English Proficiency for International Students

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Thousands of international students want to come to the US to study, but often find the task of applying daunting. College applications in the US are unlike anywhere else, and there are unique challenges to applying as an international student. We’ve outlined these before in a guide, but today we’re going to examine a single aspect of international applications: the English proficiency requirement.

Unsurprisingly, college courses in the US are taught in English, with the exception of foreign languages. This means colleges want to be sure the students they admit will be able to handle their courses, and understand what they’re being taught. In this article, we’ll look at who has to take these exams, what your options are, and how best to prepare for them.

Who Needs Proficiency Exams?

Generally, colleges want anyone from a country where English is not the primary language spoken to demonstrate their English proficiency. Thus the French are expected to take these exams, while the English are exempted. This only applies to countries where the primary language spoken is English; while India counts English as an official language, Indian students must still prove their proficiency to be accepted into American universities.

Some colleges will allow students who attended high schools that teach primarily in English to disregard the exams, but this depends on the individual school. Indeed, the most challenging aspect of proving English proficiency is the differing requirements among colleges. While there are some patterns, there are no universal standards for what tests and scores are accepted, and how students should demonstrate their proficiency. 

Therefore we’ll go through the most popular and widely accepted testing options, and what scores are generally required by schools.

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

This test is run and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a private nonprofit organization. There are both internet-based and paper-based tests. Recently, internet-based tests have become more prevalent. Both versions are generally accepted by colleges.

The internet-based tests consist of four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. The paper-based tests consist of four slightly different sections: listening, structure and written expressions, reading comprehension, and writing. The internet-based test is scored from 0-120, while the paper test is scored out of 677. You are given a separate score for each section, these are combined to find your final score. Some schools require you to take the internet-based test, but this varies by school, most institutions will accept either.

Internet-based tests are offered weekly at testing centers; you must sign up for these in advance. There is a home edition of the test where you are monitored by a proctor via webcam and screen sharing. This has become more popular due to Covid, though some students have reported technical difficulties. The paper-based test is also administered at testing centers.

The minimum accepted scores vary widely between colleges; according to a US News article, among the schools which reported a minimum score, the average was 74.4. Generally, however, the more competitive a school is for admissions, the higher the minimum score they desire. Thus Ivy League schools are more likely to desire a score above 100, while state or regional schools will more likely accept a score in the 70s or 80s. 

To determine what score you need, you should check on the specific schools you are interested in applying to. If you have already taken the test, you should see if your scores disqualify you from applying to any of the colleges on your list.

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

This test is more popular in the UK and Commonwealth countries. It is administered jointly by the British Council, IDP Education Limited, and Cambridge Assessment English. The test has no minimum score to pass, instead, those who take it are given a rating from 1 to 9 on their English proficiency, with 9 being the best.

The test has four components: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The speaking portion is conducted 1-on-1 with an administrator to judge your skill with the language. You are given a separate score for each section; these are averaged and rounded to the nearest half or whole to produce your final score.

Tests must be scheduled in advance and taken at testing centers. There is no required minimum time between testing dates. 

Schools often require an overall minimum score, along with a separate minimum score for one section, such as writing. Most schools require a 6.5, though there is a range here. Top schools generally require scores of 7.0, while some schools have laxer requirements. The more prestigious a school is, the higher a score they will generally desire.

Due to varied requirements, you should always check any schools you are applying to for the scores they require. Most schools accept both TOEFL and IELTS, but again, you should verify this, rather than assuming your scores will be accepted.


While Duolingo is known primarily as an online language learning service, they also offer proficiency exams in languages. While their tests are accepted at far fewer schools than TOEFL and IELTS, they are still used at over 1,000 institutions. The entirely online nature of the exam also makes them appealing for many students.

The test consists of an online exam covering reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and a separate 10-minute interview. The test takes an hour overall and may be taken without making an appointment first. Test takers are proctored via monitoring software during the test.

The test is scored out of 160, with four sections graded separately and averaged. The required scores can vary greatly between institutions, but 120 on the Duolingo test is considered equivalent to 100 on TOEFL and is likely a good place to aim for.

While this test is less popular than TOEFL or IELTS, its ease of accessibility makes it appealing to many students. Check whether the universities you are applying to will accept the test before taking it. 

Preparing for Proficiency Tests

Studying for English proficiency tests is similar to preparing for other standardized tests, with some minor differences due to the subject matter. When preparing for the reading and writing sections for instance, practice questions and sample passages are a safe bet. As with most other standardized tests, there are ample sample problems available. Duolingo is notable for making theirs easily accessible, which can be a good resource even if you plan on taking another of the tests.

The listening and speaking portions can be more difficult to prepare for, especially if you don’t have someone to practice with. This is one of the situations where watching television can actually be helpful for your academic prospects, as watching English language programming will expose you to new grammar, and demonstrate proper pronunciation. 

As with other tests, the better you can recreate actual testing conditions while practicing, the better you will be able to handle an actual test. While there are limits to verisimilitude, you should try your best to replicate the conditions you will experience, including the length of time spent testing.

Finally, it’s good to remember that English is a confusing language at the best of times and that there are no grammar rules in it without exceptions or caveats. It is often considered one of the most difficult languages to master as a second language, so you should not be discouraged if your progress is taking time. As with all things, practice makes perfect.

Final Thoughts

Hundreds of thousands of students come to the US each year to attend college. Each has its own unique path to admissions, but each must follow some of the same steps, one of the first being proving their mastery of the English language. We hope this guide to testing will help you prepare for your own college applications.

If you would like help preparing for these tests, or with any other aspect of college applications, schedule a free consultation to learn how we can help you. We have experience helping students from across the country and around the world and are always happy to share what we know.

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