. Equally, a student needs to be able to communicate with native speakers in an efficient way and be able to use language to undertake complex tasks related to university life, like renting accommodation or organising travel and social events. All these communicative functions require an IELTS 6.0 for the student to perform them with confidence and the expectation of being easily understood by native speakers.

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