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University Admissions: English Language Tests

University Admissions: English Language Tests main image

Find out everything you need to know about taking an English proficiency test as part of your university application.

At universities teaching in English, a test of English language proficiency is likely to be part of the applications process for many international students.

Find out about the main tests available, what universities are looking for, and ongoing language support throughout your studies.

Why test English?

Well, the top universities around the world generally teach their undergraduate programs in English and although many other very well regarded institutions also teach in their local language, say for example French and German, it is English that has become the modern currency in international education. 

Universities offering programs in English look for excellent ability in the language to ensure that their high academic standards and intellectual and discussion based approach focus on the subject and issues at hand, rather than get caught up with the mechanics of a students' language ability. 

In most cases, programs are so intense that there is no time to waste on improving a students' English language ability at the same time as developing subject-specific knowledge and skills.

The most common way of demonstrating your English ability is through one of the globally recognized standardized examinations offered by either ETS, who own and administer the TOEFL and TOEIC tests, or the University of Cambridge, British Council and IDP Australia consortium that administers the IELTS examination. 

All these tests are recognized by universities all over the world as sufficient to meet their language entry standards. Additionally, some smaller organizations and individual universities conduct their own language tests for the purposes of admissions, though if you want to sit one of these tests, make sure you know exactly how recognized the results will be.

All the major English language tests can be administered either entirely online or in a more face-to-face environment, depending on the country in which you are taking them. Each test is comprised of various parts to test different aspects of your language abilities, such as written, spoken and listening comprehension. 

Universities tend to look for balanced scores in each of the individual categories of the test to ensure that incoming students have strengths across the full range of language areas.

Scoring

In very general terms, US universities still prefer the TOEFL test to any other, while Australian and UK institutions opt for the IELTS examination.  However, such distinctions are now blurring and it is always best to check the individual website of the university you are interested in applying to before you decide what English test to take. 

The scores that universities will expect you to obtain in these tests vary from institution to institution and country to country. Arts, humanities and social science undergraduate programs will require scores of anywhere between 6.0 and 7.5 in IELTS and 620 and above in the written TOEFL test and 260 and above in the TOEFL computer-based test. 

Science and engineering programs, again, depending on the institution and the country, tend to require slightly lower scores, with 6.0 and 6.5 being common in the IELTS and 550 and higher in the written TOEFL test and 213 and above in the TOEFL computer-based test.

Where your test scores or general English language background is not quite at the standard that your prospective university expects, additional preparation ahead of your undergraduate program is often available. 

Support

Universities in many countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, routinely offer pre-sessional English language programs of between one and three months, depending on your individual ability, offering you intensive English preparatory courses to help you meet the required entry standards before your undergraduate admission is confirmed. 

Such programs tend to offer students the opportunity to come to campus much earlier than other students and learn in the environment that they will ultimately be seeking their undergraduate degree program in and develop other complimentary skills, such as examination and note taking techniques, general study skills and cultural immersion programs to get you used to your new surroundings.

Of course, these tests can only give you an indication of your abilities with written and spoken in English and universities around the world recognize this. When you arrive for your undergraduate degree program you will experience a period of adjustment, no matter how good your English ability is, from the kind of language you are familiar with to how English is used in both an academic and native context. 

This is by no means an easy thing to master, but the top universities support all international students through this process by offering them tuition and additional help to overcome any of these initial problems. 

The best universities in the world today all offer language centers for their own students to improve any weakness they may have in their English language abilities, helping you develop the skills to flourish in your degree program.

QS Staff Writer's profile image
Written by QS Staff Writer

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