When applying to colleges abroad, international students might be required to submit an English Language Proficiency Test as a part of their application. This demonstrates to the colleges that the applicant’s English is at an adequate level to cope with college-level lectures and classes. These tests may be required even if English is your first language.
There are many tests that you could take, however, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) Academic Version, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) iBT® and Duolingo test are the most popular.
One of the most popular English Language Proficiency Tests, the International English Language Testing System or IELTS, is jointly managed by the British Council, IDP: IELTS Australia and Cambridge Assessment English. This widely accepted test can be taken if you are applying for colleges in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. The three-hour Academic version of the test combines both a written and spoken component and has to be given at a designated center.
Another popular English Language Proficiency Test is the Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL, administered by the Educational Testing Service. This test too is widely accepted at colleges in the US, UK, Canada and Australia and lasts for four hours. The iBT version is an internet-based test, for which you will have to visit a designated center.
One of the newest English Language Proficiency Tests is the Duolingo English Test, offered by the American language-learning website, Duolingo. It is slowly gaining popularity and is currently accepted by various colleges in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. This one-hour test can be taken from the comfort of your home and includes a video component.
Should I Take the IELTS, TOEFL or Duolingo English Test?
Before you decide which test to take, you need to confirm what test is accepted by the universities to which you are applying. If they accept all three, then the below table will give you a better understanding of each test:
|PARAMETER||IELTS ACADEMIC VERSION||TOEFL iBT®||Duolingo English Test|
|Duration||Three hours||Four hours||One hour|
|Mode of exam||Written + Spoken component at a centre||Internet-based at a centre||Online at home (including the video component)|
|Format||Listening (40 minutes), Reading (60 minutes), Writing (60 minutes) and Speaking (10-15 minutes)||Reading (54–72 minutes), Listening (41–57 minutes), Speaking (17 minutes) and Writing (50 minutes)||A video interview (10 minutes) and a graded section that tests Literacy, Comprehension, Conversation and Production|
|Question types||Multiple-choice, diagram labelling, matching, short answer and sentence completion||Multiple-choice, summaries, completing tables, narratives and short essays||Adaptive questions – word and letter selection, short answer, narratives and short essay|
|Scoring*||Nine band scale including half scores||30 points per section with a maximum score of 120||160 in 5-point increments|
|Cost||USD 215–250||USD 180||USD 49|
|Frequency||Usually twice a month||60 times a year on specific dates||Anytime during the year|
|Validity||Two years||Two years||Two years|
Do a few practice tests to see what style suits you best before deciding on which test to take.
In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, IELTS has added a new test called IELTS Indicator that provides an indicative score. An online test, which can be taken from your home, it will still test the same skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking) giving you an indication of your English skills. As this is a new test, it may not be accepted by all colleges, therefore before you sign up, ensure that your college will accept this score.
- A computer (Mac or PC only) with a working microphone and speakers or headphones. No mobile or tablet devices are accepted
- A stable internet connection
- A quiet and comfortable space to take your test
If your test results do not meet the minimum requirement for your college, you can take the test again. If you send in more than one score, this will not negatively affect your application. Most colleges will take the highest overall score.
IELTS: There is no limit on the number of times you can take the test and there is no mandatory waiting period. You can opt to send your IELTS results to your colleges at the time of registration or you can also wait until you know your score before sending it to your schools if you are unsure about meeting the requirement.
TOEFL: The TOEFL as well does not have a cap on the number of test attempts, however, there is a mandatory 12-day waiting period. On registration, you can send in your test scores to four colleges for free. If you are unsure about your score, you can opt out of this option and choose to send your scores once you receive the results.
Duolingo: Duolingo allows you to take two tests in a 30-day period, which starts on the completion date of your first certified test. Once you receive your certificate, you can opt to send your results to your college, ensuring that if you do not meet the college’s requirement, you don’t need to send it to the college.
Why are English Language Proficiency Tests Important?
Even though it may seem obvious that you will be able to cope, especially if you studied for an international board, have attended an English medium school or college, or have studied abroad, it is still worth taking these tests for the following four reasons:
Some colleges have a blanket policy for all international students:
While most colleges may recognise your high school or college curriculum and waive the TOEFL or IELTS requirement, there could be an odd college on your list that demands it.
Some colleges have standardised policies for all international students. For example, The University of Maryland’s policy is that if you do not hold a degree from a US institution or from an English-speaking country, regardless of your citizenship, you must provide a test score.
To avoid last-minute panic and confirm policies case-by-case it’s better to take the test and send it out to all your colleges.
A strong English Language Proficiency Test score can supplement a weak reading and writing standardised test score:
When applying to a college in the US, you may have to submit standardised test scores. If you haven’t been able to achieve a high score in the reading and writing section, then a strong English Language Proficiency Test score in the TOEFL or IELTS can serve as an additional data point.
This can be used by colleges to further evaluate your profile. For fluent English speakers, a strong test score can only be an added benefit.
English language requirements are only waived in certain circumstances:
There are instances when the English Language Proficiency Test can be waived but only if other conditions are met, i.e.:
- If your first language of communication is English
- If you were educated in a nation where English is the primary language
- If you completed high school in which English was the major language of instruction
Students must check the individual requirements of each college to which they apply. Additionally, taking these tests affords you the flexibility to submit last-minute applications to colleges that require proof of English proficiency.
It might be required for a visa:
When you apply for certain visas, you might be asked to submit an English language test score. For example, even though a student visa to the US doesn’t require you to submit your test scores, sometimes consulates might ask for the scores in the visa interview.
If you are applying to a country that requires an English Language Proficiency Test score for visa purposes, you might as well do the test early and send it to your college during the admissions process.
How to prepare for the IELTS, TOEFL or Duolingo?
Once you know what test you are going to attempt, you need to prepare. Here are some tips:
Give yourself enough time:
Depending on your fluency in English, you need approximately three to four weeks to practice. You should aim to sit your test at least five to six months before you apply as this gives you enough time to retake the test in case you need a higher score and gets a major component of your applications done early.
Practice, practice and practice some more:
There are various practice tests available online, or you can even buy preparation books such as Kaplan TOEFL iBT Premier 2016-2017 with 4 Practice Tests, ETS Official Guide to the TOEFL Test, Fourth Edition Kaplan, TOEFL Vocabulary Prep, Barron’s TOEFL iBT with Audio CDs and CD-ROM, Barron’s TOEFL iBT Superpack, 2nd Edition, Writing for the TOEFL iBT with MP3 CD, 5th Edition, Essential Words for the TOEFL, British Council How to Prepare for IELTS, Official IELTS Practice Materials Volume 1 & 2, Top Tips for IELTS Academic, Vocabulary for IELTS and more. For the speaking sections, you can record yourself speaking on a topic and hear it again to improve your performance.
Surround yourself in English:
The best way to improve your English is to immerse yourself in the language. Switch to speaking only in English with your friends and family, read English books, watch the news in English and even append time learning some synonyms for commonly used words to improve your vocabulary.
Eligibility and interpretation of scores for IELTS
The IELTS does not put major conditions on its eligibility. It can be given by anyone around the globe as long as they are at least 16 years of age and have a valid passport.
Interpretation of scores
- 9=Expert user
The test taker has fully operational command of the language. Their use of English is appropriate, accurate and fluent, and shows complete understanding.
- 8=Very good user
The test taker has fully operational command of the language with only occasional unsystematic inaccuracies and inappropriate usage. They may misunderstand some things in unfamiliar situations. They handle complex and detailed argumentation well.
- 7=Good user
The test taker has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings in some situations. They generally handle complex language well and understand detailed reasoning.
- 6=Competent user
The test taker has an effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings. They can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.
- 5=Modest user
The test taker has a partial command of the language and copes with overall meaning in most situations, although they are likely to make many mistakes. They should be able to handle basic communication in their own field.
- 4=Limited user
The test taker’s basic competence is limited to familiar situations. They frequently show problems in understanding and expression. They are not able to use complex language.
- 3=Extremely limited user
The test taker conveys and understands only general meaning in very familiar situations. There are frequent breakdowns in communication.
- 2=Intermittent user
The test taker has great difficulty understanding spoken and written English.
The test taker has no ability to use the language except a few isolated words.
- 0=Did not attempt the test
The test taker did not answer the questions.
(Source: IELTS Website)
Eligibility and interpretation of scores for TOFEL
There are no specific eligibility criteria for the TOEFL exam prescribed by the ETS. However, you should be studying at a high school level or even higher to score well on the test. Apart from this, you need valid ID proof.
Interpretation of scores
Below Low-Intermediate (0–3)
Below Low-Intermediate (0–8)
Below Basic (0–9)
Below Basic (0–6)
(Source: TOEFL Website)
Eligibility and interpretation of scores for Duolingo
Duolingo English Test does not require test takers to submit academic transcripts or prove their qualifications to attempt the test. Anyone, from any part of the world, can register and appear for the Duolingo English Test.
Interpretation of scores
Can understand very basic English words and phrases
Can understand straightforward information and express themselves in familiar contexts
Can understand the main points of concrete speech or writing on routine matters such as work and school
Can describe experiences, ambitions, opinions, and plans, although with some awkwardness or hesitation
Can fulfil most communication goals, even on unfamiliar topics
Can understand the main ideas of both concrete and abstract writing
Can interact with proficient speakers fairly easily
Can understand a variety of demanding written and spoken language including some specialized language use situations
Can grasp implicit, figurative, pragmatic, and idiomatic language
Can use language flexibly and effectively for most social, academic, and professional purposes
(Source: Duolingo Website)