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International grad students: Do you need TOEFL, IELTS, or another test of English proficiency?

Katie Schenk - August 13, 2018

International grad students:
Do you need TOEFL, IELTS, or another test of English proficiency?

If you’re considering graduate-level education – even in your home country, you’ll need to consider whether the course is taught in English.

Top programmes – even in countries like Spain and China – use English as the medium of instruction in many cases. And, you’ll need to demonstrate you’ve got a solid grasp on the language before you can even submit your application.

How do you do that?

Fortunately, there are a variety of common tests used to show English proficiency. Unfortunately, there is no norm or standard. Every university and department set their own minimums for scoring – and even for the English language exams that they will accept. You’ll need to do your research before tackling one of these tests.

General post grad English proficiency guidelines

While every programme will set its own parameters, there are some generalities that you should expect.

For a start, there are usually waivers provided for applicants from certain countries. Students from Australia studying in England or the United States probably won’t need to undergo an English proficiency exam so long as their home language is English or they completed their undergraduate degree in English.

But, English-speaking students in multi-lingual countries aren’t always so lucky.

Indian and South African nationals may still need to take the TOEFL or a similar exam even if their mother tongue is English or they previously studied in English. That can be a tough pill to swallow, but at least you probably don’t need to study for your exam.

And, there are usually ways around these stipulations.

Usually, students that have recently completed a degree using English as the medium of instruction or those that have lived and worked for at least two years in a country where English is an official language are likely to receive an exemption.

Remember, however, that the United States does not have an official language, so American citizenship or residence may not be enough for admissions committees. You may still need to jump through hoops depending on your individual circumstances.

What exams of English proficiency are most commonly accepted?

While there are several exams out there, only a few are widely accepted at the top post grad universities. The most common are TOEFL and IELTS.

TOEFL Exams

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is perhaps the most widely accepted – and therefore best known exam of English proficiency.

There are currently two different types of TOEFL exams:

  • The internet-based version, TOEFL iBT, is usually the easiest to access. And, almost every graduate school of business or engineering in the top 50 rankings will accept the TOEFL internet test with the exception of City University’s Cass School of Business and Warwick Business School. If you’re looking for the safest bet that can be used for a number of applications, you should opt for the TOEFL internet-based test if you can manage it.
  • The TOEFL PBT – or paper-based test - has recently undergone changes, and it’s only available in areas where the iBT version is not available (in regions with low internet infrastructure). Most universities that accept the internet version, will also accept the paper version – but not all of them do.

Following the recent revisions of the TOEFL PBT, the scoring is the same between the new formats:

  • Reading (scored as 0–30)
  • Listening (scored as 0–30)
  • Speaking (scored as 0–30)
  • Writing (scored as 0–30)

If you have already taken the TOEFL PBT, universities will continue to accept those scores until the two-year expiration point is met.

IELTS Exams

There are two International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exams; the General Training Exam and the Academic Exam.

Most post-graduate universities that accept the IELTS test will only accept the Academic test. While many universities accept the IELTS exam, there are fewer programmes that will take these scores than will accept TOEFL scores.

Though you are tested on your reading, writing, listening, and speaking abilities during the IELTS exam, the scoring is considerably different from the TOEFL exam. Final scores are provided on a nine-band scale, and there is a fair amount of conversion to get to these scores.

While many universities accept the IELTS exam, there are fewer programmes that will take these scores than will accept TOEFL scores.

What other exams of English proficiency are available?

In addition to TOEFL and IELTS, there are a few other tests available. Though less common, you will find programmes that accept these exams. If you happen to attend an institution that proctors these tests, you may find it easier to enrol in them, but you may struggle to find schools that accept them.

PTE Exams

One of the biggest benefits of the Pearson (Academic) Test of English (PTE) is that results are available within five days and many receive their results in as little as two days. If you need to rush your English test, you may want to give this one a go.

The PTE is scored on a scale between 10 and 90, with a 90 being generally comparable to a 9 on the IELTS.

In addition to the TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE tests, you will find that there are institutions that accept other exam results.

However, as the number of schools accepting these scores is relatively low, you should only undertake one of these exams if you plan to apply only to schools that accept them and the dates, prices, or proximity to testing centres is easier than one of the more common options. This will allow you to hedge your bets across universities.

Pay attention to specific English test requirements

If you haven’t already sat for your English exam, you should spend some time looking at the specifics set out for each programme. Even though universities may accept TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE results, there are those that have a preference for one or another.

And, there are departments that will have a different requirement than the grad school department generally.

For example, Duke University will accept IELTS and TOEFL scores for many grad-level programmes. But, if you want to attend the Pratt School of Engineering, you can only submit a TOEFL score.

Applicants hoping to secure a teaching or research assistantship during their studies may also find that the minimum score required to qualify is higher than the result needed for admission.

Additionally, while most test results are valid for two years, many universities require the test scores to be valid until the first day of class – not the date of admission. If you’re results are aging, you may need to sit for the exam again, perhaps even before you submit your application.

Business schools that don’t require a test of English language proficiency

If standardised tests aren’t your strong point – and you already need to sweat through the GMAT or GRE, you might want to consider applying to one of the top business schools that doesn’t require the TOEFL or any other English exam. Believe it or not, these programmes do exist.

That doesn’t mean you can get by in another language; you’ll still need to have an excellent grasp of English – but you don’t need to take a test to prove it.

This small handful of universities check for English proficiency through essays, the verbal sections on the GMAT or GRE, and interviews.

These schools include:

  • Duke University: Fuqua
  • IMD
  • Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad
  • MIT: Sloan

Whether you can waive the requirement for an English exam, you’re not going to get away from verbal gymnastics in any grad-level course. It’s important to get in (or back in) the groove of reading complex texts regularly so you do well on your exams and in the classroom. 

In the meantime, why not take a look at the minimum English proficiency scores for top programmes.

Top 50 engineering schools*: minimum English proficiency scores

* according to U.S. News & World Report 2018 engineering grad school rankings

minimumTOEFL iBT score

minimum TOEFL pBT score

minimum IELTS score

minimum PTE score

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

Texas A&M University College Station

80

n/a

n/a

n/a

97

n/a

7

n/a

no min

no min

no min

n/a

100

n/a

7.5

n/a

80

n/a

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

93

580

n/a

n/a

79

550

7

n/a

80

550

n/a

n/a

90

n/a

7

n/a

79

550

6.5

n/a

88

570

7

n/a

Yale University

no min

no min

no min

n/a

79

550

6.5

53

80

550

6

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

Brown University

90

577

7

n/a

University of Delaware

79

550

6.5

n/a

Top 50 business schools*: minimum English proficiency scores

* according to Financial Times 2018 Global MBA rankings

TOEFL iBT

TOEFL pBT

IELTS

PTE

105

620

7.5

72

no min

no min

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

109

n/a

7.5

75

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

105

n/a

n/a

68

no min

no min

no min

n/a

80

550

6

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

100

n/a

7

no min

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

100

n/a

7.5

68

100

600

7

70

100

600

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad

n/a

n/a

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

80

550

6.5

n/a

Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

Renmin University of China School of Business

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

100

600

no min

n/a

n/a

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

no min

n/a

no min

no min

no min

no min

n/a

n/a

7

n/a

Singapore Management University: Lee Kong Chian

no min

no min

no min

no min

Already passed your exams?

If you've already jumped through all the standardised testing hurdles, you might want to investigate how you'll pay for your international grad school education.


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