Updated Sep. 6, 2014


Your Studies

Do you work or are you a 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). I say 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. You will better understand what I mean if you look at how some working people answer this question. Some people say, “I've been working for five years.” or “I'm a journalist at a TV station.” You can see that both these replies do answer the question, but indirectly. The first reply is more suitable for the question, “How long have you been working?” and the second reply is more suitable for the question, “What work do you do?” It is almost always better to answer any question as directly as possible. However, as you will see below, (in the example of how the Korean girl answered the second question in one of the Specimen tests,) if you first make a comment about the question itself before you answer the question, it is still considered to be a very direct answer because the answer is still directly related to the question.

Why is a direct answer better communication? The reason is this: in real life (not an IELTS test), you would not know why somebody was asking a question such as “Do you work or are you a student?” For example, maybe the person who asked the question simply wants to invite you to join a club that is only for students – maybe what type of student you are or what you study or where you study is not important at all. That is why only a little added information is suitable for this answer after you first say which you are, a working person or a student.

However, if you answer the question with, “I’m a college student.” without first saying, “I’m a student” you are further moving away from an ideal answer because this answer first focuses on the word “college” rather than “student”. That answer is more suitable for the question, “What do you do?”

And if you make the mistake of pronouncing it as “college student” rather than “college student” then your answer is even weaker. Stress the first word, not the second.

In both British and American English we say, “graduated from university”.

    The second question that the examiner will ask you is usually (but not always) this:

   “What subject are you studying?” 

Of course, 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!” Or, “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 but there are a few of you who should be careful using the word ‘studying’. Many Chinese people pronounce this almost as ‘stu/ding’. The word is actually pronounced with 3 clear syllables, not 2. But examiners will understand you so don’t worry too much about this. The perfect pronunciation is ‘stu/dy/(y)ing’, with three clear syllables, the word stress on the first syllable and a very slight ‘y’ sound at the beginning of the last syllable because of the smooth linking with the previous syllable. However, many students can’t smoothly link the third syllable to the second and instead pronounce it as two words: “study–ing” or “study–in”. If you say it that way, the examiner will think that your English is poor; he or she might think that you are confusing “I major in Civil Engineering” with “I study in Civil Engineering”. “Major in” is acceptable; “study in” is not!

Therefore, if you can’t say “studying” smoothly in 3 syllables just say “stu/ding” as you normally do or use one of the examples below.

     “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 Chinese 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.” or, “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



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.


Go HERE to see some common errors that candidates make when naming their subject.

Go HERE to see the differences in meaning or usage between the words, "lesson", "class", "subject" and "course".

Continue to ‘Your Studies Page 2’

Page 2 has some suggestions for answering two more common questions about your studies: “Why did you choose to study that?” and “Do you like it? (your subject)”