Naseer has told me that he receives many questions regarding which exam is “better” and which one they should choose to take. As with many things in life, this is not a simple question! However, in this post I will aim to explain some aspects of the 2 exams and help you decide which is better for you.
What are these exams?
IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System. The OET stands for the Occupational English Test. Both of these tests are designed to assess your level of English and give you a score that is internationally recognised. Both of these tests consist of 4 sub-tests to assess your ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking. For both tests you will receive a separate score in each subtest. There are different types of IELTS tests, and as a doctor you would be required to take the “academic” IELTS.
There are some key differences between the 2 exams. The academic IELTS is designed for everyone, regardless of profession. The tasks can be about any topic. For the speaking task you are asked some questions about yourself; then you are asked to talk about a specific topic and answer follow-up questions. For the writing you need to interpret a diagram and explain it in words, then subsequently write an essay on a given topic.
The OET is designed purely for doctors and other health professionals. The reading and listening tasks will be health related (although may include tasks relating to nursing or other healthcare professionals). The speaking and writing are profession-specific; meaning as a doctor you will have tasks writing specifically for doctors. The speaking consists of 2 simulated patient encounters, for example based in a family medicine clinic. You have a card showing you what you need to discuss with the “interlocuter”, who is essentially somebody pretending to be a patient. In the writing you are given some case notes for a simulated patient and need to write a professional letter. This is usually a referral letter or a discharge letter.
You can read more about the details of each exam on their respective websites:
IELTS official website https://www.ielts.org/
OET official website https://www.occupationalenglishtest.org/
Which test is suitable for registration/visa/job pathway?
It is always best to check directly with the relevant website to see which exams are accepted. This is because rules are always changing. However, the savvy IMG has written a very good post summarising which exam can be used for different pathways to the UK.
It seems that nowadays both exams are equally acceptable for most routes to UK employment. However, as stated above, always check directly and don’t just rely on a blog post before making a decision!
Which test is easier?
This is the big question that everyone wants answered! In theory both tests are equally hard, as the OET was designed as an equivalent test to the IELTS. They both test the same 4 language attributes (reading, listening, writing, speaking) and are marked to the same standards. However, the OET is designed specifically for healthcare professionals and that should make it “easier”. On the other hand there are other aspects to consider.
Reasons OET is easier:
- The vocabulary needed for the OET should be much more familiar to you as a doctor, especially if any aspect of your career has been taught in English. Contrast this to an IMG who attempted IELTS who had to write an essay all about agriculture. She failed the writing, mostly due to not having the necessary vocabulary for the essay.
- The tasks for the speaking and writing are more familiar. Even if you do not practice medicine in English currently, you are used to patient consultations and writing referrals. You very rarely make a short speech on a random topic, or write a non-medical essay!
- The OET mark scheme cares much less about grammar. To do well in IELTS you have to “show off” your grammar in both the writing and the speaking. You also have to deliberately use complex vocabulary and idioms, even if they would not normally be necessary to make your point. It is for this reason that many native English speakers fail to get good marks in IELTS. I have met English nurses struggling to get a visa to Australia for this reason! However, in the OET you only need to have correct grammar and appropriate vocabulary to complete the task.
- Anecdotally, I have spoken to many people who had several failed attempts at IELTS who then passed OET relatively easily. I don’t have any statistics though, so this is not evidence based advice!
Reasons OET is harder:
- For the OET speaking subtest you are required to use certain “communication skills”, for example expressing empathy and exploring patients’ concerns. In fact, one third of all your speaking marks come from this area. In my view this is very culturally biased towards the English/Australian medical model, and might be very different to the normal communication style in your home country. In the long term, learning these communication skills will be very useful for the communication aspects of PLAB and MRCP or other post-graduate exams. However, if this is new to you it may take a lot of extra studying and practice to get good marks in this area.
- The referral letter format is quite strict and often differs to even how real letters are written in the UK/Australia. It also involves a lot of reading of the case notes and it can be difficult (even for me as a native speaker and accredited OET tutor) to correctly decide which information from the case notes should be included.
Aspects that are equally hard for both exams:
- It goes without saying that you need a high level of English to do well in either exam. If you have scored very much below the required marks in IELTS for all 4 subtests then it is highly unlikely you will do better in the OET. You first need to work on your English in general and then decide on an exam.
- Both exams require super speed in reading, listening and writing! IELTS is of the opinion that to test reading in particular it is important to ensure someone can skim through a text and scan for particular words in order to answer a comprehension question. Therefore, they do not give you enough time to fully read the text and all the questions thoroughly. For this reason, many people fail IELTS reading even though they can understand everything perfectly if given a sensible amount of time. Unfortunately for OET this is the same. Writing and listening are also similarly time-pressured in both exams.
Other things to consider
When deciding which exam is best for you, it doesn’t just come down to which test is easier. There are some other factors to take into account
Prices change frequently, but in general OET has been more expensive than IELTS. Especially if you need to retake an exam, this price can seriously add up.
The OET is a relatively new exam and they are expanding all the time. However, IELTS is very established meaning there are many more available test centres and many more available dates. You might find taking the OET could just prove too difficult if there is not a test centre in your country.
Resources and courses
As mentioned, IELTS has been established for a long time! This means they have had time to make loads of learning resources and mock tests. In addition there are resources from lots of companies and loads of IELTS preparation courses available. You can find many institutes and teachers with a lot of experience in coaching students successfully through the exam. As OET is relatively new there are much fewer official resources and very few commercial resources either. There are institutes and teachers, but not many. Also, by definition these teachers and courses will not have much experience, as the exam is so new.
Although everything I have seen of the OET shows it to be a reputable company, I have heard some unconfirmed reports of poor quality-control at some test centres. This includes poor organisation and broken equipment etc. I have also heard of marks being changed very significantly on re-marks which does bring into question the quality of the initial marker. These are not verified and may not be true, but I have heard many such reports from people I have known a long time and trust. I am hoping that these issues are also related to the company being new, and should hopefully improve over time. If you are taking OET or IELTS I would strongly recommend that you find people who have taken exams at the relevant test centre and check their opinion.
To summarise, which test is best for me?
Having read the above, I’m sure you can see there are many similarities between the 2 tests, but some key differences:
Advantages for OET
- The vocabulary and tasks are more familiar for doctors
- There is less need to learn lots of grammar and unnecessary idioms
- Anecdotally, many people pass the OET after having failed IELTS
Advantages for IELTS
- No need to learn UK/Australia specific communication techniques or referral letter structure
- Often cheaper and logistically easier to attend an exam
- Many more resources and courses available for study
Basically, which exam is better comes down to your personal circumstances. If you are in a situation where: money is no issue, you practise medicine in English already and you have had some exposure to the UK/Australia medical culture, then OET is clearly better for you. If you live far from an OET test centre, have studied English with a strong focus on grammar and have a preference for attending a well-experienced exam preparation course then you might find IELTS better.
Overall you need to weigh up all the factors and pick the exam that seems best. If you are not successful then you can always consider attempting the alternative exam instead.
Most of the above is my personal opinion, and you may find people who disagree with certain aspects! I also have a business teaching medical English, and I have taken a course in order to provide OET teaching. Therefore, it is inevitable that I have some intrinsic bias towards the OET. However, I have made a lot of effort to remain impartial and I have tried to present all of the above in a neutral manner to help you make an informed decision.
This is a guest post written by Dr Hannah Woodcock. You can check her website, Learn English for Healthcare.