41 Idioms for IELTS You must Know

Using idioms in IELTS to achieve a higher band is both reality and a myth. The difference lies in how naturally you...

Indulekha Prabha Written by Indulekha Prabha · 5 min read >

Using idioms in IELTS to achieve a higher band is both reality and a myth. The difference lies in how naturally you use them in your sentences. Idioms deliver a complex idea in a very simple manner. Using them just for the sake of using makes the sentence look forced and using them too little, somehow disrupts the flow. We are here with all the details about using idioms in IELTS.

What are Idioms?

Idioms are “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (example: over the moon, see the light etc.)”

There are many idioms used in English daily, whether in a business context, in the media and in social conversations between friends. Idioms are used informally most of the time and should therefore not be used in the writing test. Spoken English is normally much less formal than academic written English, so it is fine to use them in the speaking test.

How important are Idioms in IELTS?

This image shows a part of the band descriptors for speaking. The 3 bands are 7, 8 and 9. As you can see, using idioms, even with some inappropriate choices, is typical of a band 7 candidate. By using them skilfully, with only occasional inaccuracies you are likely to get an 8 in this category. Rarely students use them perfectly and those who do, achieves a 9.

It must be remembered that Idioms are like seasonings in a dish. You must add them in moderation, too much of it and you will sound like someone rattling it off a list whereas, too little will make you sound bookish. Balance therefore, is the key.

List of Idioms

You should only use idioms if you have heard how they are used in context and you are 100% sure you are using them in the correct way. This may sound harsh, but it is better than losing marks.

Below are some common idioms that I have heard students use correctly in the IELTS speaking test. If you have never heard any of them before, try to find more examples of how they are used and then practice using them when you are practicing speaking. Also, understanding where they originate from can help you remember them.

If you can, have a native speaker or English teacher listen to you and tell you if you are using them correctly.

Most of these are ways to describe something, someone or how you feel. These tend to be easier to use because you can substitute the description you would normally use for the idiom.

  1. Over the moon– To be extremely pleased or happy.

I was over the moon when I passed my test.

  1. Once in a blue moon– happens very rarely.

A tourist will see Rafflesia in full bloom once in a blue moon. 

  1. A piece of cake– Very easy.

Getting a visa will be a piece of cake for you.

  1. A drop in the ocean– A very small part of something much bigger.

Just learning quotations is a drop in the ocean when it comes to preparing for the exam.

  1. Actions speak louder than words– it is better to actually do something than just talk about it.

Lots of people have great business ideas but do nothing about them. Actions speak louder than words, just do it.

  1. Back to the drawing board– when you attempted to do something but failed and have to try again.

I got a 40% in the test! Oh well, back to the drawing board.

  1. Put all your eggs in one basket– put all your money or effort into one thing.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You should apply to lots of different universities.

  1. The in thing– Something fashionable.

The new iPhone is really the in thing at the moment.

  1. The real McCoy– Genuine or not fake.

I don’t think her new handbag is the real McCoy.

  1. Off the top of my head– Saying something without thinking first.

Off the top of my head, I’d say about 2 or 3 were left.

  1. Run of the mill– average, ordinary

Apple phones are very run of the mill these days.

  1. Soul mate– Someone you trust very deeply.

My husband is not just my lover, he’s my soul mate.

  1. Down in the dumps– Sad.

I was really down in the dumps after my dog died.

  1. Found my feet– to become comfortable doing something.

Moving to a new city was difficult as first, but I soon found my feet.

  1. Set in their ways– not wanting to change.

My parents are quite traditional and set in their ways.

  1. Go the extra mile– do much more than is required.

I decided to go the extra mile and move to England to really perfect my English.

  1. A hot potato– A controversial topic.

Abortion and capital punishment are hot potatoes in my country at the moment.

  1. Miss the boat– Miss an opportunity.

I sent my application in late and I think I missed the boat. 

  1. Costs an arm and a leg– Really expensive.

Those shoes must have cost an arm and a leg.

  1. Sit on the fence– to be undecided.

I haven’t made my mind up about that issue, I’ll have to sit on the fence.

  1. Throw in the towel– To give up, leave or quit

He threw in the towel and left his job as he was unhappy.

  1. Absence makes the heart grow fonder– Being away for a while from someone or something makes you miss/appreciate that person or situation.

Absence made his heart grow fonder and he realised he missed her terribly.

  1. A watch pot never boils– A situation or event can take far longer than expected.  Don’t keep watching for developments.

A watch pot never boils when you are waiting for something to cook more quickly.

  1. Better late than never– It is better to finish something no matter how long it takes to do.

He finally finished the paper.  Better late than never as it was due last month.

  1. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today– Finish what needs to be finished today rather than tomorrow.

Don’t put off until tomorrow – finish the project today.

  1. Good things come to those who wait– Be patient.  Good will come out of the situation.

Good things come to those who wait.  Your promotion will come soon.

  1. Birds of a feather– People who are like minded often spend more time together.

Those two are birds of a feather.  No wonder they meet so often.

  1. There is no time like the present– Do what you want to do now.  Do not put off until tomorrow.

There is no time like the present. You need to finish your project and you have the time to finish it now. 

  1. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it– If something is already or still working, leave it as it is as it is still working.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, the car still works so do not buy a new one.

  1. There is no such thing as a free lunch– Everything has a hidden cost.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.  He wants you to invest in his company.         

  1. Practice makes perfect– Keep practising and you will become better at it.

You will become a great tennis player. Practice makes perfect. 

  1. When in Rome, do as the Romans do– When you are doing something new, act like others do in that situation.

Try eating English food when in England.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

  1. Don’t upset the apple cart– do not make a fuss.

Don’t upset the apple card by making a scene.

  1. The sky’s the limit– A person can achieve anything they want.

The sky’s the limit, work hard and you will progress to the top of the firm.

  1. The elephant in the room– This relates to an obvious issue that is not being talked about

Talk about the elephant in the room and deal with the major issue that needs to be discussed now.

  1. Take the bull by the horns– Deal with the problem.

Take the bull by the horns, you must sort out the major problems.

  1. Read between the lines– To understand something that may not be entirely clear

Read between the lines, work out what is not being said at the meeting and sort out the problem.

  1. Uphill battle– There are many obstacles to sort out before we achieve what we want.

There is an uphill battle to win the contract.

  1. No time to lose– Something must be finished very soon

He has no time to lose as his project is due in first thing tomorrow morning.

  1. On the same page- Two people are in agreement about a situation.

We are on the same page as to how to take the situation forward now.

41. Word and mouth– News which spreads very fast as people tell other people the same news.

The news spread by word and mouth that the new hotel was very successful


While using idioms all it needs to be remembered is that it shouldn’t sound artificial. They must come naturally to you. It is not correct that using a lot of idioms in your speech will guarantee a high score; rather correct and moderate use will definitely fetch you a Band 8 and even Band 9.

Written by Indulekha Prabha
My name is Indulekha Prabha. I am an English teacher and a content writer by profession. When I'm not working you can find me writing fiction, reading poetry and painting. Profile

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