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What is an English Proficiency Test for College Admission?

a hand and pencil filling out a bubble test

Nothing is more frustrating than sitting in a class and not understanding what the professor is saying. Your ability to read, write, and understand spoken English will be critical to your success in university and an important part of your application for admission. 

Universities want you to be successful, too, so you enjoy your experience and earn your degree with strong grades. For these reasons, many US schools will require non-native English-speaking applicants to demonstrate their English ability with an English Proficiency exam. Many graduate programs may also require you to interview with a representative of the admissions team.

Need to take an English language test?

How will you know if you have to take an English as a second language test?  

Always check the websites of the universities where you are applying. There should be a section for international admissions or even undocumented applicants. Typically, you have to take an exam if

  • you are not a US citizen or from a country whose main language is English
  • you attended a school whose curriculum was not taught in English or
  • you list another language other than English as your native language

Choosing an English language proficiency test 

Which exam will be best for you to take? Again, it's best to check with the colleges where you are applying to see which tests they require or recommend. 

The most common test required by US universities is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which tests American English. You can take an internet-based digital version (iBT) or a paper-based version(pBT). To help you prepare for this exam, TOEFL offers practice tests.

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) tests British English and is widely accepted in the US, Canada, and the UK. It offers three options for testing: online, in-person on paper, or in-person using a computer at a testing center. IELTS also provides some free test preparation on its website.

Many schools now also accept DuoLingo, which is a great option if you speak English well. It has a shorter test and an interview. The Duolingo app is a fun way to practice and build your English skills for any test, but you can practice for Duolingo’s English test with unlimited free practice questions.

The Pearson PTE two-hour computer-based exam is another option accepted by a number of US universities. There is both free and paid test preparation on the Pearson site.

Whichever test you choose, we recommend preparing before taking it. Knowing the type of questions you’ll see, the instructions for each section, how to pace yourself to complete as many questions as possible correctly, and whether it's worth guessing can be very helpful.

Options to prove you English language competency

Some universities will not require you to take an English Proficiency exam if you scored a four or a five on the Advancement Placement English Language and Composition exam. The UK, Canada, and a few US schools will also consider a 12 or higher on the IB Literature and Language Higher Level exam.

If you aren’t confident in your ability to speak English fluently, consider a gap year program focusing on English Proficiency. ESI offers several English-based programs that immerse you in the country and culture to help you successfully learn English. Many US universities also offer language immersion programs. 

The ESL website lists many of these programs. There is no guarantee that attending a specific program will help you gain admission to that university. They operate the language programs separately from their university admissions process.

When should you take a test?

Most universities will update their admission applications and admission requirements on or before August 1. Check the website to ensure they still accept the tests mentioned above. 

Also, check the deadline for applying as an international applicant. Many priority deadlines are on or around November 1st. Most scores are good for two years, but you should take the test when you feel ready and will do well. 

Taking the test in May or June before you plan to apply gives you a chance to prepare and complete through 11th-grade coursework. If you want to retest, you then have August or September to retest, with enough time for schools to receive your scores.

When registering for the English language proficiency test, you can send your score report to several schools for free. If you are confident you will test well, this can save you money.  However, if you want to see your score before you send it, it is best not to list any schools on your registration.

Help researching & planning for an English test is a great resource for learning how to prepare. You can also email the admissions officers at the schools you are interested in attending–but know they can be very busy around deadlines. 

Researching colleges that are right for you 

The first step in finding out if you need an English language test is researching the requirements on each college’s website. But what happens if you’re not sure where you want to apply?

You can also use Appily's college match quiz to find perfect schools based on the criteria you deem essential. Share data points like your GPA, test scores, and potential majors, and we'll give you a personally cultivated list of matches to check out. 

Just click the button below to get started. It's always free and easy. And good luck with your English language test! 

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