Are you looking into different English tests for admission to graduate school? You might have already heard of exams such as TOEFL and IELTS, although there are many more to choose from. The first thing you need to know is that each of them has its own test structure and format. However, what they all have in common is their purpose – to determine how prepared you are to study in a course taught in English.
It is always a good idea to look for professional guidance when preparing to sit an English test. There are all types of individual and group courses available in person and online. Professional tutors will know the best strategies for achieving a high score. To make the most of their guidance, you will also need plenty of self-practice. In this article, we have outlined some easy, yet highly effective methods to start preparing for your English test.
Get used to the test structure
As mentioned earlier, different tests have different formats. In its standard form, the IELTS is a pen-and-paper test, while TOEFL and PTE Academic are taken on a computer. Although all English proficiency exams will assess your full set of skills – reading, writing, speaking, listening comprehension, and knowledge of vocabulary and grammar – the order of the sections, as well as their structure, may also differ. If you have never taken a proficiency test before, you will find out that it is not an ordinary school test.
Even the British Council – one of the organisations which jointly administer the IELTS, points out:
Some native English speakers are surprised to find that they score lower grades than non-native English speakers who have only been studying English for a few years.
This is why it is so important to feel comfortable with the test structure and format even if you are fluent in the language. Although preparation courses will help you get acquainted with important exam details, it will be useful to read up on the topic yourself.
Not long after Covid-19 entered the picture, some test organizers introduced online versions of their English tests, which can be taken at home. Some people will find this option more convenient, because it saves some of the time and effort of going to the test center in person. Others may need additional preparation to get used to the format. To take any of the English tests available online, you will need a quiet space with a stable internet connection, as well as your own devices such as computer and microphone.
Practice your time management skills
Test takers have a limited time to complete all required sections of an exam – nothing new there. However, many students who are not experienced in academic test taking find it overwhelming. Reading and writing in a foreign language can be exhausting. The IELTS takes two hours and 45 minutes to complete, while the internet-based TOEFL can take “a total of about four and a half hours to complete, including check-in.” Plus, some of us inevitably get nervous just from the realization that the time has come for the actual exam and it is no longer just practice.
By starting your preparation early enough and by timing yourself on practice tests, you will start to feel more comfortable with the time constraint. If you are a strong English speaker, you may even find it tempting to rush through the test and hand it in much earlier than required. However, this strategy can be just as tricky as being short on time. Always go back through the test sections to check for any errors and to edit if necessary. You may find it helpful to imagine that you are reading your essay or answering the questions for the first time. This strategy will help you adopt a more critical perspective of your work and you will be able to spot small mistakes much more easily.
Use additional test prep materials
Adding supplementary materials to your study routine goes a long way in improving your English skills, even if you are already doing homework from your test prep group. It is important to choose only trusted sources which use a high level of English to avoid learning anything that might be incorrect.
Read books in English or newspapers that are well-known in English-speaking countries. Watch the news or find interviews online that cover different topics. You can always start with topics you are interested in but make sure that you take in diverse content. English tests use information from various fields and by researching different sources, you will start to feel more at ease.
These methods will not prepare you for the specific test structure and format, but they will improve your overall confidence and understanding of the English language.
Dive into the areas that you need to improve
While regular practice is essential when preparing for any type of test, it is also important to think strategically about your preparation. For example, if you are taking TOEFL or IELTS, do you find all their test sections equally easy? This seems unlikely! Perhaps you have no problem concentrating on the reading, listening, and writing tasks but you feel nervous when having to speak in English. Or perhaps you get confused by multiple choice questions testing different English grammar rules. We all have our weak spots and it is better to find out what yours are as early as possible in your English language practice.
Your performance at the test should be well-balanced between sections. In your studies you will need to use vocabulary and grammar, as well as apply excellent listening, reading, and speaking skills. If you are working with a tutor, they should be able to point out which areas you still need to improve. So, if you find out along the way that the usage of “I” and “me” gives you trouble, make sure you understand the rules and start applying them with ease. With additional focus on your problematic areas, you will start seeing considerable improvement.
Build up realistic expectations about your score
Although this may not seem like a tip on how to self-prepare for English tests, you may find it helpful along the way. If you are an international student struggling with the language and you dedicate sufficient time to prepare, you will not only improve your speaking and writing but you will also gain a much-needed confidence boost.
However, it is a good idea to develop realistic expectations and adjust your choice of programmes with your final test score in mind. You need to keep up the hard work, but also come to terms with the possibility that your final score may not be sufficient for a particular school abroad. As a third-year English literature student told The Independent in an article about university life, it can be difficult to align your expectations with reality:
When I first started my course, I was shocked at how much reading was required, not just the amount of texts, but the number of secondary sources needed as well. I soon realised it’s a lot more about your own learning, so I quickly became more organised to make sure I got it all done.
Whichever of these strategies fits you best, stay consistent and take one step at a time. Your English language goal is within your reach!