Paper-based IELTS or Computer-based?

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As you are likely aware, the IELTS exam exists as both a paper-based and computer-based exam. This means that you have a choice which you take, and that choice could affect your score. Of course, because IELTS is supposed to be a highly reliable test, it shouldn’t actually affect your score massively. However, in reality it could.

There are a number of factors you might consider when deciding which version to do. The purpose of this post is to go through these factors. Before we do that, let’s just consider for a moment what is the same and what is different.

Similarities and Differences

Firstly, let’s start with the price. At the time of writing, there is no difference in price between doing the paper-based and computer-based versions of the test. However, that is not to say that when the organisations behind IELTS want to encourage people to only do the computer-based version, they could introduce a discount on the computer-based test or a premium on the paper-based test.

The speaking is also exactly the same. You still need to have a face to face test with a real examiner. This is one of the reasons why I think that IELTS is still a better exam than some of its competitors – you don’t get assessed talking to a computer.

Where the test is different then is the other three sections – listening, reading and writing are conducted on a computer. You still have to attend a test centre and the question types and difficulty are the same.

One particular difference is in listening. In the paper-based version you have 30 minutes of listening which includes all the instructions, pauses to read questions and the actual audio. You then have ten minutes to transfer your answers onto an answer sheet. In the computer-based you get about 33 minutes, which gives you a little bit more time to check your answers to the questions before you continue to the next part. You are still only able to hear the audio once.

For reading and writing the time limits remain the same as the paper-based version.

Factor #1 - Location

The first factor we will consider is location. This one is pretty straightforward. It is up to test centres whether they offer the paper-based or computer-based version of the test. It is therefore worthwhile finding out which version the centre you will use offers. This may remove any choice for you, but then you can at least prepare for the correct version.

If you have a choice of places that you can go to, you may want to check all of the test centres.

Factor #2 - Writing

I believe that this is the most important factor when deciding which to do. Remember that for the writing part you need to write a minimum of 400 words in an hour, and you will probably write closer to 500 words.

The question then is can you do this more comfortably on a computer or by hand. And if you do it by hand, can anyone else read what you have written?

If you’re not sure, the best thing to do is to practice doing one of each. Set a timer for one hour and make some kind of marking on the paper or in the document when you get to one hour. If you haven’t finished, continue writing and note how long it took you in total.

This should give you a good idea of which you will find easier.

Remember though that in Microsoft Word you have the luxury of a spelling and grammar checker. In the exam you will be using a plain text editor that doesn’t have these features.

Another important feature with writing is that in the computer based version you are not allowed scratch paper (paper for making notes). Some people prefer the paper-based test because they can use the question paper to write a quick plan of their essay.

Factor #3 - Reading

Another important factor to many of my students is the reading. When I teach reading strategies, a lot of this involves making markings over a text and the questions. Although there are some tools you can use in the IELTS computer-based test, it is much easier to do this on the paper-based test.


The factors above are the most important reasons why students usually take either the computer-based or paper-based version of IELTS. In many cases it comes down to what is actually available where you take the test. Where you do have a choice, the most important factor tends to be whether you can write the 400 plus words better by hand or typing on a computer.

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