Just as you might be expected to pass certain entrance exams to study at a university in your home country, universities abroad have their own ways to measure language proficiency, aptitude and ability in applicants. It can all be a bit confusing, so below we explain them to make everything slightly clearer and easier to understand:
Things to consider
You should always confirm what admissions tests you have to take with your chosen university, and what grade you need in order to get on the course you want to. Each will have their own requirements which they decide themselves. This will sometimes depend on the reputation of the institution as the most well known and highest ranked will receive the most applications. An offer from a university may even be on the condition that you achieve a certain grade in an admissions test. There’s also no point getting too concerned with particular admissions tests if the institution you are applying to, do not require them.
Make sure you approach them seriously as taking them can be a demand on your time and you wallet. While the fee to take them once may not sound too bad, but it’s a different matter if you have to re-take the test if you don’t score well enough. It may also be an inconvenience if you are busy studying for your school exams; finding time to prepare and visit test centres for the day can be a nuisance.
In some cases, you may have the option to decide between two tests if both are accepted by your chosen university. In these scenarios, preparation through looking at mock questions or asking others about their experience. While you won’t be able to find out exact questions, information about how the test if formatted and what it focuses on is available. So one type is similar to a test you’ve already taken, or there is more variety in the content?
To ensure students can understand the course material and communicate effectively with students and faculty (plus live comfortably and function in a new environment), university have set language requirements for those taught in the English language. Some institutions recognise specific language tests, so always confirm which they accept, and what the score is for your course (it can vary according to study level and area). There is also some variation in how long they last, how they are administered and who administers them (which can have some impact on the material):
IELTS stands for International English Language Testing System, and is used by over 8000 institutions around the world. Usually institutions will require a score of 6.0 for you to study there (though always check this). You must take the test at one of their 900 centres around the world, though don’t worry too much that you’ll miss out on an opportunity to take it; according to their website, tests occur up to four times a month. There are four parts, with the listening, reading and writing parts occurring on the same day usually, and the speaking part sometimes taking place on a separate day around the same time.
The other leading language proficiency test is the TOEFL (which stands for Test Of English as a Foreign Language), which is similarly popular and widespread; the one distinction from the IELTS being that it is internet-based (IBT) and can be taken anywhere by the student (a paper-based test is available in some areas). The test is split into four sections: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
How to prepare
When you’ve decided what language test you’ll be taking, use the 4-8 weeks before the date of your test to prepare. This way you can do a little at a time, and what you learn is more likely to stick with you. The questions for both should be quite simple, and shouldn’t pose too much of a problem provided you study. This is also a time to be honest with yourself, and look at those areas which you are not as strong on.
Look at practice papers online beforehand, like these for the IELTS test; this way you’re familiar with the formatting of the questions and you’re not thrown off by them when you see the test for the first time (it can save you time if you can jump right in).
Preparation doesn’t need to be boring either. While the majority of your preparation should be close to how you revise academically, there are a few fun ways to sharpen your skills without it feeling like work. Look at our guide to unusual ways to improve your fluency to get you thinking.
Some, more intense areas, like Law or Medicine, will require you to take specific admissions tests for them. This is because each year they receive so many applications from strong candidates looking to pursue these lucrative careers, and they need some way to distinguish the very best from the rest – sometimes academic grades are simply not enough. Whether you have to take one of these exams will depend on the university; sometimes on the very elite universities will require you to take them as they receive the most applications from around the world (often if you’re applying to a specific graduate school, like Law or Business school, you’ll be required to take an admissions test).
However, you can not exactly revise for these like you would for a language test or any academic exam you will have taken previously; neither are they on a specific subject matter which you can revise from a book or the internet. Instead these test your innate analytical, judgemental and reasoning skills rather than any factual knowledge or ability which you can remember – you either have it or you don’t, so to speak. These exams test those skills which the university believes to be vital for students to possess for that course or qualification, and the career which would follow e.g. the UK’s UKCAT test for prospective medical students requires them to demonstrate excellent situational judgement skills, for when they are called on to react in emergency real-life scenarios (like in an Accident and Emergency room).
How to prepare
While you can’t revise for these, you can still work on and sharpen your skills through real-life applications. For example, those who work with large quantities of numerical data as part of a part-time job (e.g. cashing up at the end of the day) may well have stronger quantitative reasoning, as will someone with experience in events management and organisation may perform well in tests of situational judgement. Simply, some are born with these skills, while others have to work on them. Keep in mind that these skills can not usually be picked up in just a few weeks, but require actual long-term development – something to consider a year or two before you plan to commence studying.
List of tests
- SAT – formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test
- ACT – formerly American College Testing Program or American College Test
- THEA – Texas Higher Education Assessment
- GED – High School Diploma Equivalent
- PERT – Replaced Accuplacer as the standard college placement test in Florida
- CAEL – Canadian Academic English Language Assessment
- STAT – Special Tertiary Admissions Test, aptitude test for non-school leavers
- UMAT – Undergraduate Medical Admissions Test, required for undergraduate entry to many Australian and New Zealand undergraduate-entry medical and dental schools
- GAMSAT – Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test, required for graduate entry to many Australian graduate-entry medical and dental schools
- PQA – Personal Qualities Assessment, required for entry into health sciences, including undergraduate Medicine, for a growing number of Australian universities
- GAT – General Achievement Test ( VCE Students - Victorian Certificate of Education)
- HSC – Higher School Certificate
- Högskoleprovet – the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test
- PIL – Test and interview, used by the Karolinska Institute for admission to some of its study programmes
- GAMSAT – Graduate Australian Medical Schools Admissions Test
- LSAT – Law School Admission Test (some Juris Doctor programs)
IELTS vs. TOEFL: Which should you take?