The IELTS Speaking test gives you the chance to talk about your daily life and academic-related situations. You’ll display the vocabulary you’ve acquired over your years of studying English. Adding the occasional idiom to your answers can improve your chances of a good score.
It’s important to note that examiners DO NOT want to hear you using 20 idioms in your 2-minute conversation! However, one or two well-placed idioms can make the difference between sounding like a language learner and sounding like a native speaker. Let’s jump in!
Hive of activity – a place where a lot is happening New York is a hive of activity. There’s always something to do, even at night!
Second to none – the best, better than everything else I truly believe my town is second to none. It’s just a great place to live!
Middle of nowhere – a place that is very remote, far from any city/town I was born in the middle of nowhere. The nearest shop was 20 miles away!
Hustle and bustle – To have many activities, a crowded and modern place I love living in London. I always wanted the hustle and bustle of a big city.
A stone’s throw (from) – very close to My apartment is just a stone’s throw from the centre of Paris.
Go the extra mile – to do more than is expected of you I’m a hard worker and always go the extra mile to make sure my team does well.
Pull one’s weight – to do a fair share of the work There’s always one guy at work who doesn’t pull his weight.
Follow one’s heart – do what you feel is right for you After university, I decided to follow my heart and become a doctor.
Raise one’s game – improve the standard of your work or performance When I started working at Nike HQ, I really had to raise my game!
On the dole – receiving unemployment benefit from the state welfare system When I was between jobs, I was on the dole for about 6 months.
Some English idioms have interesting origins! For example, on the dole comes from “doling out”, which means: giving/handing out charitable gifts of money or food. British soldiers returning from World War I received dole payments if they had no job.
3. Sport & fitness
In perfect shape – be very fit, in top physical condition I’m not in perfect shape these days, but I used to run marathons regularly.
Make the cut – be selected, meet the right standard I tried out for the local hockey team last year, but I didn’t make the cut.
Give it one’s best shot – try one’s hardest Our football team lost in the final, but at least we gave it our best shot!
Couch potato – lazy person who likes to lie around on the sofa I’ve been a couch potato during lockdown! I really should join the gym now.
Remember, the IELTS Speaking test will ask you about your ideas, preferences, and life experiences. Try to learn 1-2 idioms that you can use in each of the most common topics of conversation.
Rule the roost – to be in charge, be the boss When we were kids, my eldest brother definitely ruled the roost. He was always telling us what to do!
Black sheep – to be different from others I was always considered the black sheep of the family because I didn’t want to go to university.
Born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth – to be born into a wealthy and privileged family I must admit that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I have had a very comfortable life.
Get on like a house on fire – to get along really well with someone I was apprehensive about living with my colleague Juan, but now we get on like a house on fire.
Rub each other up the wrong way – not get on well, argue, clash Me and my sister have always rubbed each other up the wrong way. I guess we’re just very different people.
On the same wavelength – to click, have a great understanding John’s my best friend. We’re just on the same wavelength.
There’s no place like home – home is a very special place I love living away at university, but there’s no place like home.
Fly the nest – leave family home forever I’m not ready to fly the nest yet. I want to find a good job and apartment first.
Get on the property ladder – buy first house Mortgages are a big responsibility, but I think it’s important to get on the property ladder as early as possible.
Creature comforts – household items that give added comfort I can’t do without my creature comforts – a comfy bed, electric blanket and widescreen TV in the bedroom!
Get homesick – miss home badly when away I used to get homesick all the time, but now I’m used to living abroad.
Go viral – quickly become popular on the internet The company’s Youtube clip went viral and boosted sales by 200%.
Not rocket science – not difficult or overly complicated Some say even basic coding is super hard, but it’s not rocket science.
Run out of steam – lose momentum, decrease in popularity To be honest, I think Facebook has run out of steam. Instagram is way more popular these days.
One-hit wonder – person/band that had only one hit song Many bands become famous for a great song, but are never seen again. I guess it’s easier to be a one-hit wonder!
On full blast – at maximum volume I like putting my music on full blast, but my neighbours always complain!
Be into (a type of music) – like, enjoy listening to I used to be into heavy metal, but I’m more into drum’n’bass right now.
Be on the edge of one’s seat – very excited, nervous The new Bond movie had us on the edge of our seats.
Live up to the hype – to be as good as people hoped it will be I was sure the new Marvel movie was going to be a disappointment, but it really lived up to the hype!
A household name – famous person who everyone knows Because of his great success as an actor, Robert De Niro has become a household name.
Hit the road – to start a journey or leave a place If I’m going on a long journey, I always like to hit the road early and beat the traffic.
Off the beaten track – far from civilisation, away from people/tourists Whenever I travel, I prefer to stay off the beaten track. I hate touristy places!
Travel light – to bring few items on a trip I’m only going for the weekend, so I plan to travel light.
Everything but the kitchen sink – a lot of items/things When my Australian friend comes to stay, she brings everything but the kitchen sink!
Live out of a suitcase – travel a lot, and therefore be limited to the contents of a suitcase My job involves so much travelling that I practically live out of a suitcase.
Hit the books – to study I can’t party with my friends much because I need tohit the books.
Learn (something) by heart – to memorise something When you’re at Med School like me, you have to learna lot of anatomical terms by heart.
Pass with flying colours – to pass a test easily and with a high score At school, I struggled with Maths while others passed with flying colours.
Teacher’s pet – the teacher’s favourite student I have to admit I definitely was the teacher’s pet at school!
Take it one step at a time – do something slowly and methodically In my experience, it’s not easy to learn a new language. You just have to take it one step at a time.
Bookworm – someone who reads a lot, a geek My brother reads 5 hours a day. He is such a bookworm!
The great outdoors – all outdoor space, wild nature We all need to escape the city and enjoy the great outdoors from time to time.
Neck of the woods – area We often go camping, but I had never been to that neck of the woods before.
Idioms to use across IELTS Speaking topics
Throw money down the drain – waste money When you rent an apartment, you’re basically throwing money down the drain!
Keep the wolf from the door – have just enough money to buy food/essentials My grandparents were not rich. In fact, they barely had enough money to keep the wolf from the door.
Live from hand to mouth – to spend all your daily wage on essentials Many families in the poorer parts of my country live from hand to mouth.
On a shoestring (budget) – do something without spending a lot of money I’m going travelling around Europe on a shoestring this summer because I don’t have a lot of money.
In the money – rich, have a lot of cash If I’m working as a top lawyer in 5 years from now, I really will be in the money.
Strapped for cash – be poor, not have a lot of money When I was a uni student, I was always strapped for cash!
14. Likes & dislikes
Not my cup of tea – something that is not to your taste Art galleries are not my cup of tea. I always get bored and head to the nearest café!
Up one’s street – like it, suits I’m not into horror movies at all. I’d say rom coms are more up my street.
Each idiom in this guide is not just suitable for one speaking topic! Be inventive and use them in your answers to a variety of speaking tasks. You never know what topics will be on your exam so learn to use the same idioms in different ways.
Turn over a new leaf – change the way you behave and become a better person I think New Year’s resolutions are good if you want to turn over a new leaf.
Take stock (of something) – To think carefully about a situation so that you can decide what to do about it In my opinion, we all need to take stock of what is happening with climate change today. Then we can make positive changes together.
Kick the habit – stop doing something harmful that you have done for a long time I’ve been biting my nails for years, but I really want to kick the habit.
Water under the bridge – about an event that has passed and is not important or relevant now, forgotten/forgiven I used to fight with my sister when we were kids, but it’s all water under the bridge now.
Find one’s feet – get used to a place or situation, settle/adjust When I first moved to the UK, it took me several months to find my feet.
(Sit) on the fence – be undecided, not take a position I’d say I’m on the fence when it comes to the issue of tuition fees. I can understand both arguments, but…
Change of heart – change one’s mind, reconsider I really wanted to live alone at university, but when I made friends, I had a change of heart and moved into a shared house.
At a crossroads – decision point I think I’m at a crossroads – either I need to find a job or I need to continue my education.
My heart sank – I felt disappointed I must admit my heart sank when I received my exam results. I should’ve tried harder at school!
Beside oneself – to be overcome with emotion (good or bad) I was beside myself when Man United lost in the final minute of the match!
On tenterhooks – nervous about what is going to happen next The whole country was on tenterhooks, waiting to see when lockdown would end.
IELTS Idioms: Exercises
i) Which idiom best fits each sentence?
I’ve travelled quite a lot but I admit I don’t know this __(area)__ . a. Leg of the path b. neck of the woods c. head of the road
I’ve been so bad-tempered lately. It’s time I __(made a change)___. a. turned over a new leaf b. went under c. found my feet
I do love your town, but I really think my city is ___(the best there is)____. a. second to none b. king of all c. second best
I’m behind on my uni work so I really need to ____(study)____. a. hit the essay b. hit the studies c. hit the books
We spent hours ___(nervously)___ waiting for our exam results. a. off the beaten track b. on tenterhooks c. at a crossroads
ii) Answer true or false:
The idiom “hive of activity” could be used to describe a small and quiet town.
The idiom “strapped for cash” can be used to describe a lack of money.
The idiom “couch potato” can be used to describe a fit and active vegetarian.
The idiom “on full blast” can be used to describe loud music.
The idiom “hit the road” can be used to describe an aggressive act by an angry person.
iii) Select the right idiom:
Which is the right idiom to express that I’m in financial trouble? a. on the pole b. on the dole c. on the take
Which is the right idiom to describe what happens to a fast-spreading and popular internet video? a. Go virtual b. go viral c. go virus
Which is the right idiom to describe being really excited about something? a. hanging on your seat b. under your seat c. on the edge of your seat
Which is the right idiom to describe someone who is different from others? a. White crow b. black sheep c. silver fox
Which is the right idiom to express that something is not to your taste? a. Not my tea b. Not my tea cup c. Not my cup of tea