Speaking Part 1. Your Studies
“Do you work or are you a student?”
It is quite a serious mistake to begin your answer to this question with the word ‘Yes’ or the word ‘No’. This is not a ‘Yes/No’ question.
It is also unsuitable to say what you are not. Instead, say what you are. For example, don’t say, “I’m not working. I’m a student.”
If you are currently enrolled in a university (or a similar tertiary institute), you should answer the question as directly as possible by first saying, “I’m a student.” But it is better to add a little more to this answer. Don’t add a lot more – just a little. For example:
- “I’m a student at Renmin University in Beijing,”
- “I’m a student, at university” or
- “I’m a student, a university student”. (Put the stress on the word “university”, not on “student”.)
- “I’m a student, a second-year university student.”
It is ok to answer “I’m a university student”. However, this answer seems a little more suitable for the question, “What do you do?” or “Are you a high school or university student?” For the question “Do you work or are you a student?” it seems most appropriate, and clearer communication to first focus either on the word ‘work’ or the word ‘student’ (or some variation of these words). The answer above is ok but not great, because it is first focusing on the word ‘university’, i.e., you are saying what type of student you are without even first saying that you are a student.
If you are still enrolled in high school, you should tell the examiner this at the beginning. Because the following questions are often worded for university students. After you tell the examiner you are a high school student, he or she will adapt the wording of the questions to suit you. Do not say ‘middle school’ or ‘senior school’ – use ‘high school’ or ‘secondary school’. You should reply with an answer such as this:
- “I’m a student, a high school student” or
- “I’m still a student, a high school student.”
Some candidates have finished high school but are not currently enrolled in a university. If you are one of these candidates, you should not say, “I’m a student” because you are not a student now. Even if you are planning to be a student overseas soon. Instead, you should say something like:
- “I was a student but I finished high school last year”
- “I used to be a student but I finished high school last year”
It’s important that you stress the word “was” or “used to” because you are expressing a contrast between now and before. And when we express a contrast, we stress the two words in contrast. Here, your meaning is, “I was a student, but I’m not a student now”. However, it is not necessary to actually say, “but I’m not a student now” – this is understood.
Nevertheless, you should still stress “was” or “used”. If you don’t stress it correctly, it will not sound natural. Not only will it not sound natural, if you don’t stress it correctly and especially if you make the mistake of putting a strong stress on the word ‘student’, i.e., “I was a student” or “I used to be a student” then the examiner will think, “Ah! That answer was learned from a book!”
Examiners don’t like memorized answers
Examiners don’t like answers that sound like they are memorized from books (or from websites like this one!) They want to hear answers that sound natural. Very often, if the examiner thinks you have memorized answers because you knew the questions beforehand, he or she will choose to ask you more difficult questions than they usually do! If you do memorize answers, you have to be a good actor or actress. You have to act like you are speaking naturally and spontaneously. And you have to know the correct words to stress when you speak.
Other possible ways to say that you are not exactly a student now are:
- “Neither, actually. I just finished high school this year.”
- “Neither, actually. I just graduated from university last year.”
- “Actually, I just finished high school this year so, strictly speaking, I’m not a student now and I haven’t started working yet, either.”
Of course, any of these replies could be preceded by the word, ‘Well, …’.
If you are one of these candidates, (between high school and university), don’t feel that it is a little unfair because your answer seems a little more difficult to speak correctly than other candidates. If you speak it perfectly, the examiner will notice that and you should feel lucky that you have had an opportunity to impress the examiner – you will get a few more ‘points’ than a candidate whose answer was easier to say.
Americans say “graduated from high school”, while British English is “finished high school”. Both of these are equally clear and that is the main thing to communicate your meaning clearly. Examiners know that students are exposed to a mixture of British and American English and they don’t mind if you use a mixture of American and British English, as long as they can understand what you mean. But using mixed forms of English might sometimes confuse the listener momentarily. For example, if you speak British English most of the time and suddenly use an American English word or pronunciation, the listener might be confused for a split second because he or she was expecting to hear British English from you.
In both British and American English we say, “graduated from university”.
You should not say “I was graduated last year”. What you should say is, “I graduated last year.”
Some candidates are graduate students at university. Graduate students is the same as saying ‘post-graduate students’ i.e., students who already have a Bachelor’s degree but are continuing to study at university in a course that requires a Bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite. They might be studying for a post-graduate diploma, a Master’s Degree or a Doctorate. If you are one of these candidates, an appropriate answer would be, “I’m a student – I’m doing a Master’s degree in Physics”. In answer to this question, it’s appropriate to say what your specialization is when you are doing a graduate course.
Note: In English, there is no such thing as ‘a doctor’s degree’. The correct name is ‘a doctorate’, or ‘a Ph.D’ (meaning ‘Doctor of Philosophy’). Even medical doctors get a ‘medical degree’, not a ‘doctor’s degree’. We say, ‘a doctoral thesis’ when talking about the research paper for a doctorate.
If you have already completed some post-graduate qualification, it sounds a little more appropriate to say “I completed (or finished) my Master’s degree last year,” rather than, “I graduated with a Master’s degree last year.” This is because the word ‘graduate’ is most often associated with a Bachelor’s degree or some other qualification from a college. In the U.S.A., the word ‘graduate’ is used for a Bachelor’s degree or some other qualification from a college and a High School Diploma.
All of the suggested answers above are examples of suitable possible answers. But there is no reason why you could not add an extra appropriate comment or two. However, in most cases, you should keep your answer to the question “Do you work or are you a student?” relatively short. Certainly, don’t give a lot of detail about your studies when answering this first question.
The second question that the examiner will ask you is usually (but not always) this:
“What subject are you studying?”
This question is for current university students and it means the same as “What’s your major?” The examiner will not use the word ‘major’ in this question, because he or she must use the exact words that are written in his or her question book, and the word ‘major’, for this meaning, is American English. Although the words can be varied to suit the particular circumstances of the candidate. The IELTS test is a British test, which uses British English in Parts 1 and 2. Even an American IELTS examiner must use the word ‘subject’ in this question. Although examiners are free to choose their own words in Part 3 of the test.
Be careful of the exact wording of this question and try to answer using the same verb tense. The most common variation of this question is: “What subject do you study?” which means the same as, “What subject are you studying?” The verb tenses are slightly different, but since they are both different kinds of present tense, it’s suitable to use either ‘I’m studying’ or ‘I study’ in your answer, no matter which form of question is used. Occasionally, an examiner might forget to use the word ‘subject’ and might just ask you “What are you studying?” or “What do you study?” If this happens, answer the question as if the examiner did use that word.
Below are several answers to this question. The number in the parentheses is a value from 5 to 10, 10 meaning very suitable and 5 meaning a weak answer. A 7 or above is acceptable.
Avoid making too many comments about the questions
There are many good ways to answer this question, depending on your personal situation. Remember, examiners like to hear original answers as much as possible. In the Specimen Tests, the Korean girl answered this question by saying: “Whenever anyone asks me that question, I don’t want to tell them because my major is English Language Education but my English is very poor!” That is an original and genuine answer, which displays good communication. Usually, you should directly answer a question. But in her case, she made a comment about the question and it is suitable to put that comment first, because the question comes first. However, avoid making too many comments about the questions. Don’t do it more than 2 or 3 times in the test, and only when the comment is appropriate and genuine.
For most candidates, your answer to this question should be quite short. You will be asked questions in Part 1 that require longer answers soon enough! However, just like that Korean girl, if you have a suitable comment to add to your basic answer, it is ok to add that, as long as you keep it short. For example:
- “I’m studying Chemical Engineering but I hate it!”
- “I’m studying Music, which I’m so happy to be doing, because it’s my hobby as well.”
Examples of Answers
“I’m studying Economics.” (10)
This answer is quite suitable even if the question is, “What subject do you study?” Most candidates should try to answer the question this way.
“I study Economics.” (9 or 10)
This answer is acceptable whether the question is, “What subject are you studying?” or “What subject do you study?” However, for the first question of these two, “I’m studying Economics” is a little better.
“My subject is Economics.” (8)
This answer is more suitable to a question that is worded as, “What’s your subject?” But it is acceptable.
“My major is Economics.” (7)
This is acceptable. If you know the examiner is a North American, it’s worth an 8 or 9. Some British or Australian examiners might be a little offended that you choose to use a different word to the word that he or she used in the question. Actually, using the word ‘subject’ to mean ‘major’ is more common in Britain than in Australia. Many Australians just say, “What are you studying?” or, “What course are you studying?”
“I’m majoring in Economics.” (7)
“I’m majoring in …” is not easy for most people to say fluently! But if you can say it clearly, it’s worth more than “I major in …”. This has a value of 9 or 10 if you know the examiner is a North American. Don’t forget, you are communicating with another human being in the IELTS interview, not just giving a performance. In other words, tailoring your language to the listener is a good communication skill.
“I’m taking Economics.” (6 or 7)
Give this answer a 7 if the examiner is a North American. This answer shows a familiarity with idiomatic English so it has some value but it avoids using either the word ‘subject’ or ‘study’ and this is a slight weakness.
“I’m doing Economics.” (6 or 7)
This answer is similar to the one above.
“I’m specializing in the field of Economics.” (5)
For a candidate who is doing a Bachelor’s degree, this answer sounds contrived, i.e., it sounds like you are trying to impress the examiner by saying something simple in a complex way. Normally, we do not use the words, “specializing in the the field of” when talking about a Bachelor’s degree especially when you say you are specializing in a general area. People specialize in a specific or narrow area; we don’t say, “specialize in” + a general name for a whole discipline such as economics.
However, to say “I’m specializing in …” is very suitable for students who are studying a graduate diploma course, a Master’s degree course or, especially, a Ph.D. For example: “I’m studying for a Master’s degree in biology, specializing in the field of molecular biology.”
As well as that, it is sometimes suitable for Bachelor’s degree students to use the words, “specializing in”, i.e., those students studying for a Bachelor’s degree course that has a rather general title, such as the faculty name. For example:
- “I’m studying Music, specializing in the piano.”
- “I’m studying geology, specializing in the field of oil exploration.”
- “I’m studying electronic engineering, specializing in the field of mobile phone design.”
In the first two cases here, the actual degree titles might be simply, “Bachelor of Music” and, “Bachelor of Geology”. These are good answers, with a value of 10 if used appropriately.
If you have already graduated from university
If you told the examiner you had already graduated from university, the second question will not be, “What subject are you studying?” but rather, “What subject were you studying?” or “What subject did you study?” In this case, you should, of course, use the past tense to answer the question.
In English we only say, “My subject is …” or, “My major is …” while we are still students. After we graduate, we use “My subject was …” or “My major was …” But even if you didn’t know this, the examiner’s question will be in the past tense and therefore your answer should also be in the past tense.
It is very important that you know how to say your subject or high school subjects correctly. If you make a (major) mistake doing this, you will give the examiner a very poor impression.
All questions in Your Studies part are HERE
Go here to see the difference in meaning or usage between the words “lesson“, “class“, “subject” and “course“.
Continue Your Studies 2