Be natural and keep it real!
The significance of IELTS as arguably the most important English language test of our time seems to come mainly from increasing migration to English-speaking countries. Places like Australia, the UK and the USA have minimum English language requirements for people wanting to migrate there. Universities in those countries also have similar requirements for future students. As such, there is a growing thirst for good IELTS results, especially in developing countries like China and India. There are people in these countries willing to pay good money for the services of IELTS tutors who guarantee that they will achieve the results they need to enter a certain university, or migrate to a certain country.
In my opinion, this is a rather depressing trend because it devalues IELTS and turns it into a mere formality to be gotten over in pursuit of another goal. I have met many people who, in preparing for IELTS, only do the bare minimum of practice which they need to get a certain band. There are resources available, both printed and electronic, which claim to guarantee the achievement of a certain band, and nothing less or more than that.
I find this artificiality extremely distressing. Language is a living organism which constantly evolves in accordance with the trends and the society of the day. Bearing in mind the fact that IELTS is first and foremost a test of language, I feel that the best way to prepare for it is in a natural, organic way.
What do I mean by this? Well, since language is alive, why not make it part of your life? In preparing for IELTS, immerse yourself in the English language. Listen to the news in English. Read English books. Perhaps even write your personal reminders and memos in English. There is no better technique for learning a language compared to simply immersing yourself in it and letting it become a natural part of your life.
If you're reading this, you probably don't live in an English-speaking community, and you may find it a bit awkward to suddenly increase your use of English when you hardly ever used it in daily life before. That's alright, it's perfectly normal to feel that way. Just ignore the feeling for now; you'll get used to using English as time passes. What's more, as you get comfortable with English, you'll probably find that you become more interested in it. This is because as your vocabulary increases, you'll be able to understand more English. And your increased understanding will open you up to new worlds of thought and knowledge which you could not understand before. One thing leads to another, and in time, you'll find yourself using English naturally, as if it was your old friend.
The best part about this method of preparation is that it prepares you for so much more than just IELTS. For one thing, it'll help with any other English language tests you may take in the future. And for another, increased fluency in English will do you good just generally in life. Thus, you have all to gain and nothing to lose by immersing yourself in English.
Perhaps many of you are thinking "I'm sitting for IELTS in a month and I haven't got the time for all this immersion stuff". That's fair enough, and admittedly anything less than several months won't be enough for the immersion method. Well, you can still keep your preparations natural without resorting to the artificiality of the "Guaranteed Band 7.5" texts.
If your exam isn't far off, what you need to do now is to familiarise yourself with the exam format and understand how best to answer it. To this end, I found the IELTS Free Practice Test very useful. These are sample tests made available online by the British Council, which administers the IELTS test worldwide.
I found these tests helpful because they have been made with first-time IELTS candidates in mind. They are designed to act as an introduction to IELTS. As such, they contain clear and easily-understood instructions and pointers as to how to answer the questions. I would recommend making these tests your first stop when you begin your IELTS preparations.
Sadly, only one sample test is available for each component of the test (i.e. one test for speaking, one for listening etc). Therefore, once you've had a feel for the IELTS format, you'll have to try out other resources to get a better idea of the full range of possible question styles in the exam.
With respect to these sample tests, I must reiterate that you really shouldn't answer the tests with a certain band in mind. Just do them for the sake of getting familiar with the test format. Don't use them to set a benchmark for what you would like to score in the exam. Again, just as with the immersion technique, being natural is key.
Now, a few more specific tips for the test. I'll address each component of the test separately.
This is often a difficult component for students who use little English in their lives and therefore rarely listen to it. It's made harder by the fact that voices speaking in all the major English accents (i.e. British, Australian, American etc) will be used, so if you've learned most of your English from Hollywood movies, you may find the Australian accent tricky (and from what I've heard this is the accent most people struggle to understand!). Thus, when preparing, be sure to get familiar with the major English accents, and understand what makes them different from one another so that when you do hear them in the exam room, you'll be able to set aside the differences in pronunciation and understand them without difficulty.
Another nerve-wracking component for many candidates. As with public speaking, the key is to stay calm. Even if your English is of Band 9 quality, you may well mess up this component if your nervousness makes you stutter or grope for words. The key to success in Speaking is practice. Before the exam, get a friend to act as the examiner and be open to his/her advice. If you can't get a friend, speak in front of a mirror. Avoid annoying habits while speaking, such as drumming your fingers on the table or playing with a pen. And most of all, DO NOT try to fake a foreign accent! Fluency in English doesn't mean you have to speak like an American actor or the British Queen. Do not be ashamed to speak with a Chinese, Brazilian or Malaysian accent, if that is how you speak. However, do speak clearly and confidently, regardless of your accent.
The trickiest part about Reading is that sometimes, very similar options are offered in the multiple-choice questions. It can be hard to decide when B, C and D all seem to mean the same thing! When encountering this situation, be prepared to spend some time reading and re-reading the options, and trying to spot the differences which will eventually lead you to (hopefully) the correct answer.
This is not generally considered to be a very difficult part of IELTS. However, the normal rules in essay writing apply. Try to make your writing interesting without deviating from the use of standard English. Of course, be mindful of any format requirements or word limits, and throw in some big words here and there if possible to show your command of English (but ensure you use those words correctly!).
In a nutshell, there really isn't much to IELTS. At the end of the day, it's just a measure of how comfortable you are using the English language. In my opinion, the most important thing is not to treat IELTS as a means to an end. Don't look at it as an obstacle you have to overcome in order to study in (or migrate to) an English-speaking country. Instead, enjoy the preparations, and enjoy English. Preparing for IELTS will be so much more beneficial and rewarding if you forget about the artificial approach, and go for the natural way.