Katie Schenk - March 07, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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:
Following the recent revisions of the TOEFL PBT, the scoring is the same between the new formats:
If you have already taken the TOEFL PBT, universities will continue to accept those scores until the two-year expiration point is met.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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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