TOEFL and IELTS are two of the most famous internationally recognised English language proficiency tests. Most universities around the world require an official score from one or the other test for admission to university studies. These language certificates can also be used for employment or other general purposes.
The skills you need
These tests assess all the skills that you need in order to communicate effectively in an academic environment – reading, listening, speaking and writing. Grammar and university-level vocabulary are embedded in the tests.
If you are planning to study in a university programme that is taught entirely in English, then you certainly need to master all these skills.
Reading seems like the easy part of your university experience. However, when it comes to comprehending large specialised texts in a limited time, your task is getting challenging.
Moreover, you will be mastering new subjects and gaining knowledge on the academic level. This can be pretty challenging in your own language as well and when English is not your first language, the challenge is much bigger. You should practise a lot in advance in order to achieve the level of easily capturing the information in an academic text in English. You will have no time to check each new word in the dictionary. So, you should build a rich vocabulary in advance and this doesn’t happen overnight.
Listening and Speaking
You will be attending classes where the sole language of communication is English, so you should be able to understand what the lecturers say. You will also be expected to participate in class discussions. Very often university professors and your peers in class will be international, so you should also be ready to comprehend various accents in English.
Communication in English usually extends outside of the lecture hall. You will have team projects to prepare with your peers, and you will need it to communicate with the university administration and the local community.
Written assignments and exams are an essential part of university studies in the English-speaking world. But, to start with, you will have to prepare you university application package in excellent English including your CV/resume, statement of purpose/motivation letter or essays, and an application form with various details about your academic and professional background, your career plans, etc.
Why study for TOEFL or IELTS
TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, the Cambridge exams (such as the Certificate of Advanced English and the Certificate of Proficiency in English), all aim to assess the level of your English language skills. Each test has a scoring system that reflects how fluent you are in each of the tested skills. In this way universities can make an evaluation of whether you will be a successful student in the programme for which you are applying.
Most universities require a certain overall score, but they can look into the breakdown by section as well. If the score in one section is very low compared to the others this can be an issue. Likewise, a very high score in one section cannot compensate for the rest being low.
The required score varies according to the academic level you are applying for. For example, Bachelor’s degree programmes will require a lower score than Master’s degree programmes. The reason is that for a higher degree you need better fluency in English, especially a mastery of vocabulary and written expression.
The score requirements also vary by university. More selective universities have higher requirements.
The requirements for a language test score may be waived for international students if they have completed a Bachelor’s degree programme entirely taught in English. However, this is not a general rule and each university has its own policy.
How to study for language tests
Your studies can be divided into two steps – general language proficiency and preparation specific to the format of the test that you have chosen.
The emphasis is of course on the general acquisition of the English language, which can take several years of intensive study.
When you have decided to take one of the international language tests then you can start your focused preparation. How long to study for TOEFL or IELTS will vary.
Depending on your level it usually takes from one to several months. Most of the language tests have a two-year validity of their scores, so you should not rush to take a test too early.
There are plenty of foreign language teaching methodologies, just as there are plenty of learning styles. You have to find what works best for you and ensures steady progress toward your goal.
The most efficient way of learning a foreign language for adults is usually a well-balanced combination of guided preparation, self-study and practice. However, this approach is particularly important for your focused preparation specific to the test format.
Although all tests assess the same skills, they do it in different ways, formats and mediums. IELTS for example is delivered both on paper and on computer, while iBT TOEFL is computer-delivered. The speaking part of the IELTS is conducted face-to-face with examiners, regardless of whether you take the test on paper or on computer. The iBT TOEFL test takers record their speech in front of the computer screen and the assessment is done afterwards.
These are all good enough reasons for you to work with a professional who knows the format and approach of the test that you have chosen to take. A tutor can guide you through the structure, types of question in each section, common mistakes, timing and concentration strategies. But most importantly, a tutor can quickly identify any gaps in your knowledge and skills, work to improve them and check your progress. Finally, a professional can keep you on track and on schedule in order for you to achieve your targeted score on time.
Guided prep, depending on whether you opt for a course or individual tutoring, can take you between one and three months.
Self-study is an integral part of your preparation. You should plan time for homework and drilling and keep to your schedule. Experts recommend splitting the time during the week and not squeezing it into the weekends only. The help of a professional is indispensable, but doing your homework will actually improve your skills.
It is just as essential to do practice tests. Starting from different types of question, then whole sections, untimed full-length tests, and finally realistic timed full-length tests is the most effective programme for your practice. Make sure you use up-to-date materials and software that reflect the current version of your chosen test.
Well, achieving your best score can require a second attempt. The first taking of the test may be too stressful for you to perform at your best. Also, be aware that your achievement in practice tests can be considerably higher than in the actual test.
That is why you should allow enough time for preparation, but also for taking and possibly retaking the test. And don’t forget to anticipate the time for your test to be processed and the official score to reach the admissions offices of your chosen universities. This by itself can take a month.
So start your English-language preparation early and aim to achieve fluency of communication, as this is essential for the success of your educational and intercultural experience.
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