IELTS anxiety: Nine ways to avoid exam nerves

Feeling nervous is a natural response to an important situation. When you are preparing for the IELTS exam, you might feel nervous because there is a lot on the line. This is especially true when it comes to the IELTS speaking exam where you are face to face with an examiner. In this article, I'm…

What is nervousness

Nervousness is physiological. What this means is that it is something your body does, not just your mind. Nervousness happens when you are responding to an important situation. This situation could be a positive or a negative one. Your heartrate might rise and you might feel a kind of fluttering in your stomach. You may become more alert and your breathing might become faster.

How can you control your nerves? 

Do practice tests

I can remember being young and getting nervous about going up to pay for something in a shop. However, today, I can do it without any kind of hesitation. The reason why is simple: it’s something I do most days. 

The fact is that doing something over and over again is the best way to feel confident in it. It might sound very intense to practice IELTS every day, but it’s manageable. The simplest way to do this is simply to find a list of questions and record the answer to one or two of them into your phone. 

If you aren’t able to practice every day, a longer block of practice once or twice a week can still make a big difference. Find a friend or an IELTS tutor who can go through the questions with you. 

Start preparing early

It’s easy to feel anxious when you are in a rush. Similarly, when I meet students who say they want to prepare for the test in a few weeks, I usually tell them that I can help them but it will be stressful. Sometimes, I’ll meet students who are preparing for their exam with several months to spare. For these students, they tend to be less stressed and do better when it comes to exam time. 

Make a list of things that make you worried and work on them 

It might sound counterproductive, but making a list of what you are worried about can really help with IELTS nerves. Once you’ve done this, you should also make a list of what steps you can take to help solve these. For example, if you are nervous about speaking part two, you could make a plan to record a part two answer every day on your phone. 

This helps first because many students have a general sense of nervousness. Clarifying what you are worried about means you can confront it. Once you’ve started taking steps to resolve your problem, you will feel more confident that you are making progress.  

Learn some answer starters

For most people, nervousness peaks before the exam. Having a good start can help get rid of those nerves. One way to help with this is to plan out how you will start your answer to some types of question. For example, if you have a hard question, you can say something like ‘That’s a great question’. You could also practice a starter for your speaking part two questions. I’d recommend using ‘I’d like to tell you about…’ for this purpose. 

Practise hard questions

A very common source of nervousness in IELTS speaking is getting a hard question. I’ve had students report questions like ‘Tell me about a river you know well’, so it’s worth thinking about. The good news is that you can practice hard questions. One way is to record yourself answering these questions. Another is to practice with a friend or an IELTS tutor.

Call a friend before you get started

If you’re anything like me, waiting for something to happen can often be the most nerve-wracking bit. One way of dealing with this is to schedule a call with a friend or loved one before the exam. It doesn’t matter too much if you talk about the test or not. Simply talking to someone can distract you from the looming exam and can build your confidence. 

Sit up and smile

One of my hobbies is running. When you are struggling on a longer run, a useful tip is to improve your posture and put a big smile on your face. When you make your body look like you’re enjoying yourself,  your mind follows along and the run starts to feel easier. 

What has this got to do with the IELTS exam? When you sit up and smile like a confident person in your speaking test, you may be able to trick your mind into feeling more confident too. 


Breathing is an important part of feeling less nervous. Taking deep slow breaths can help you control your nervousness. There are various techniques you can try for this, but I prefer to slowly breathe in while counting to four then slowly breathe out while counting to four. 

Change your mindset about being nervous

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that you will ever be free from nervousness. However, you can feel in control of your nerves. One thing I often tell myself when I feel nervous is that ‘nervous is excited minus confidence’. In other words, being nervous is very close to feeling excited. 

Once you think of being nervous as being close to excited, you can start to think about using that to your advantage. Think about taking your nervous energy and using it. Remember that nerves are your body’s way of getting ready for an important situation. While they might not feel good, you are more alert and able to react when nervous. Embrace it.

Frequently asked questions

Can I drink alcohol before my IELTS Speaking exam? 

When doing research for this article, I saw a few websites recommending a few beers before the exam to calm your nerves. Please do not drink alcohol before your IELTS speaking exam. Alcohol slows your reactions and will make you less likely to show off your skills and get a high band score. 

How can I avoid nervousness just before the IELTS test? 

If you’re feeling nervous just before the IELTS test, try one of these techniques: 

  • Phone a friend or a loved one.
  • Practice slow breathing.
  • Sit confidently and smile. 
  • Try and channel your nerves instead of fighting them. 

What if I misspeak in the IELTS exam? 

You don’t need to be nervous about saying the wrong thing in the IELTS exam. If this happens, simply say ‘Sorry, I mean…’’ and answer the correct way. This is a natural part of speaking a language and won’t hurt your score unless it is very frequent.

What if I’m nervous about making it to two minutes in IELTS speaking part two?

For many learners, part two is the scariest part of the IELTS speaking exam. This is because they Check out this guide for some advice for how you can speak for two minutes in the IELTS speaking exam:

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