Do I Need to Take an English Proficiency Exam (When Applying to Universities)?

After all, the longer you speak/learn in English, the better your English will be! But also keep in mind how much your English proficiency might change (or flatline) during the last two years of high school. Is it really necessary to wait until application time to take an English proficiency test?

You need to plan ahead in case you are a nervous test taker or something goes wrong on test day. What if there is an issue at the test center? What if your proctor disqualifies your Duolingo English Test after you break one of their rules? Or you ran the ProctorU Equipment Check for the TOEFL test before test day and all was good, but on test day, you experience a problem?

Using the practice resources linked above, you can identify your growth areas and make a study plan for whichever test you decide to take. Give yourself time to study the format, identify your strengths and weaknesses, improve those weaknesses, and replicate test conditions (with time!)  so that you are ready to give your best performance. We recommend familiarizing yourself with requirements and options ahead of time, and starting to practice at least one year before the time your application is due, with the goal of taking the exam months before your application is even due. 

Can I use a different type of test to show my English proficiency?

As with every step of this process, the answer is: it depends on the rules of that school. But it’s a great idea to check and see if a test you are already taking might fulfill the English language requirement. Examples of other tests that could count include: SAT, ACT, AP English exam, IB English exam, or GCSE/IGSCE/GCE results. 

For example, at Cardiff University in Wales:

The University minimum requirement for English is grade C/4 at GCSE or IELTS (Academic) with 6.5 overall and a minimum of 5.5 in each of the subskills, or an accepted equivalent.

Usually, a college website will state whether these tests/exams are acceptable alternatives to an English language exam requirement. They might even offer their own English proficiency exam as an option. But if they don’t mention alternatives on their website, it never hurts to ask.

Ok now I know how to check the English requirements. But if I have a choice, should I take/submit an English exam? 

Great question. Let’s take a step back to the beginning, where we talked about why colleges require English language proficiency. Pursuing higher education in English means entering into a fast-paced environment with English-language instruction, English-speaking peers, and technical terminology in a language that may not be your first. (Shout out to all my Chemistry majors studying cycloalkanes!) Colleges have a sense of what this environment will be like, and they use English tests (and certain score cut-offs on those tests) to make sure they are setting you up for success by admitting you.

When you are researching English language requirements, you will definitely find schools where these tests are optional, or schools where you can request a waiver that will excuse you from having to submit a test result. Should you take this path?

To make your decision, ask yourself two questions:

  1. How else are you demonstrating your English ability in your application?

  2. Will taking an English proficiency exam highlight your capability to succeed in the language?

Let’s break those down. 

Colleges want you to succeed when you arrive. So, in your application, they will be looking for evidence that you are ready to thrive in an English-language environment. But that evidence doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of an exam. Is your personal statement really excellent? Is your English teacher writing you an awesome recommendation letter? Did you get to interview with the college in English? 

Each of these pieces (or better yet, a combination of them) will showcase your English skills. Put yourself in the seat of the application reader and ask yourself: when they are evaluating my application, what evidence will prove that I will have a smooth transition in English to study and excel at their school and my program of choice?

These non-exam types of evidence are why some schools allow you to apply for a waiver to forgo the testing requirement. Here are examples of what might help qualify you for a waiver: 

  • Test scores, such as from the SAT and ACT

  • Majority to all of your high school classes taught in English (accompanied by a letter from a school official verifying your proficiency in English)

  • A letter of proficiency from a high school official

If a university decides to accept evidence of your proficiency in English in alternative ways, then you will not have to take an additional exam in English.

The nice thing about potentially having SO many types of evidence at your fingertips is that you can ask yourself: which piece of evidence is my strongest? Colleges are looking for reasons to admit you, so you should pick evidence that makes you shine (and avoid evidence that would cause concern). 

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you are deciding between taking the Duolingo English Test, doing an interview with the college, or asking for an English language test waiver because you have studied for four years of high school in an English curriculum. (And let’s put aside for a minute that college interviews can be valuable for many other reasons besides showing your English ability.)

Are you a great test-taker? Why not find out by taking a free 15-minute Duolingo English Practice Test? How does that practice score compare to the requirements or averages of your favorite college? 

Are you a great interviewer? Try a practice interview with a counselor, teacher, or friend. Do you tend to get nervous and not speak clearly? Or are you confident and effusive.

How is your English class grade? How are your grades in other classes that involve lots of writing and discussion? Does using those grades as evidence make you seem weaker or stronger when it comes to English proficiency?

The great news is that if you are asking yourself “should I take an English exam,” you have options. If you are normally a great speaker, but you tense up in interviews, don’t pick that option. If your English grade isn’t your best, but you know you can do better, add the Duolingo English Test. Look at all of your options and pick the one or combination that will make you look strongest when it comes to listening, speaking, reading, and writing in English. 

If I have no interest in or ability to fulfill an English language requirement, what are the other pathways to college in English? 

None of what we’ve discussed so far may be available to you. You may not have access to the required tests, may not be able to afford them, or may not be interested in schools that have these requirements. Maybe you are excited to go to college in English, but you are not yet prepared with your English language skills. You still have great options! 

There are pathways you can take to college and university undergraduate degrees in English, and these options serve to strengthen your proficiency skills to a university level. Many colleges and universities offer “bridge” programs to help with English, or partner with programs that could allow you to transition into an English-speaking education, without having to prove your English in the application process.

For example:

For more information on these sorts of programs that fill the gap between your current level of education and the level needed to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English, check out this article on Foundation Programs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *