IELTS – a guide for overseas doctors

  • April 13, 2020

Doctors looking to regsiter with the GMC and find a job in the NHS are required to demonstrate their level of English is suitable via the IELTS or OET exam.

Here we take a closer look at the IELTS exam, which is an International English Language Testing System used worldwide. 

IELTS is used by overseas doctors to demonstrate their ability to communicate effectively in English and support their application to the register and practice medicine in the NHS. 

In this article, we outline the key facts about IELTS, including the following topics: 

What is IELTS? Content and structure:

IELTS is designed to test your English skills needed to be successful in the workplace. It covers the following sub-test areas: 

  • Listening (30 minutes) 
  • Reading (60 minutes)
  • Writing (60 minutes)
  • Speaking (11 – 14 minutes)


Listening: 30 minutes

The listening sub-test consists of four sections, each including 10 questions. You will listen to four separate recordings and then answer questions. 

The recordings will include a general conversation, a monologue on a general topic, a conversation of up to 4 people in an academic setting, a monologue on an academic subject.

Questions are varied in type, including multiple choice, matching, labelling, note completion and sentence completion. 

Reading: 60 minutes

The reading sub-test consists of three long texts, usually taken from journals magazines, newspapers or books. They are not specific to any one topic, however the texts are appropriate for people entering university or professional registration. 

The test consists of 40 questions, testing a range of reading skills. 

Writing: 60 minutes

The writing sub-test consists of two writing tasks. 

Task 1 – describe, summarise or explain the information presented in a graph, table or chart. 

Task 2 – write an essay in response to a point of view, argument or problem. 

Both tasks require a formal style of writing. The topics covered are general interest, and suitable for people applying for university or professional registration. 

Speaking: 11 – 14 minutes

The speaking sub-test comprises of three parts, delivered by an IELTS examiner face to face: 

Part 1 – you will be asked general questions about yourself, covering a range of topics. 

Part 2 – you will be given a topic to talk about. You will have 1 minute to prepare, and then speak on the given topic for two minutes. You will then be asked a few questions by the examiner on the same topic. 

Part 3 – You will be asked further questions on the same topic as part 2. Here you will have the chance to elaborate and discuss more ideas. 

The topics covered are general interest, and suitable for people applying for university or professional registration. 

What scores do I need? 

To register with the GMC, you must obtain an overall score of 7.5 with minimum scores of 7.0 in each sub-test. 

Remember, to sit the PLAB test, you must obtain the required IELTS overall score of 7.5 with minimum scores of 7.0 in each sub-test. 

There are a few IELTS options, what test should I take? 

IELTS has two versions, Academic and General. To register with the General Medical Council (GMC) in the UK, an IMG must take the Academic test, which is designed for people applying for professional registration. 


You can use your IELTS certificate for both the GMC and your visa application.

IELTS Academic UKVI is the only version acceptable for both GMC and Tier 2 Visa applications, and for this reason is the best route covering all application purposes in one go. Not only will this save on fees, but also will ensure that only one test is taken. 

Remember, IELTS Academic UKVI is the only version acceptable for both GMC and Tier 2 Visa applications, and for this reason is the best route covering all application purposes in one go. 

What scores do I need for GMC and Visa applications? 

For the GMC to accept your IELTS certificate you must achieve an overall score of 7.5 across all four areas, with no less than a 7.0 in in each testing area. The pass score for a Tier 2 General Visa is 4.0 overall, and in each of the four skills. 

Paper or computer version? 

IELTS can now be taken on paper or computer. Both are exactly the same content, the only difference is the manner in which the answers are complete on the test. 

Paper IELTS: 

Reading, writing and listening sub-tests will be sat at a desk with questions papers and answer sheets. 

The speaking section is carried out face to face with an IELTS examiner. 

Computer IELTS: 

Reading, writing and listening sub-tests will be taken at a computer with questions on screen. The speaking section is carried out face to face with an IELTS examiner. 

Does time matter? 

Each sub-test is timed, and you will need to practice how to give each section the right amount of time. You will have to be efficient and work quickly, dedicating the right amount of time to each question and text. 

Where and when can I take the test? 

IELTS can be taken in more than 1,200 locations worldwide, with 48 test dates in the calendar year. For more information on venues take a look at the official website.  

Can I cancel my application?

If you cancel your application more than 5 weeks before the test date, you will receive a refund minus an administration charge. If you cancel within 5 weeks of the test date, you will be charged the full fee unless you have a medical reason. 

Is the IELTS test completed in one day?

This depends on your test centre. The listening, reading and writing components of the test are always complete one after the other, with no break. The speaking test may be taken up to 7 days either before or after the test date. Check with your test centre for more details.

When will I receive my results? 

The test report will be posted to you 13 days after your test date. Some test centres also provide SMS alerts and an Online Results Service, check with your centre for more information. 

Keep your Test Report Form in a secure place as you only receive one copy and you will need it later! 

If I don’t pass, can I re-sit? 

You can sit the test as many times as necessary. 

However, this will cost you more money, so at IMG Connect we advise that you prepare as best you can for every test. If you don’t pass the test, then do additional study before taking the test again. 

How can I prepare? 

IELTS can be challenging. It involves learning a large amount of vocabulary on a range of academic subjects so that you will be prepared to read academic texts quickly and effectively, understand lectures, talks and questions, giving opinion in detail. 

You will have to prepare how to write reports on a variety of data and essay types so make sure you are as prepared as possible before sitting the exam. 

Written texts are to be of a high standard, including complex structures and grammar. 

Successful IMGs who have passed IELTS told us that learning key exam techniques helps you to work quickly and effectively during the test day. 

You don’t need to pay take a course. However, it is highly advisable to attend a course, and/or language classes, successful overseas doctors have advised that this helped them improve their standards in all areas of the test, including improved general levels of English and get used to the test format and timings.

We strongly recommend that you start preparing for the exams as far in advance as you possibly can. 

Establish your level of English, and work out what areas you will need to focus on. Identify your weaknesses, set goals for yourself and plan a revision timetable.

Consider working with an accredited tutor

As an International Brand dedicated to helping international doctors to register with the GMC and find work in the NHS - we have lots of partnerships in place with trusted companies in many areas. One of these key areas is English Language Testing and IMG Connect works closely with a company called Specialist Language Courses. You can take a look at their website here.

Specialist Language courses work very professionally and are the UK's leading provider of online courses and tutoring. They are also one of the few accredited providers of OET and have provided consultation and guidance to the GMC on english language testing. 

Success rates are 70% + for those who sign for their tutoring and you can receive a discount if introduced by IMG Connect.

Register with IMG Connect to request your discount on English Language Courses or get in touch with one of our IMG Consultants to discuss.


What resources are available? 

To prepare for the tests, there are lots of online resources and practice materials available. A good start is the IELTS and British Council websites. 

You can also find practice papers online.

We have also written a useful blog series on the English Language Tests for IMGs, which includes tips for studying at home

Passed? What next?

If you have your IELTS in place you are in a prime position to apply and interview for jobs.

Take a look at our job search page if you have not already, alternatively get in touch with an IMG Consultant to put your CV to use!

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